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‘Army of Thieves’ plays it safe

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In a cinematic landscape awash with IP-fueled franchise efforts, it should come as no surprise when a movie’s splashy arrival on the scene indicates more to come – sequels or sequels or whatever -quels you like. Audiences have grown accustomed to it all; we know the drill.

However, not all -quels are created equal.

For instance, who would have thought that Netflix’s “Army of the Dead,” a reasonably entertaining Zack Snyder-helmed zombie movie, would offer up a prequel revolving around one of its lesser characters and his entry into the world of high-end heists, all of it taking place as the zombie outbreak of the initial film is just beginning – an outbreak that has negligible impact on the narrative we’re currently watching.

That’s “Army of Thieves,” new on Netflix. Directed by Matthias Schweighöfer and revolving around the goofball German safecracker Schweighöfer played in “Army of the Dead,” this new film is essentially a straightforward heist film, with only the most tenuous of connections to the movie of which it is ostensibly a prequel. Seriously – you could strip out what zombie stuff there is with ease without altering the film in any meaningful way.

Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that “Army of Thieves” is actually … pretty good? Sure, it follows the general formula for heist movies, but there’s a reason for that: the formula for heist movies works. Hell, the movie itself even makes reference to some of the tropes of the genre in the midst of executing those same tropes. It’s winking and self-aware – occasionally to a fault – but it has a game, charming cast, some decent set pieces and an undeniable sense of humor.

Schweighöfer is Sebastian, an enthusiastic young safecracking enthusiast living in Potsdam and making videos in his bedroom about his passion for the craft and its history. Granted, no one actually watches those videos, but still. He works as a bank teller by day, bored and unfulfilled and very much in a rut.

It all changes when a mysterious invitation arrives. Before he knows it, Sebastian is dropped into the middle of an elite underground safecracking competition, where he is put up against some of the best safecrackers in the world while loud groups of rich people bet on the outcome. He wins, and when you win there, people take notice.

Sebastian is approached by a woman named Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel), leader of a group of international thieves. She wants Sebastian’s help for her next endeavor – a complicated scheme that involves breaking into three of the four masterpieces created by legendary locksmith Hans Wagner to honor his namesake’s “Ring Cycle” series of operas (you might remember the fourth as being the target in “Army of the Dead”). It’s a massive undertaking, one that requires theoretical knowledge that only Sebastian possesses and must be fully executed within four days.

Bidding farewell to his boring life, Sebastian naively leaps in. He meets the team – wisecracking hacker Korina (Ruby O. Fee), abrasively enthusiastic getaway driver Rolph (Guz Khan) and dudebro/wannabe action hero Brad Cage (Stuart Martin) – and they get under way, despite some misgivings from various members of the group at different points. The interpersonal dynamics prove to be a concern on multiple occasions as the gang presses forward.

Adding to the complications is the vigilance of Interpol – specifically, the obsessive Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen), an agent consumed by his desire to finally catch Gwendoline and her crew after years of fruitless pursuit.

Together, Sebastian and his newfound compatriots must crisscross the continent, seeking out each of these nigh-impregnable safes and rendering them, well … pregnable.

(So let’s address the undead elephant in the room. While the zombie apocalypse – in its early stages here – is happening, it still exists solely as a problem in the Nevada desert, a literal ocean away from these happenings. It pops up a couple of times – a few newscasts, a couple of snippets of dialogue – but really, aside from some zombified nightmares that Sebastian has, it’s largely a non-presence.)

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed “Army of Thieves.” It’s a zippy heist movie, albeit one that tends to stay within the safety of common tropes. Seriously – this movie has them all. Meet the gang scene, complete with skills explanation and one or two hasty character traits? Check. Pre-heist chat where we watch how the plan is supposed to go down, accompanied by narration? Wave after wave of convoluted deceptions? Oh, hell yes check.

However, the film’s delight in directly addressing those tropes within its own confines is infectious, or at least, I found it to be so. It’s a wink to the underlying ludicrousness of it all. And that irreverent energy translates well into the rest of the film.

One of the most impressive aspects of all of this is Schweighöfer. Doing double duty as both director and star of a film is notoriously hard, and when it goes bad, it goes BAD. Instead, we get Schweighöfer maintaining the easy charm of the character he played while also dropping that character into what proves to be a not-half-bad heist narrative. He’s got a good eye for action – the heist execution scenes are particularly solid – and a very good sense of humor. A bit juvenile, perhaps, but quite smart as well. It’s a first-rate vibe for this kind of movie.

And his performance is great, too, capturing the struggle between Sebastian’s confidence in his skill set and his fear of these criminal circumstances. He is immensely likable and sweatily charming. Emmanuel is cast as a sort of Manic Pixie Thief Girl, but makes it her own; she’s got a lovely screen presence that serves her well here. Fee and Khan are solid as well, though the script doesn’t give them nearly as much room to run. And then there’s Brad Cage, who is a hilariously dim embodiment of toxic masculinity played to the back row by Martin; he’s going for it at every turn and I am picking up what he’s putting down.

“Army of Thieves” is weird, a prequel to a zombie heist movie that opts to focus on the latter part of that descriptor rather than the former. As far as heist movies go, it’s a pretty good time – light and fast-paced; funny when it needs to be, but unhesitant to get dark. Just don’t go in expecting zombies and you’ll have a good time.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 01 November 2021 17:06

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