Tumblers and Stumblers
You don't normally associate the Big N with brave formal experimentation, especially when it comes to what are essentially unwritten laws of cinema – but when you're the world leader, you can clearly take a few risks (although personally I would have waited until I didn't have a ten-figure debt to service). This is the only explanation I can think of for the existence of the recently-inaugurated Army franchise, something we can thank (if that's the right word) Zach Snyder for.
That said, Snyder and his influence are not much in evidence in Army of Thieves, currently the first film in the chronology of the series, but the most-recently released. Directed by and starring Matthias Schweighofer, it concerns a curious transitional period in the life of one Sebastian Schlench-Wohnert, who at the start of the film is a bank clerk with a tedious job in Potsdam and the hobby of making YouTube videos about his great passion: safecracking. Someone decides to put Sebastian's skills to the test one night, when he is invited to an underground safecracking tournament (in the words of someone-or-other, 'Are there such things? Oh well).
Off the back of this, he is invited to join a faintly absurd gang of international robbers, led by Nathalie Emmanuel (a step up from her most notable gig as a junior member of the Fast squiggle Furious ensemble) and including Ruby O Fee, Stuart Martin and Guz Khan. With the world's banks in a state of mild concern following a zombie-virus outbreak in Nevada, this is a prime moment to set about breaking into a series of legendary safes named after the operas of Wagner's Ring Cycle.
This involves whizzing around a selection of very photogenic European locations and participating in increasingly elaborate heists, all the while trying to avoid the attentions of Interpol and trying to cope with mounting tensions within the team. You may be thinking that this is not the only glossy caper movie to have a high profile of Netflix at the moment, and you'd be right – the words 'red notice' even feature in the script of Army of Thieves - but it scores heavily over that other film due to not feeling so smug and vacuous, and having some genuinely interesting characters and performances.
Schweighofer directs with an admirable lightness of touch, as well as turning in an appealing central performance, and there are watchable performances from everyone else, too. There's a knowing cine-literate thread to the film – various characters comment on the genre tropes on display – but it's also not afraid to be just a tiny bit highbrow (the plots of Wagner's operas are discussed in some detail). The film's status as a prequel produces some slightly odd effects – this is a semi-romantic caper comedy with actual zombies in the deep background, while the ending is probably weakened by the need to tie in with the rest of the series – not all of the Wagner safes are tackled before the end.
This is because the final safe is in Las Vegas, a city infested with zombies following an unfortunate military accident. Sin City has been quarantined and the population evacuated while the government figure out what to do about the problem. This is the situation at the start of Army of the Dead, directed by Zach Snyder himself. The government eventually decide to nuke the city, creating a golden opportunity for opportunistic, morally-flexible people to sneak in, break into a casino safe, and steal all the money before it is incinerated along with the walking dead. Leading the mission is hulking mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista); guess who he decides to bring along to crack the safe?
This time Schweighofer is really just one member of a sizeable ensemble including Bautista, Ana de la Reguera, Tig Notaro and Ella Purnell, amongst others, in a plot which seemed to me to owe a distinct debt to Aliens as well as the George Romero oeuvre. Nevertheless, it's sturdily-constructed stuff, as Bautista assembles his team and they sneak into the doomed city. Inevitably the zombies get wind of them; astounding levels of violence ensue.
It's really weird for the first two films in a franchise to be quite as structurally and tonally different as Army of Thieves and Army of the Dead; this is a no-two-ways-about-it action horror movie in the traditional unrestrained Zach Snyder manner. And if you like that sort of thing, there is a lot to enjoy here, although it does come with the traditional Zach Snyder complete lack of anything resembling good taste.
To be fair, he does have a go at incorporating a bit more depth into the mix, but the problem here is that leading the movie is Dave Bautista, who is operating at the absolute limits of his talent when asked to deliver a credible dramatic performance (he's much more comfortable meting out carnage to the undead). There are some stronger supporting turns, which compensate a bit for this.
In the end this is a solidly enjoyable zombie popcorn movie, made on an absurdly lavish scale (there are lengthy and elaborate prologue and epilogue sequences) – at one point while watching it I thought it must be nearly finished, only to find there were still about twenty minutes left to go. The problem, other than possibly the fact it's all in the same thunderous, nuance-free register that will be familiar to long-term watchers of Snyder movies, is that this is really all there is to it – the Romero movies which clearly inspired it all had elements of social satire and black comedy to them, which is what made the best of them so special and beloved. This does have the odd gag, but it's mainly just about gory spectacle. This is decent entertainment but fundamentally rather vacuous.
We are promised at least one further episode (the forthcoming Planet of the Dead) and various other spin-offs, all of which are apparently going to be firmly zombie-centric, which I think is a bit of a missed opportunity (I passed a few diverting minutes thinking up a few other possibilities – Army of Sleaze, a hard-hitting drama prequel about Theo Rossi's slimy character; Army of Teens, a high-school comedy about the younger life of Ward's daughter, and so on – if you're interested, Zach, get in touch and we can work out terms). Who knows, some of them could be good – but of the two movies so far, Army of Thieves probably has the edge, despite its oddness. But more than with any other franchise I can think of, it's entirely possible you'll thoroughly enjoy one of these movies and utterly loathe the other.