You know what concept would have been really cool to build into this movie? Story served by the reveals.
After an accidental exposure turns Las Vegas into a zombie-infested wasteland, the city is walled off to keep the dead inside. Industrialist Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) has already been reimbursed for the $200 million trapped in a crack-proof vault beneath his unreachable casino, but he pitches an opportunity to ex-military brute Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to recover the untraceable cash for a cool $50 million of the take. Allowed to divide his share any way he likes, he begins to assemble a team, but he’ll need the help of his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) to sneak into the quarantine zone. Meanwhile, the unnamed President of the United States has decided to nuke Las Vegas as a publicity stunt for the Fourth of July, giving Ward’s crew four days to get in and out with the cash, but the worst complication is that some of the occupying undead view the former Sin City as their kingdom by right.
Director Zack Snyder made his name in film with the surprise hit Dawn of the Dead, a successful remake that earned him the director’s chair for 300 and later Watchmen. His recent debacles with the Warner Bros. DC universe (read: murderverse) following a personal tragedy saw Justice League hamstrung in his absence. While his recent release of the three-plus hour Snyder cut informs what the director was trying to accomplish with the Super Friends, his most recent film returns to familiar territory from the seed of idea of what a follow up might have been. With a trailer looking like Ocean’s Eleven merged with World War Z and a mere two-and-half hour cut, is his newest release bloody money-shot carnage, compelling storytelling, or something in between?
There’s a scene in the opening fifteen minutes of a zombie standing on the hood of a car; a soldier fires what appears to be a fifty-caliber machine gun at it. Each hit from head to toe pulverizes the corpse in short order in a glorious slow-motion sequence of exploding flesh, bone, blood, and guts… except the target should have been knocked off the car on the first impact. This is a metaphor for the entire film: the script doesn’t matter as long as all the money shots deliver coolness. It’s striking that each kill shot and destructive sequence is researched, planned, and executed to be as realistic and eye-popping as possible, while the script itself drops characters at random, moves horses around faster than helicopters can fly, and suggests a casino could stock the path to a vault with traps that would make Indiana Jones think twice… never mind the nonsensical logic of what was planned could not even be plausibly done. Folks, even Hobbs and Shaw managed to get this right.
To Army of the Dead’s credit, it’s better than Sucker Punch and unfortunately better than Guy Richie’s recent Wrath of Man. What’s frustrating are the interesting ideas constantly getting dropped, suggesting motivations and actual drama as fuel for a high-concept action flick up to the challenge. Yet at every turn — and avoiding specific spoilers — nothing pans out. Sure, audiences go in with the expectation that nothing will go as planned, someone will be somewhere they shouldn’t be or do something they weren’t supposed to, and the proverbial clock will wind down to minutes and seconds for whomever makes it that far into the final act. Even the denouement feels like a cheat because the script refuses to adhere to even a single rule it sets; you can’t second-guess what didn’t make any sense to begin with, right? “Aren’t we clever?”
Zack Snyder absolutely has an eye for film, what works visually, and for what audiences want to see — including going exactly where “The Walking Dead” would never dare — but not for why audiences need to see it. Anyone expecting more will realize far too soon what isn’t going to work, why it isn’t going to work, and wonder how any competent crew could fail to anticipate how much room you need to transport people and liberated stacks of cash (remember when Ocean’s Eleven couldn’t explain how they got all the strip-club flyers into the vault?) Fans of mindless action films in it for the carnage, horror, and a body count will find enjoyable sequences, fun Easter eggs, and one hell of a worthy comeuppance. Unfortunately, if viewers realize there were far easier and more obvious ways to accomplish what was supposedly needed, they might suspect this was done to someone intentionally as some form of revenge… but no, even that was too cerebral to hope for.
Army of the Dead is rated R for strong bloody violence, gore and language throughout, some sexual content, brief nudity/graphic nudity, and the best part being Richard Cheese doing the theme song.
Two skull recommendation out of four