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Posts Tagged ‘Matthias Schweighofer’

Normally one of the iron rules of cinema – from that subset of the regulatory corpus devoted to the art of the franchise – is that successful sequels are usually a question of providing more of the same thing from the first film. The trick, such as it is, lies in adding just enough novelty to hide the fact that the film is an exercise in repetition. Long-running franchises inevitably mutate over time, but it’s quite unusual for any two films to be radically different in tone or atmosphere (this is usually the sign of a break in production, a change of key personnel, or both).

So exactly what the hell Netflix think they are doing with Matthias Schweighofer’s Army of Thieves seems to be a reasonable question. One of the arch-streamer’s big releases from early in the summer was Army of the Dead, a big-budget horror extravaganza directed by Zach Snyder in full-on taste-and-nuance-free mode. I had a fairly good time watching Army of the Dead, although I think it’s not a patch on the films that obviously inspired it. Army of Thieves, on the other hand, is a completely different proposition.

Schweighofer was in Army of the Dead and reprises the role here in addition to directing. His character is revealed to have led a former existence as Sebastian Schlencht-Wohnert, by day a bank clerk leading a repetitive, dull life, in his spare time an aspiring YouTuber and expert on safecracking and its history. Of particular interest to him are a series of legendary safes made by a man named Wagner, based on his famous namesake’s Ring Cycle of operas.

One day, he is challenged to put his money where his mouth is, when he gets an invite to a secret underground safecracking club in Berlin (my partner has lived there for many years and I don’t recall her mentioning this being a thing, but then I do spend some of the time tuned out while she’s talking). His performance there leads to an invitation to join a faintly ridiculous gang of elite international thieves. So far the overall tone of the film has simply been a bit odd – low-key character comedy with Schweighofer, mixed with bizarre background details about an outbreak of a zombie virus over in Nevada – but its influences and aspirations become a bit clearer, not least because the leader of the gang is Nathalie Emmanuel, best known for playing a supporting member of the Fast & Furious All-Stars in the last few films from that franchise. Also present are Ruby O Fee as an ace hacker and general cool cat, Scott Martin as an especially absurd alpha-male, and Guz Khan as their sandwich-loving getaway driver.

Yes, with the world’s banks on edge because of the zombie virus outbreak and money being shifted around the world, the gang have decided that this is the optimum time to carry out a series of heists on three of the four Wagner vaults (naturally, all the vaults are about to be decommissioned, meaning the robberies must be performed on consecutive days in different European countries). As the world’s leading expert, it will be Sebastian’s job to crack the safes. What could possibly go wrong?

Army of the Dead had a bit of a fridge title, mainly because the zombies were only figuratively an army, and Army of Thieves really does too, because I don’t think five robbers really constitutes an army, either. This is quibbling stuff, however, as Army of Thieves rather unexpectedly turns out to be really good fun. I must admit that when I first heard of the movie and its premise, the old brow did furrow up a bit – it’s a prequel to a zombie movie that doesn’t actually have any zombies in it? – and there is a sense in which it remains a rather odd proposition. This isn’t really a zombie movie, or any kind of horror movie – and yet they feel obliged to put in background sequences about the zombie outbreak in America, and dream sequences with the undead, and references to the zombie crisis. It’s certainly a new approach to a genre mash-up, but whether it genuinely works or not I wouldn’t like to say.

If you disregard all the stuff about zombies – which is, I have to say, a relatively minor element of the film – what you’re left with is an appealing, slick, almost entirely ridiculous caper movie, built around an engaging performance from Schweighofer and directed by him with a lightness of touch which is very appealing. The Netflix caper comedy which has been getting all the attention is Red Notice, which got a massive audience despite being largely dreadful; there are numerous points of similarity between Red Notice and Army of Thieves (there’s even a casual line of dialogue about one character having been the subject of a red notice since they were a teenager), almost to the point where you wonder if all the people working for Netflix ever actually talk to each other about what they’re doing. However, Schweighofer’s movie is much better, being less smug and lazy and taking the time to establish more rounded characters (some of these guys are well on the way to being three-dimensional) and a slightly more coherent plot. The uninitiated viewer will even learn something about the plot of the Ring Cycle, which isn’t something you can say about most action comedy caper movies.

Quite apart from all the odd bits with zombies in them, the film’s existence as a prequel does result in a few slightly regrettable effects – the storyline about the four Wagner vaults isn’t entirely resolved, because, guess what, the final safe is the one Schweighofer is hired to crack in Army of Thieves (all the Wagner music on the soundtrack in that movie finally makes sense as more than a tip of the hat to Excalibur, which is apparently Zach Snyder’s favourite movie), while some of the violence in this film is just a touch more graphic than you might expect given the overall frothy tone of it. (I must also report yet another appearance of that disagreeable trope where, given a nicely diverse group of characters, it’s always only ever a character of one gender, one orientation, and one ethnic group who turns out to be the traitorous villain – see also Eternals, for another example of the same thing.)

On the whole, though, a really entertaining and fun movie, and one which perhaps even manages to give Army of the Dead a bit of much-needed poignancy and depth, given the way it expands Schweighofer’s character. (Then again, unlikely as it seems, apparently he’s going to be in the next sequel, Planet of the Dead, as well.) This is very possibly a better film than its progenitor, but it’s obviously incredibly hard to compare the two. This is a rare example of a franchise where it’s entirely possible someone could thoroughly enjoy one film but take a violent dislike to the other.

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If I cast my mind back into the dimmest recesses of history – we’re talking years and years ago, now – there was a time when I occasionally said something nice about Zack Snyder or one of his films. We’re talking the mid-to-late years of the last but one decade – are we really going to call it the noughties? Is that the best we can manage? – obviously, before his collision with the DC comics series movie franchise. Up to a point, I rather liked his version of Dawn of the Dead, and had a good time in 300 and Watchmen, as well. (Watchmen probably got him the DC gig, although the minds responsible don’t seem to have twigged that Moore and Gibbons’ masterpiece has an utterly different sensibility and tone to a conventional superhero film.)

So, always with the proviso that it doesn’t feature any superheroes, I should perhaps be cautiously hopeful about a new Snyder project, even if it is a Netflix original (the company continues to splash out vast sums on these big productions, but the people running it are apparently confident the massive debts incurred are manageable). It’s still not exactly what you’d call a step into bold new territory from the director, as it’s basically just another zombie movie, albeit on the kind of scale that George A Romero could only have dreamt of.

The premise of Army of the Dead (very nearly a fridge title) is that a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas has led to the entire city being walled off with the undead left inside to do whatever zombies do when there’s no-one around to eat. Obviously, this is a catastrophe waiting to happen, and so – in a blackly comic touch – the government is planning to nuke the city on the Fourth of July and thus permanently resolve the situation.

This doesn’t really affect ex-special forces hard-nut and aspiring short-order cook Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), until a slimy casino owner approaches him with a deal: in a vault underneath one of the hotels is $200 million in cash. If Ward leads a team into the city, cracks the safe, and returns with the money, he can have a quarter of it to distribute however he sees fit. Is he interested?

Well, it would be a much, much shorter movie if he wasn’t. The crew Ward assembles includes various other tough guys and oddballs, with Matthias Schweighofer as a safecracker, Tig Notaro as a helicopter pilot, and Nora Amezeder as a scout and zombie expert. There’s also a clearly dodgy character in the employ of the slimy casino owner, and – for only slightly contrived reasons – Ella Purnell as Ward’s petite and wide-eyed young daughter (who must take after her mother).

So in they all go, and you can probably guess what takes up most of the rest of the movie – lots of sneaking about with the occasional interlude of extreme violence, revelations, double-crosses, desperate sacrifices, and so on. It’s an action movie at least as much as a horror film, and a stupendously violent one – although there are also elements of a heist film in the mix, obviously, and the plot has very obvious echoes of Aliens in a few places, too.

Zack Snyder is very good at orchestrating this sort of thing. (Hey, there you go: an unqualified piece of praise for Zack Snyder.) Some people have called the film humourless, but I’m not sure I’d agree: there’s a definite element of black comedy to the initial scenes of Las Vegas being over-run by zombie showgirls and Elvis impersonators, and the whole thing has a kind of tongue-in-cheek comic book sensibility to it. If anything, it’s attempts to give the film more of a serious emotional core which are less successful, and this may be down to the casting as much as anything else.

Most of the scenes in question feature Ella Purnell, who is clearly an able young actress, and Dave Bautista, who is a hulking ex-wrestler. (I think Bautista comfortably claims the #3 spot on the current Top Movie Hulks list, after genial Dwayne and Vin.) Bautista is very good in the scenes requiring him to mete out carnage to the undead, but less effective when it comes to delivering a dramatic performance. He’s not actively bad. But it’s fair to say that he is not a revelation in this role, and the scenes between him and Purnell feel underpowered as a result.

But you could also argue this is an ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle for Bautista, and there are certainly a lot of characters in the mix. Everything present in Army of the Dead is here in large quantities: lots of characters, lots of zombies, lots of gore, lots of money. The movie ends up being a hefty two-and-a-half-hours long as a result – at one point I checked how long was left, assuming the thing was virtually over, and found there were nearly twenty minutes left to run – with a lavish prologue depicting how the zombie outbreak got started, and a fairly elaborate epilogue potentially setting up a sequel. I’m not sure these are really needed; the film is probably about forty minutes too long considering it’s a zombie action movie.

Because in the end that’s really all it is. It’s a lavish and technically very accomplished production – apparently one of the more prominent actors got Weinsteined after filming had concluded and was digitally replaced in post-production, and you genuinely cannot tell – and, you know, it has epic spectacle to offer and all that. (Not to mention a zombified version of one of Siegfried and Roy’s tigers.) But while it’s obviously inspired by a George Romero movie, it’s very hard to see any sign of the big ideas about society or culture that are such a key element of his best films. This is just rock ‘n’ roll, crash-bang-wallop stuff, with a big dollop of calculated nastiness added to the mixture. It’s undeniably an entertaining film, if zombie action horror is your cup of tea, and less actively exasperating than most of the things Snyder has directed in the last decade. But despite all of this it’s essentially just an exploitation B-movie blown up to ludicrous proportions, and ultimately vacuous.

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