If Hans Landa and Danny Ocean had a son, he might have turned out something like Sebastian (Matthias Schweighöfer), the talky, insanely gifted, but insecure hero of “Army of Thieves.” A Berlin office teller who hides his mojo behind an earnestly chirpy German accent, he’s an obsessive amateur safecracker — not a crook but a kind of savant hobbyist who dreams of unlocking metal fortress vaults the way a young theater bug in the Midwest might fantasize about making his Broadway debut.
“Army of Thieves” is a prequel to “Army of the Dead,” the Zack Snyder apocalyptic zombie heist thriller in which Sebastian — known, at that point, as Dieter — hooked up with a team of thieves in Vegas. Snyder’s movie, released just five months ago, was an entertainingly overstuffed genre mash-up. “Army of Thieves,” directed by its star, Matthias Schweighöfer (from a script by Snyder and Shay Hatten), is basically the origin story of a sidekick. By that I mean no disrespect to Schweighhöfer’s Sebastian, who comes off as a likably flyweight Teutonic overgrown schoolboy. But still! “Army of Thieves” builds an entire underworld action flick around this nattering scamp in a three-piece suit.
The movie isn’t as invested as it pretends to be in the playful intricacy of the how-to-break-in-and-out-of-a-bank logistics. Whatever it does, it knows that the “Ocean’s” films probably did it better. But here’s what’s funny, surprising, and at times a bit winning about “Army of Thieves.” Sebastian, eager and addled, a safecracking artist without a criminal bone in his body (well, maybe one or two), and a romantic nerd with a pop-eyed gaze under his shock of blond hair, like a weirdly sincere Malcolm McLaren, is always front and center. And a lot of what the film is interested in is the mystical niftiness of seeing him crack open those safes — in particular, a fabulously complicated set of them, designed and built by a German locksmith in homage to the four operas that make up Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
They’re circular wall safes that, in their ornate intricacy, have a touch of ancient sci-fi wonder about them. The film is most engaging when Sebastian, who’s basically presented as the genius safecracker of all time, stands before one of these contraptions without knowing anything about it and figures out how to open it. Most movie safecrackers, going back to James Caan in “Thief,” employ some combination of technical wizardry and laser-like firepower, but Sebastian is just classical enough to use…his ear. He turns a knob, holding his head next to the safe, and he can hear — nearly feel — the rows of gears clicking into place. That sounds corny, but the editing of these sequences is ingenious, as is the visualization of the mechanical happenings inside the safes. At moments like those, “Army of Thieves” has a quicksilver spirit reminiscent of the “Now You See Me” films and “The Prestige.” When the safes finally crack open like the magic industrial machines they are, the sight of millions of dollars piled inside is actually an anticlimax. The getting in is everything.
Sebastian is lured, through an underground safecracking contest (which he wins no contest), into joining a crew of thieves who want to break into three of the Ring Cycle safes: the Rheingold, the Valkyrie, and the Siegfried. We’re told that no one knows where they are — but, in fact, this crew knows just where they are; they’re housed in prominent banks in Paris and Prague and at a St. Moritz casino. During the second heist, Gwendoline, a jewel thief played with highly flirtatious charisma by Nathalie Emmanuel (Ramsey from the “Fast and Furious” films), steps out of character just long enough to bash the bloody bejesus out of the four security guards who are standing in front of the safe at hand. She’s nothing less than a smashingly convincing action heroine, but you still think: This is how they’re going to avoid detection? A heist film, farfetched as it may be in the real world, is a game that has to make us believe in every move.
Gwendoline stares at our boyish hero with a gaze of adoration cut with glints of derision. The other crew members are her violent boyfriend, the self-named action dude Brad Cage (Stuart Martin), who’s like an angry Hugh Jackman; Korina (Ruby O. Fee), a willowy bohemian hacker; and a getaway driver named Rolph (Guz Khan), who beneath his dark high hair and long beard has a winning way with a scowling putdown.
Just when it looks like things are going swimmingly, Sebastian gets literally tossed out of the group and flees the cops by speed-peddling a bike through Prague to what sounds like the pulsating score for “Run Lola Run 2.” But he winds up reuniting with them — or, at least, the ones he can trust. “Army of Thieves” is one of those bombastically blithe and fanciful Netflix action movies, in this case with a romantic heart. There are no zombies in it, unless you count the ones that pop up in a couple of dream sequences. But the movie points its way to the zombie apocalypse in Vegas, and to the temptation that awaits there: the Götterdämmerung, the fourth and final Ring Cycle safe. If you saw “Army of the Dead,” you know what happens next. But compared to that movie, this one feels like a Batman prequel devoted entirely to Robin.