Every heist movie starts with a plan. Things never turn out according to plan, obviously, but it always starts off so well. Which is a decent summary of Army of Thieves, Netflix’s quirky new heist flick that plays like Ocean’s 11 with a touch of Wes Anderson eccentricity and some zombies. Wait, what?
So Army of Thieves is a spin-off from zombie movie Army of the Dead, directed by Zack Snyder and released on Netflix back in May. It must have been obvious to Snyder and the suits at Netflix that oddball safecracker Dieter, played with curly-haired cheeriness by Matthias Schweighöfer, was going to run away with the earlier movie, so they greenlit Schweighöfer to direct his own prequel about how Dieter came into Army of the Dead.
That prequel, Army of Thieves, is streaming on Netflix now.
Like all good heist crews, the robbery genre follows a clearly-defined progression. Quirky characters get together, pull off a job, things don’t go to plan, there’s a twist, the real treasure is revealed. Army of Thieves definitely knows its way round the genre, because it keeps making reference to heist movies. And it’s a lot of fun, until you get further through and it becomes clear that making jokes about heist movies is not the same as actually making a good heist movie.
The film’s biggest asset is Schweighöfer playing the winningly goofy safecracker. Nominally the film’s hero, he’s not afraid to look silly, frequently standing aside for Game of Thrones star Nathalie Emmanuel to steal the show as a much cooler criminal. She’s the bank robber who finds the rookie safecracker at an underground safecracking contest — like Fight Club with a big door handle — and recruits him into the high-octane life of international thievery.
Schweighöfer shows some style as a director, too. With fellow Germans Hans Zimmer, Bernhard Jasper and Christian Eisele supplying the music, cinematography and production design, there’s a European flavor that lends the slick production an air of almost Wes Anderson-esque visual whimsy. Dieter’s matching pyjamas and bedsheets, his olde worldey European home town, and quirky music layered over terrifying horror movie imagery give the film’s first half an individual character the second half lacks (apart from a couple of stylishly muscular action scenes).
The European filmmakers also have fun commenting on Hollywood cliches from the outside. It must be said there’s a fondness to the lampooning, noting the aspirational allure of American dreams to the rest of the world — Nicolas Cage’s 90s action films are a particular point of reference. You can tell they’re German, however, because as well as the quaint European viewpoint everyone’s always waffling on about Wagner. We get it, Germans love Wagner (see also Django Unchained and er, the Nazis). There’s only so much Nibelung chat and cog-based suspense we can manage.
The heist movie genre is the main touchstone, however. The briefing, the flash-forward of how the heist is supposed to go, the tense scenes of a robber guided through a bank by earpiece while grumpy Interpol cops sweat in a van across the street — the familiar scenes are all there, and to start with at least are amusingly up-ended.
But as the crew work their way through an escalating succession of robberies, it all gets a bit repetitive. And while the film gets to grips with the more obvious, surface-level heist cliches, it can’t summon up the more complex, subtle stuff that makes a good crime movie stand out. The star-studded 2001 casino-robbing classic Ocean’s 11 played with this stuff in a much less obvious way, and also included the actual stuff you want in a movie like this: clever twists and turns building to an unexpected and satisfying rug-pulling finale. Army of Thieves, however, bogs down in sludgy twists and hackneyed crime drama yawns.
And while Schweighöfer and Emmanuel are charismatic and watchable, their supposedly star-crossed relationship is unconvincing. There’s a particularly egregious moment when Schweighöfer’s character describes her as “The most interesting girl in the world”, while the film literally fades down her voice to focus on him describing how much he’s attracted to her.
Like many films these days (including the massively bloated Army of the Dead), shaving 20-30 minutes off the runtime could have kept up the momentum from the first half. But Army of Thieves is a quirky take on the well-worn heist movie template, even if it won’t completely steal your heart.
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