One of the unlikeliest heroes to emerge from Zack Snyder’s horror-action flick “Army of the Dead” earlier this year was an oddball safecracker named Dieter.
Part nerdy Eurotrash, part pretentious busybody, Dieter was never going to make it out alive. He was like one of those guys wearing a red shirt in “Star Trek.” Sooner or later, Dieter was gonna be gone.
Well, that turns out to be dead wrong: Dieter has escaped — by way of the prequel, “Army of Thieves,” an improbable film starring this strange, fussy German creature who eats cheese and cucumber sandwiches and wears turtlenecks with suspenders. It’s a film no one really demanded and yet is loads of fun.
“Army of Thieves” takes place in the months before “Army of the Dead,” which was set in a Las Vegas overrun by a zombie apocalypse. But zombies aren’t really on the menu here. Don’t tune in for undead thrills.
Instead, this is Dieter’s show — acted and directed with glee by Matthias Schweighöfer — with a plot that leads us right up to the time when he joins the gang of safe robbers in a very gnarly Las Vegas. Shay Hatten, who helped write “Army of the Dead,” gives us a story of a small-town bank clerk who lives his best life as a master safecracker in a previous robbery crew.
Dieter’s sad little life in Germany is cracked open when a mysterious woman (Nathalie Emmanuel, beguiling) recruits him — back then he’s Sabastian and hasn’t yet taken the name Dieter — to join their jet-setting ring. “I’m the woman who’s going to change your life forever,” she says. She proposes the heist of vaults built by the world’s greatest safe-maker, the last having 72 trillion possible combinations. She offers him “a life less ordinary.”
Dieter politely declines and goes back to his sad sandwiches. No, of course he doesn’t. He joins the crew, which consists of a hacker, a getaway driver, the muscle and his recruiter as they go about robbing three banks across Europe, each more complex and dangerous than the last.
“Is it like in a movie film where each one of us has a different skill-set and it’s only working together that we can pull off that which needs the pulling off?” Dieter asks. (There’s more than a little Borat in our Dieter).
Dieter is naïve, excitable and adorable and relatable. He actually exclaims “gulp!” when he’s stunned — ”Did you just say ‘gulp?’” asks his recruiter — and recognizes film cliches, including when the crew inevitably grow close: “May I ask, are we doing the bonding right now?” he says. His skills, to be honest, seem just to be really good at listening to safe tumblers clicking
The film is a hoot as it celebrates previous thrillers — the use of a Nixon mask during a robbery (“Point Break”), a bicycle chase (“Premium Rush”), an underground safe-cracking competition (“Fight Club”) and the obsessive tracking by an unhinged detective (“The Pink Panther”). One cop says it feels like he’s in a spy movie. We are. There are name-checks of Nicholas Cage and Zach Ephron.
You find yourself rooting for this unlikely safecracker, a savant when it comes to vaults and opera but a bumbling, awkward guy otherwise who stuns even himself with his bravery. He’s after the glory of opening the vaults, not the money. Those of us who have watched the “Army of the Dead” know what’s in store for him in Las Vegas so giving him a moment in the sun is only fair, the disposable sidekick come good.
“Army of Thieves,” a Netflix release, is rated TV-MA for violence, language and adult situations. Running time: 129 minutes. Three stars out of four.