Army of Thieves is a strangely charming heist thriller set in the Army of the Dead universe

A fun and brisk riff on the old heist movie formula, this Army of the Dead spin-off movie is inessential viewing—but a good time nonetheless, writes Travis Johnson.

I’m not sure who exactly decided we needed an origin story for Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), the nervy safe cracker who was part of the ensemble behind Dave Bautista in Zack Snyder’s zombie-heist gorefest Army of the Dead, but we got one anyway. And here’s the thing: it’s kind of… charming? Eschewing the nihilistic violence and spectacle of its forerunner, Army of Thieves is a brisk, frequently goofy riff on the old heist movie formula. That it takes place in a world about to be plunged into a zombie apocalypse is so incidental as to be almost surplus to requirements.

When we meet Ludwig he’s not even Ludwig—that’s an alias he adopts later. He’s Sebastian Schlencht-Wöhnert, a lonely Potsdam bank clerk with a jones for safecracking and lock-picking. He even has a YouTube channel devoted to the subject, although it only has one viewer. But that one viewer is Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel, who has action franchise history in The Fast and the Furious), an international jewel thief with need of a safe cracker.

After covertly auditioning Sebastian by way of an underground safe cracking competition that feels like a cross between the IT Crowd episode “The Final Countdown” and the insane Chinese rock-paper-scissors movie Animal World, he’s recruited into her crew, which includes getaway driver Rolf (Guz Khan of Man Like Moheeb), hacker Korina (Ruby O. Fee), and muscle Brad Cage (Stuart Martin). This happy pseudo-family of criminals have a big job in mind: cracking and robbing three safes built by a legendary locksmith and named after the first three operas in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Remember in Army of the Dead, when Ludwig got really excited that the safe in Las Vegas was the Götterdämmerung? This is why—it’s the fourth and final safe.

From there we get a fun tripartite heist flick as the gang hop around Europe chasing the safes, eventually getting us to a point that explains why Sebastian—now Ludwig—is sitting in that backroom where Batista’s Scott ward finds him in Army of the Dead. Is the story that unfolds essential info that helps us really get into the head of an important character in the AotD mythos? Good lord, no. Nonetheless, it’s a fair whack of fun.

A lot of this is down to the light touch and considered style of Matthias Schweighöfer, who not only stars here, but directs and produces. This is his fourth film as director (his first in English) and he demonstrates an assured authorial hand, framing the whole exercise as a kind of slightly heightened urban fantasy or modern fable.

Army of Thieves never feels realistic—and let us not forget, given the franchise it’s a part of, that realism was never a goal—but rather it’s a carefully constructed tale, a “movie” type movie that never disguises its artificial nature but invites us to join the fun, nonetheless. Sumptuous production design and larger-than-life characterisations make the whole thing slightly stagy which, given the opera theme running through the whole affair, makes sense. It does reduce the stakes a little, to be fair, but not too much.

Army of Thieves also enjoys lightly parodying action films in general, largely by making fun of tough guy Brad Cage—real name Alexis—who models himself on action movie heroes to make up for being bullied as a child, and whose nom de crime combines Brad Pitt and Nicolas Cage. At one point he wears a mask of Richard Nixon during a robbery, as a nod to Kathryn Bigelow’s barnstorming Point Break.

But the real fun here is in Schweighöfer’s performance. As Sebastian/Ludwig he’s awkward, shy, almost constantly out of his depth, and frequently annoying—but he’s also brave, resourceful and funny. It’s actually refreshing to have a fallible leading man in an actioner; one who doesn’t look like bullets would miss him on purpose and punches would knock politely before landing. Picture John McClane in the first Die Hard if he was uncomfortable around guns and you’re in the right area.

Army of Thieves is, really, pretty inessential, but it’s generally a good time, and sometimes that’s enough. Its strongest value is as a calling card for Schweighöfer as an actor and director. Hopefully we’ll see more of him on both sides of the camera sooner rather than later.