ARMY OF THE DEAD – Review
With Memorial Day weekend looming, what better time to kick back and enjoy and a noisy action blockbuster. That’s the way movie fans marked the beginning of the Summer season, well, in those before times. Sure this week’s new blockbuster began running on several screens last weekend, but the main focus of its marketing right now is about its “dropping” on a major streaming service (several would say “the streaming service”). It, however, “changes up” the usual formula for thrillers, aside from its distribution, since it’s another “high-concept hybrid”. You see this is a modern-day action heist flick, complete with the all “big plan’ and assembling the team. Y’know like the main variations, reboots, and sequels to OCEAN’S ELEVEN. So what’s the twist? Well, the big “window of opportunity” for the “grab” is opened due to a big disaster, though not a natural one like the big storm in 1008’s HARD RAIN. Nope, this is another one of those pesky zombie outbreaks. Yes, it’s extra tough to make that “big score” when you’ve got to contend with an ARMY OF THE DEAD.
The story does begin with the start of said “outbreak” when two newlyweds begin their honeymoon on the road to Vegas. The very distracted driver collides with a heavily armored military transport, dislodging its deadly cargo” a ravenous cannibalistic super-powered murder machine. Naturally his bite turns the surviving escort soldiers into killers who are quickly drawn to that “bright-light city”. Via an opening title montage, we see the town become overrun by the undead mobs, which also overwhelm the military. It’s soon determined that “Lost Wages” is a loss that needs to be isolated by a containment fence-like wall made of boxcars dropped by helicopters. A tent city is also set up outside the city by the World Health Organization to quarantine and monitor the evacuating citizens. As the TV news reports of plans to obliterate the infected city with a tactical nuclear strike (on July 4th, natch’), the grill man at a dusty diner, Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is stunned to get a visit from casino kingpin Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada). His insurance has already re-reimbursed him for the 200 million stuck in the big vault beneath his showcase hotel/spa, but he now wants a team to secretly sneak into the city and grab the vault’s contents prior to it getting “nuked”. Since Scott’s a decorated vet and former Vegas resident, he’s offered 50 million to assemble a team (and split that dough any way he wants). He reluctantly agrees and puts together his crew of old cohorts. First is super-mechanic Maria (Ana de la Reguera), “muscle” Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), and ace chopper pilot Peters (Tig Notaro). Then some “newbies’ are recruited: safecracker ‘savant” Dieter (Matthias Schweighofer) and social media zombie-killing star “Guz” (Raul Castillo) and his “right-hand” Chambers (Samantha Win). Everyone is startled when they’re joined at the last minute by Tanaka’s security chief Marin (Garret Dillahunt). Is he there to keep them on track, or does he have his own agenda? Scott decides the best way to enter Vegas is through the detention camp which entails an uneasy reunion with estranged daughter and WHO worker Kate (Ella Purnell). She enlists a “Coyote”, who has been sneaking folks into town, Lilly (Nora Arnezeder), who also brings in an abusive military guard Burt (Theo Rossi). Oh, and much to Scott’s ire, Kate insists on coming so she can keep an eye out for a mother who made the trek recently. As the clock ticks down to the nuclear blast, can this motley crew make the grab and fly out, while avoiding a horde of rampaging hungry hordes? If they stick to the plan, everything will work out, right?
In his best post-Drax leading role, Bautista proves to be a compelling screen presence casting a commanding silhouette, but still showing a bit more of his human side. Scott is able to shake off the “biters’ as though they were ragdolls, but he can’t shake off the guilt of his failure during the attack on his family. His MCU role may present more of his wry comic timing, but we’re getting a bit more of his heartfelt dramatic side, especially as he finally opens up to his daughter close to the big finale. Purnell, as that sibling kate, is a strong sparring partner for him, never backing down, though the role often seems abrasive and headstrong. Scott’s other partner, perhaps his BFF, is the warm, but no-nonsense de la Reguera who can now add action lead to her growing resume. Hardwick also is an impressive physical presence but is best as a big brother/straight-man to the tightly-wound, eccentric Schweighofer as the endearing, often dense Dieter. Notaro projects just the right amount of “fly-boy swagger” as the sweetly sarcastic Parker. And Rossi, Amezeder, and Dillahunt add an air of mystery as characters who may be a great back-up, though often have secretive motivations.
After a seventeen-year hiatus, in which he became the controversial guiding force in the Warner/DC franchises (“wrecking ball” springs to mind, IMO), Zack Snyder returns to the land of the “non-living” with this epic tale (clocking in at nearly 150 minutes (brevity alludes him). And as in DAWN, these ghouls are almost Olympic sprinters (a trait George Romero chided in his LAND OF THE DEAD), while several new twists are added (they all tend to get into Spider-Man-style poses since I’m guessing that most are played by “Cirque du Soleil” vets). An almost-social hierarchy (maybe a class system) is established. “Alphas”, those bitten by “Zombie Zero” AKA “Zeus”, seem a bit smarter and lord over the majority known as “shamblers”. And there’s a huge development that I won’t spoil, but I’m guessing it will figure into the sequel (or prequel). Still, for all the “rules” set up, Snyder gleefully bends them so that the monsters can slowly advance the plot. And it is a slow build-up into the mayhem that finally begins (we learn that the dead “hibernate”). Snyder, who co-wrote the screenplay with Shay Hatten and Joby Harold, does get the sun-drenched Hell vibe of Vegas correct (as does the current HBOMax series “Hacks”), but certain “out-of-nowhere character confessions are poorly planned. Much of the big action set-pieces quickly devolve into “first-person shooter’ video game homages, slowed down to a crawl (Z love his ultra “slo-mo”) and backed up by campy choices of pop tunes and Vegas standards. And after, what is it, 30 seasons of TV’s “The Walking Dead” (which has two spin-offs now), many of the creeping around/zombie ambushes feel awfully familiar. And I think I mentioned the two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Even a bit of Snyder’s superhero flicks, Zuess sports a cape and a bullet-proof cowl, creeps in, but he doesn’t add enough to now trite Canibal creep tropes. Action and gore fans will get their fill, but for many ARMY OF THE DEAD is a ponderous platoon march through “glitter gulch”. Cash me out.
2 Out of 4
ARMY OF THE DEAD is now playing in select theatres and begins streaming exclusively on Netflix beginning Friday, May 21, 2021.