Army of Thieves

Safecracking during an incidental zombie apocalypse

movie cinema horror review

Army of Thieves is a prequel to the zombie movie Army of the Dead. Surprisingly, it's not zombie movie and it's one of those rare second films in a series that's better than the first.

Dieter was probably the only character in the first movie whose name I remembered after the movie was over. He was funny, out of place, I was pretty sure he was going to die before he reached the safe (that was before I understood there was no plot until the end of the movie), and he turned to be good at what he did. I get the feeling that a lot of the character was probably defined by the actor, because what makes him so likable aren't his lines so much as the way he delivers them, and some of the goofy things he does an inappropriate moments.

This movie starts with the same actor. This time, he's named Sebastian and he, like Dieter, is an expert lockpick. He leads a boring life in an office, and in the evenings he makes YouTube videos about esoteric safe design. Specifically, he's obsessed with four safes designed around Wagner's The Ring cycle. And every once in a while, there's a TV in the frame with a news broadcast about a "zombie apocalypse" happening in the USA.

To sum it up: Same actor, vaults themed around Wagner, zombies on the rise. It's like it's set in the same universe, but it doesn't quite make sense. Or maybe it does. Maybe they just decided to use the same actor for a similar part. Or maybe it's one of those partial reboots, where there are some things that are similar and other things totally new. I half expected for something to go obviously off course, like maybe the zombie thing was just a daydream Sebastian was entertaining in response to a dissatisfying life. But no, it's the same. Everything's set in the same universe, and everything gets explained eventually.

Ocean's 4

This movie is a proper heist movie, and it knows it's a proper heist movie. Sebastian is the last to be recruited, but when the team is introduced they each have a specialty and so Sebastian just asks if this is like a heist in the movies. Gwendoline, the mastermind behind the planned heists, confirms that yes, it's a heist exactly like in the movies.

The movie goes a step further for the first robbery. Feeling anxious about what they're about to do, Sebastian asks to run through the plan again. So they walk us through it in a series of flash-forwards. You do this, I do that, this guard is distracted, that door is left open. We see it all exactly how it's supposed to go, and it seems like it should work. But of course, everybody knows heists don't ever work as planned. That's the gimmick to the heist movie.

We flash back to the present, and then it becomes clear. That wasn't a series of flash-forwards, it was a series of flashbacks. The job's done. And it went just as planned.


With one safe down, there are two to go, but the carefully crafted adventuring party starts to look a little threadbare. Relationships become apparent, and there's trouble between Gwendoline and Brad, the team's self-fashioned action hero. An alliance forms between Brad and the getaway driver, too. And to really complicate matters, Sebastian and Gwendoline are slowly falling in love.

That's one fascinating aspect of the story. The other is the reason for the heists. It's not not for the money, but it's also actually not for the money. They take some for their trouble, but it's almost an afterthought. Gwendoline wants to crack the Wagner safes because of the puzzle they represent. Sebastian wants to crack the safes as a tribute to their designer, to better understand the motivation behind creating them.

Admittedly, the lockpicking scenes are pretty over the top. CGI cams turn, latches fall into place, and world famous combination locks are just a matter of listening for camshafts and giving the vault's outer shell a gentle caress between turns. It's definitely the equivalent of showing Doom gameplay on a screen and telling the audience it's a "hacker" navigating a breached network, or showing a mechanic of any kind repair a catastrophically damaged engine with sweet talk and a good smack. But it mostly works. It conveys Sebastian's passion for safecracking, and it broadcasts that it's not easy.

Obviously things go wrong, people are double-crossed, and there's an INTERPOL agent obsessed with finally capturing Gwendoline. You're not exactly on the edge of your seat, but it's definitely a fun ride. But it's a prequel. You know where it's headed, and you're not wrong. It has to end with Sebastian waiting in Las Vegas for the right team to come along.

Good heist movie

Army of Thieves is a good post-modern-ish heist movie, and it's great background for Army of the Dead. It is a little strange to mix genres. I imagine there are plenty of people who'd be interested in watching a heist movie but who would avoid this one exclusively for the very few zombie scenes. Maybe that's a sign of how ordinary the zombie trope is now. With or without zombies, this is a much better movie than Army of the Dead, with all the right beats in all the right places. I'd happily watch it again.

Lead photo by Anika De Klerk on Unsplash

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