Let me get this out of the way: Matthias Schweighofer is an absolute delight. He might just be the most delightful human on the planet. And he’s no doubt the reason I loved every minute of “Army of Thieves,” now streaming on Netflix.
A prequel to Zach Snyder’s truly dire zombie bank heist film, “Army of the Dead,” this action/comedy/crime caper focuses on how the neurodivergent German safecracker extraordinaire Ludwig Dieter (Schweighofer), got into the heist game. This socially awkward, joyful man with impeccable style has an intense interest in the brilliant bank vault designer Hans Wagner, and his “uncrackable” Der Ring das Nibelungen safes: Das Rheingold, The Valkyrie, the Siegfried, and the Gotterdammerung.
When he isn’t wasting his talents at his boring bank job, he’s making enthusiastic YouTube videos about the designer. But no one watches. That is, until Gwendoline Starr (Nathalie Emmanuel) and her small band of criminals, including Korina (Ruby O. Fee), Brad Cage (Stuart Martin), and Rolph (Guz Khan), stumble upon him.
They believe that the zombie outbreak in the U.S., specifically Las Vegas, means that people will be distracted and security will be lax, so it’s time to get “cracking” on the impenetrable safes. Initially, the low risk assuming Dieter isn’t thrilled about the idea of breaking the law, but it’s the “quest not the money.” Thus the thieves get underway, first in Paris, then in Prague and finally St. Moritz. In the next film, Dieter will make the jump overseas to crack the most impossible safe of them all in Las Vegas. Hot on their trail are Interpol agents, Delacroix (Jonathan Cohen) and Beatrix (Noemie Nakai).
Based on characters created by Snyder, from a screenplay by Shay Hatten (“John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” and “Army of the Dead”), and directed by Schweighofer, “Army of Thieves” has its flaws. For instance, Brad Cage is almost a caricature of toxic masculinity, and Delacroix seems plucked from a “Pink Panther” film, and I mean, really, who needs another high stakes, bank heist film in their lives? Despite these problems, Schweighofer is so much fun to watch that you won’t fixate on them. I hate bank heist films, and yet I’m going to be buying this on DVD. I’m even thinking of watching “Army of the Dead” again. Heavy resigned sigh.
Reactions to “Army of Thieves” have been mixed. The most common negative comment is that it’s “too slow.” They might be referring to the fact that before he opens each safe, Dieter recounts the mythology behind each door. Being a nerd myself, I loved this part of the film. It adds something special to their quest. But I guess if you expect only shoot outs and car chases — and they are definitely here, too — then you might be scratching your head. I can just hear it: “Why’s he boring us with stories about Brunhilde and some dude named Siegfried, man? Just open the safe, nerd? Man, this movie sucks hard.”
“Army of Thieves” is an unusual film. It has the glitzy globe-trotting aspect of a James Bond movie; the fast cars and heists of a “Fast and Furious” film; and it has complex mythology and history as you might find in a fantasy film. It was a win for me.
Interestingly, it also challenges that toxic masculinity I previously mentioned. Dieter is a sweet, child-like, wiry, fastidious guy who has lovely blonde curls — he uses metal clips to create his signature look. He doesn’t know how to shoot a gun. He’s not a stunt driver. And he screams when confronted with danger. In fact, Gwendoline is more stereotypically masculine, and she has a rather long, dramatic fight sequence in a bank vault, while a scared Dieter looks on. The Hugh Jackman-lookalike, testosterone-juiced member of the team, Cage, is the complete opposite; almost a caricature of masculinity. (We learn that Brad Cage is a made-up name; created by him putting together names from childhood macho idols Brad Pitt and Nicolas Cage.) Of all the characters, he’s the least likable. He’s a bully, cocksure, and violent. Of course Gwendoline has to choose between these two men. I probably don’t have to tell you who she chooses.
Since this is a prequel, we already know the fate of Dieter, which sucks as I think this is a fun character that could be the subject of a few other films, but they’ve painted themselves into a corner. To make another film, they would either have to go back before this — when he was just living his life — or they would have to “reimagine” the end of “Army of the Dead.” As “Army of Thieves” is getting Schweighofer a lot of attention — just look on YouTube. He has been on every interview show imaginable — it’s a shame that this is probably the end of that character. There aren’t many positive neurodivergent heroes in mainstream cinema. Certainly not ones that “get the girl” and are so accomplished.
It’s also unusual that the female characters are such “take charge, running the show” types. Gwendoline is a strong, intelligent, incredibly capable leader. And she can fight off multiple attackers with ease. Fans of “Games of Thrones” will recognize the actress who plays her; she was Missandei, an advisor to Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). This British actress has been very popular of late, lending her voice to “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” and starring in the “Four Weddings and a Funeral” TV series, and, of course, putting her action skills to the test in the Maze Runner films, and in several “Fast and the Furious” films, including “Furious 7,” “The Fate of the Furious,” and “F9: The Fast Saga.” The other female in the band of thieves is Korina, the obligatory techie/hacker genius, who is also a DJ. It was a bit of a surprise to see this character written as female, as they are usually overweight, glasses wearing geeky men. But again, none of the other characters match the watchability of Dieter. Not for me. Smitten? Maybe.
Of course, when you see someone in a film that you like, you look through their previous work; what else can I watch of theirs? Schweighofer is a veteran of German cinema with 77 acting credits, dating back to 1994; and six director credits. “Army of Thieves” isn’t his first English language film — He was in the much talked about Tom Cruise fronted “Valkyrie” (2008) and a few forgettable others, including “Feardotcom” (2002) and “Night Train” (2009) — but this is the first time he’s been the “star.”
And people are noticing him. I don’t remember how he came onto my radar years ago, maybe it was when I was taking German, but I saw one of his comedies, and although it wasn’t phenomenal, he stood out. He’s very popular in Germany, and I hope this makes him popular in the U.S. too. He definitely has charisma and an ease with his craft. He’s magnetic and should have a much bigger foot in Hollywood’s door after this.
If you enjoy quirky, European action/comedies then you should check out “Army of Thieves.” But be careful about watching the next part of Dieter’s saga. “Army of the Dead” is everything that this film isn’t: Testosterone filled, guns guns guns, and flat one-dimensional characters. Except for Dieter.