When starting a story, the best practice is to usually start at the beginning. With Matthias Schweighöfer’s dizzying heist movie Army of Thieves, we are allowed to do just that. Thieves takes us to the start of the story producer Zack Snyder started in his Netflix hit, Army of the Dead. Though the zombie apocalypse takes a backseat in this entry as Ludwig Dieter (known in Thieves as Sebastian Schlencht-Wöhnert) embarks on a quest to crack a series of near mythological safes across Europe. In addition to providing the backstory for Army of the Dead’s best character, the film serves to build the world, and opens the door for many a future film to walk through within Snyder’s ever growing ‘Army’ franchise.
Thieves opens with Dieter narrating the story of Hans Wagner to his YouTube audience of zero. It is the tragedy of a genius safe maker who, in his grief, threw himself into crafting five safes of legend. One we already know of from Army of the Dead, the safe the Vegas crew already cracked, the Götterdämmerung. The others were the Rheingold, the Valkyrie, the Siegfried, and one final impenetrable safe that also served as Wagner’s tomb after he locked himself inside. After Dieter has finished spinning this tale, he uploads it to his safecracking YouTube, and heads off to do his little tasks for the day. However, it quickly becomes apparent to the audience that Dieter is stuck. His job doesn’t fulfil him, he doesn’t have friends, and he follows the same monotonous routine daily. It’s not until the infamous jewel thief Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel) recruits him that Dieter manages to find meaning in his life. With their safecracker secured, the team is finalized and the adventure begins.
Behind the camera Schweighöfer manages to bring a charged energy to his camera that at times often feels like a clever homage to iconic heist films that have come before (The Italian Job, the Oceans films, etc). In front of the camera, he is a star. It might even be fair to say that Schweighöfer as Dieter is the main attraction. For the second film in a row Dieter manages to be a wonderfully charismatic character that you just can’t help but root for. The film is at its best when it utilizes Dieter’s charm by placing him in scenario after scenario where he is clearly out of his depth but is just enthusiastic about being asked along. The team element that is often so prominent in heist films also serves to highlight just how much dynamic his character adds. His budding affection towards Gwendoline, his awkward interactions with Korina (Ruby O. Fee) and his head-butting with the team’s muscle Brad, (Stuart Martin) all serve to add several layers to the film that were not only fun, but also surprisingly endearing. His relationship with Nathalie’s Gwendoline in particular formed what I would consider to be the heart of the film.
If there is one weakness that must be acknowledged, for me it is that the film suffers for being a prequel to a character who is already a part of an established series of future events. The fun and visually interesting heists and Dieter’s magnetic charm can only carry it so far. There’s a good stretch of film in the second half after the crew has just cracked the Valkyrie safe that is just not engaging, and Thieves stalls out. It’s where the script feels weakest and not even Schweighöfer or Emmanuel with all their charisma are able to distract you from how trite Thieves becomes. Character motivations begin to feel thin, and much of the writing starts to feel convenient, as though it’s in service to the ending. (An ending that is by extension in service to Army of the Dead.) This leads to the film feeling less like the vibrant heist film I had previously been enjoying, and more like a predictable chore that I now had to sit through.
To the film’s credit, it does manage to recover from this lull with an ending that while feeling familiar, manages to be surprisingly compelling and enjoyable. The ending also leaves me asking one very important question: “Can Dieter be in every Army project going forward?” If this story is to continue, and indeed it will with several projects in development, I for one am hopeful for Dieter’s return. Because if there’s one thing this film makes perfectly clear it is that Ludwig Dieter is the beating heart of any team that he is a part of in this universe, and any future film set within it should have Matthias Schweighöfer on standby.