It’s unusual enough for a prequel to arrive barely five months after the original film, yet alone for it to be in a different genre. Such is the case with Army of Thieves, a non-horror spin-off of Zack Snyder’s zombie action movie Army of the Dead, greenlit and shot before the first film was even released by Netflix. “Because it’s a different genre than Army of the Dead,” producer Snyder tells SciFiNow, “it gave the film a freshness and uniqueness I think transcends the normal traps you can get into with a sequel or prequel.”
Although still dealing with criminal happenings, Army of Thieves is a more light-hearted caper movie. Think Ocean’s Eleven fused with The Italian Job (more so the 2003 remake), with an appropriately eclectic cast. “Just the concept of these big Hollywood juggernauts knowing what I do comedically,” says British comedian Guz Khan, who plays getaway driver Rolph. “I have no issue if they had zero clue who I was before. It’s just a pleasure to be part of it.”
Leading the ensemble is Matthias Schweighöfer, who played Dead’s breakout safecracker character Ludwig Dieter, also on directing duty – Snyder and Shay Hatten wrote the story.
Real name Sebastian, he works an unfulfilling bank teller job in Germany, producing YouTube videos on safe-cracking that attract the attention of jewellery thief Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel).
With the growing zombie epidemic in Nevada alarming the world’s financial institutions, Gwendoline recruits skittish Sebastian for consecutive robberies of some of the world’s most sophisticated bank vaults, in a short window before they’re moved thanks to the aforementioned unease. Joining them and Rolph on the crew are snarky hacker Korina (Ruby O. Fee) and antagonistic group heavy Brad Cage (Stuart Martin).
Once a scrawny, bullied teenager, Cage took inspiration from American action movies like Con Air to become a muscle man you wouldn’t want to mess with. Martin’s own action reference points growing up in Scotland came just after that Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster. “My love was my local Odeon in Ayr,” he says. “I used to rock up there on a Saturday and Sunday and see all these amazing films. Mission Impossible II was a big one of mine when I was young. Pierce Brosnan’s Bond, Swordfish, all that stuff in the early Noughties.”
Emmanuel has prior heist movie form thanks to her role in the Fast & Furious series, though this film is a lot more grounded than that franchise and even Snyder’s direct predecessor. “As vast and epic as the Army of Thieves world is,” she says, “I would say that they’re much more intimate scenes compared to Fast. But obviously, we have our incredible action pieces in Thieves and those days were really exciting as well.”
The timing of the production required a certain level of intimacy. Shooting in autumn 2020, with even tighter restrictions prior to any vaccination rollout concerning the ongoing pandemic, meant that normal means of getting ‘war stories’ from a movie’s making were off limits (e.g., getting drunk together at a club). “We were not encouraged to hang out off set, really,” says Emmanuel. “And when we did hang out, it was very carefully orchestrated to keep everybody safe. I didn’t feel like we got to get to know each other in the usual way.”
O. Fee adds that three weeks of prep offered the most sustained opportunity to mingle as an ensemble off set: “We had a coach. We met up and did stunt training all together. That was really fun as a group. That’s how we prepared, that’s how we bonded.”
Speaking of bonding, the ensemble was in a rare position of being directed by the person also leading the movie alongside them as an actor. “I absolutely love him,” says Martin of Schweighöfer. “So often you’re trying to be an a-hole and you just end up pissing laughing. He’s an absolute force, Matthias. I have enough trouble just learning my lines and doing one job, never mind directing and producing in the middle of a pandemic.”
Schweighöfer, who tells us he was excited to direct a mostly English-language film for the first time (“a fantastic, wonderful journey”), seems more self-deprecating about the experience: “I think my actors thought I’m totally crazy. They acted really well and said on the set, ‘We understand you, Matthias, thank you for your direction.’ But I think most of the time they were lost.”
Army of Thieves is not the only prequel in Snyder’s latest cinematic universe. Currently in production is an animated series back in a horror mode. “Matthias is not in that,” Snyder reports, “It takes place right after the wall’s constructed around Vegas. The focus is really to find out where the zombies came from. At that point, Dieter’s probably still in Germany. Some of the events of this movie probably coincide with [the series].” Chuckling, he teases that: “We probably would have a TV where they’re saying, ‘Oh, these banks in Germany were robbed!’”
Army of Thieves is on Netflix from October 29