Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead made its debut in theaters and on Netflix this past May, presenting a violent, action-packed story of a high-stakes Las Vegas heist embedded within a zombie apocalypse. While our writers were divided on its quality in our video review, audiences responded well, and there were multiple prequels announced immediately following its release. The first of those, Army of Thieves, is here, and it’s an enthralling, very enjoyable film that brings back one of the original’s best characters and stands well enough on its own.
Sebastian (Matthias Schweighöfer), later known as Ludwig Dieter, has big dreams that don’t manifest themselves in reality. He spends his days working a mindless job being yelled at by unpleasant customers at a bank, and records videos in his free time about his enthusiasm for the masterwork of safes and one particular designer that he admires. Everything changes when a comment on his video from Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel) leads him to a safecracking contest and ultimately to join an international crew of thieves on a daring series of heists.
Sebastian has already been established as someone with a particular set of skills and considerably less acumen regarding what this film’s universe demands of its characters. Promoting a supporting player whose primary function is comic relief is always a risky endeavor, and it’s one that pays off marvelously in this case. He’s charming and hilarious, and he responds to nearly every situation in a manner that expresses shock and surprise, commenting on whether everything is going to be “like it is in the movies.” Like the audience, he may not be prepared for what’s about to happen next, but he has no choice but to go with it.
The opening titles play over a buoyant score, one that sets a tone for the rest of the film. Sebastian is so bored in his daily life that he barely processes the fact that there’s a faraway zombie apocalypse beginning, which turns up a few times in vivid nightmares that foreshadow the horrors he will face in Army of the Dead. But in this film, what he must contend with is a team of strong personalities with conflicting motivations and his own unpreparedness for the real world. Watching him flail about and try to keep up is fun, but there’s also room for serious moments where Sebastian’s abilities and talent get to shine.
The absence of Snyder behind the camera shouldn’t be seen as any sort of demerit since it turns out that Schweighöfer is enormously capable, helming a well-paced adventure that, like its predecessor, may be a bit longer than necessary but remains involving throughout its runtime. It’s impressive that this film functions as well as it does given that it was spawned from a zombie movie, and it’s a perfect example of a standalone installment that could just as easily be paired with the original as it could reach an entirely new audience. Schweighöfer has plenty of experience making films in his native Germany, and he makes a seamless transition to a mostly English-language production.
The actors supporting Schweighöfer are just as competent and superbly-cast. Stuart Martin, Ruby O. Fee, and Guz Khan all have relatively minor roles but make the most of them as the members of Gwendoline’s crew, and Jonathan Cohen makes Delacroix, the hapless agent pursuing these criminals, a fun and watchable part of the film. The real star opposite Schweighöfer is Emmanuel, proving once again after the most recent Fast Saga movies that she is great at balancing action and comedy. While other Army of the Dead spin-offs are likely to feature other characters, this installment serves as a terrific argument that Sebastian and Gwendoline should definitely return in some form in the future.
Army of Thieves premieres exclusively on Netflix on Friday, October 29th.