I never thought I would see the day we get a Netflix spin-off of Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead, but here we are! Director Matthias Schweighöfer (also the central star) takes the reigns this time around, from a story by Snyder. As far as tone, this prequel could not be more different from its blood-soaked previous iteration. The lead character, Sebastian (Schweighöfer), seems way off from his Army of the Dead characterization, and various inconsistencies from the world building to the zombie interaction make some elements sadly feel half-baked. However, with the right adjustment of expectations, Army of Thieves is an absolute blast filled with heist cliches and a lovable cast of misfit characters.
Sebastian has an obsession with the legendary safe designer, Hans Wagner, and has no issue sharing Wagner’s epic story to YouTube. “Once upon a time in Munich,” Wagner’s magnum opus consisted of four nigh-impossible safes based upon four epic operas. Legend has it that these safes could only be solved by those who were worthy, and if attempted to open by force, the contents therein would be incinerated. The locations of each safe remain a mystery—until now. A random commenter reaches out to Sebastian on YouTube with an invite too enticing to pass up. The nerdy “Mr. Nervous Guy,” as Sebastian is eventually dubbed, finds himself in a small safe-cracking competition that he has zero time to even think twice about. Despite his lack of preparation, Sebastian impresses everyone by advancing to the final round, before cracking the last safe in under thirty seconds.
From this point, the narrative takes a fun left turn away from what I had expected out of an Army of the Dead prequel. Sebastian meets Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel, Game of Thrones) and instantly falls for her. The chemistry between Sebastian and Gwendoline is an awkward brand of cute, with Sebastian constantly saying the word “gulp” out of nervousness to the point that it becomes a recurring gag. A self-proclaimed “internationally wanted jewel thief,” Gwendoline uses the competition to then recruit Sebastian into her crew to crack the legendary safes of Hans Wagner. The gang consists of a motley variety—Korina (Ruby O. Fee), a master hacker who once stole a copy of Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and leaked it online; Rolph (Guz Khan), the “getaway driver to the stars”; and Brad Cage (Stuart Martin), “our very own real-life action hero” inspired by both Nicolas Cage and Brad Pitt. Together, they each bring their own skillset (acknowledged in a humorous and meta bit of dialogue), and Sebastian is the last piece of their puzzle. Three international heists in four days? Sounds like a cakewalk…
Every heist cliche in the book is featured in this movie, and somehow they all work. Army of Thieves also functions as entirely critic-proof by acknowledging its own shortcomings in the context of the script. Stylized action evoking the best of the Kingsman films pops out every now and then, but one facet that barely makes a blip is the zombie of it all. It becomes a constant joke, as almost no one is taking the zombie apocalypse seriously. Zac Efron gets name-dropped, lamenting that he is now a zombie. The annoying Detective Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen) is so wrapped up in investigating the crew that he says of the world’s other problems: “screw the zombies.” The only time zombies appear are in Sebastian’s recurring nightmares.
Eventually, in the very end, there is of course the necessary connective tissue between Army of Thieves and Army of the Dead. At that point, it feels like little more than an afterthought. Thankfully, this exaggerated heist action/comedy hybrid does well with removing itself and standing on the merits of its already-established universe with assured footing. It will not be for everyone, but I enjoyed my time spent with these characters, especially Sebastian who remains the perfect mix of nerdy-cute. Sequel, prequel, spin-off… there is no telling where the world of Army of the Dead will take viewers next.
Army of Thieves cracks the code when it debuts exclusively on Netflix, Friday, October 29th.