The first rule about Safecracking Club:
1. Ah, go ahead and talk about Safecracking Club.
The second rule about Safecracking Club:
2. See above. You might as well talk about it because it’s pretty ridiculous and I don’t think the cops are gonna care.
One of my favorite scenes in “Army of Thieves,” a relatively breezy and light and aggressively silly stand-alone prequel to “Army of the Dead,” arrives early in the film, when the low-level German bureaucrat, full-term nerd and amateur safecracking geek Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer) is invited to participate in a mysterious, underground safecracking tournament. A crowd of rabid fans cheers wildly — we presume they’ve placed bets on the action — and Dieter finds himself racing to open a series of increasingly complex safes against some stylishly outfitted, marginally menacing competitors who look like magician contestants on “Germany’s Got Talent.” When Dieter wins the final round, the crowd goes wild!
Think about this for a second, patient reader. They’re watching individuals who are trying to open safes. By comparison, televised Pickleball, Cornhole and Axe Throwing would be positively riveting.
Still, thanks to Schweighöfer’s stylish, “Italian Job”-influenced directing, a sense of its own ridiculous nature and some fabulous performances by the charming and good-looking supporting cast, “Army of Thieves” is the very definition of an entertaining Netflix confection. Though it features the safecracking Dieter, who was featured prominently in Zach Snyder’s Las Vegas-set “Army of the Dead,” and there are some amusing if strained connections to that Zombie Apocalypse blockbuster, this story is only tangentially connected to the world of the undead. It takes place some six years prior to the events of “Army,” with the zombie outbreak just igniting in the States — which is of only passing interest to the people of Western Europe, who look up from time to time and see it playing out on TV.
Schweighöfer goes all-in with an over-the-top, mostly endearing, occasionally obnoxious performance as the fastidious, shrill-voiced, borderline cowardly but good-hearted Dieter, who is living an anonymous and quite sad life in Potsdam, Germany — toiling at a soul-crushing job, seemingly without friends or family, and spending his free time posting YouTube videos about safecracking that often garner 0 views.
Ah, but one such video catches the attention of Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel from “Game of Thrones”), a skilled pickpocket and criminal mastermind who leads an army of, well, thieves that includes the expert getaway driver Rolph (Guz Khan), the brilliant hacker Korina (Ruby O. Fee) and a granite-jawed action hero (Stuart Martin) who looks like the first runner-up in a Hugh Jackman lookalike contest and has given himself the movie marquee name of Brad Cage, because he was bullied as a boy and was inspired by action stars such as Brad Pitt and Nicolas Cage to bulk up and get tough. Brad Cage, ladies and gentlemen!
Gwendoline recruits the smitten Dieter to join the gang as they embark on a series of nearly impossible heists, all involving the legendary works of the German locksmith Hans Wagner, who in his waning years built four safes, named for each opera of Richard Wagner’s ring cycle. (That would be “Das Rheingold,” “Die Walkure,” “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung,” or “The Twilight of the Gods,” for those of you playing at home.)
At this point, “Army of Thieves” becomes a three-part heist movie, with the usual bickering and bonding among the gang members, a love triangle involving the infatuated Dieter, the conflicted Gwendoline and the brooding Brad Cage — and the obligatory “Ocean’s 11” style scenes of planning and executing the heists. Those culminate with Dieter flexing his hands and grandstanding a bit before he goes to work, at which point we see some cool, CGI shots of gears whirling and clicking into place. All the while, Jonathan Cohen provides the comic relief as the exasperated Delacroix, an Interpol official who is always just one step behind that blasted Army of Thieves.
After some exciting action sequences and a final twist that is implausible even for an escapist film such as this, “Army of Thieves” stays with Dieter past this adventure, and you already know out where he’s going next.
Welcome to Las Vegas, baby.