Army of the Dead **
One Liner Review:
There are definitely some clever ideas sprinkled in here, from time to time, but for the most part this movie is long and tiring and most scenes could have benefited greatly from being cut down.
An okay zombie movie at best, this one is just a little too full of itself. It features a massive running time, a ton of characters, and only one real name actor. If you can call him that. Dave Bautista, a guy who is a wrestler first and an actor second. A guy who has had one good movie (and its sequel,) and it’s a movie that clearly is not great because of him…Guardians of the Galaxy. That’s not to say that he’s bad in Guardians, but just that it’s hardly his movie. He’s not much of an actor, is the point, and here he is front and center as the star. It’s a mistake. So is the way this movie just seems to go on and on. Are there some decent ideas from time to time? Sure. But they get lost in the mix of everything else that is going on. Too many characters, too long of a movie makes for a pretty messy formula.
Army of the Dead is a Zack Snyder film. Here is a filmmaker who has fallen in and out of the limelight with the public in terms of popularity and credibility. His directing career is much like Ben Affleck’s acting career. That is to say both of them started out big, with major promise and acclaim for a while. And then their careers both hit a downward spiral where for a period of time, it seemed neither one of them could do anything right. In more recent times, however, both of them have snapped backed, with each one going out of his way to prove to the public that he actually is talented and worthy of public support and recognition. For Affleck, it took becoming a filmmaker to regain the public’s attention, as he turned out the movies Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo, all back to back, elevating him back into the limelight. For Zack Snyder, after he had three misses (Sucker Punch, Batman Vs Superman, and Justice League,) it took Warner Brothers giving him total freedom on Zack Snyder’s Justice League for him to show the world that when left alone to make a movie his way, he could work wonders.
While Snyder’s four hour version of Justice League was pretty fantastic, and definitely proved how talented this guy is, to those who had forgotten (his first movies, Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen, were all pretty great,) Army of the Dead is not. Snyder has gone on record saying that Netflix, the studio that financed this movie, did not restrict him at all, and let him make the movie how he wanted, and maybe that’s not always such a good thing. Sure, it worked for Snyder’s version of Justice League, (and let’s be honest, Snyder had the benefit of seeing what did not work in the Joss Whedon version of that movie, in order to give us a version that did,) but here, in Army of the Dead, what we get is a movie that is too long, and that could have used a lot more editing and redirection back to the big ideas.
Basically this movie gets lost. Not all the time, and not necessarily by the end, but just from time to time, throughout the duration. Truth be told, most scenes would have benefited from some cuts and a tighter focus. They just seem to go on and on, wandering aimlessly and losing our interest. The first thirty minutes or so, in particular, is the most tiring part of the movie. Yes, there’s the great opening sequence out in the desert, where a creature escapes his containment unit, (funny how the vehicle that is leading the procession swerves out of the way so that an out of control car can slam into the containment unit behind them, when the first cars purpose was to be protecting that containment unit.) But that opening sequence, with the hold in the container and then men who have no idea what’s inside it, definitely works. What doesn’t work is everything that comes after it, and is supposed to establish our main characters.
We just get a whole mess of Dave Bautista and an ensemble of actors, and very little story or interesting story about any of them,. Now let’s talk about Dave Bautista for a moment. He was a wrestler, just like the Rock, before he became a movie star. And he’s clearly got the physique for this. But a good actor he is not. Now he does nicely in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies (the movies that made his career,) but let’s not forget that he’s been pretty lousy in just about everything else he’s done, from The Man With The Iron Fists to the James Bond movie Spectre to the Dennis Villeneuve Blade Runner movie. Maybe these are bad projects and placing the blame on Bautista isn’t fair, but it’s also pretty reasonable to say that he shouldn’t be carrying a whole movie on his own. And that’a exactly what’s happening here. This cast is composed of mostly no names, where other than Bautista the next most recognizable face on screen is Tig Notaro, a stand up comic who is filling in for an actor who had to be replaced following a scandal.
Considering the size and scope of this movie, you would think they could have gotten a better cast. Even if that meant reaching out to name actors who have long been forgotten. Guys like Stephen Dorf, Rhys Ifans, or Jean Reno, to name some quick examples. But this movie is filled with no-name performers, and that certainly doesn’t help matters. That opening thirty minutes, when we are just following one character after another, through recruitment situations by Scott Ward, (Bautista,) would have gone a lot more smoothly had we known some of the actors involved. Part of the problem comes from not being able to distinguish between them, and that is partially due to casting but also partially because none of these actors is really given anything interesting to do for a while.
Luckily things do pick up. Once our characters are dropped inside the compound that is the strip of Las Vegas, which has been walled off, literally, by cargo shipping containers piled on top of each other in a circle that surrounds the area, things get better. Right away, we meet the Queen zombie and get a betrayal as one human character is sacrificed for the benefit of the others. Not long after that, there’s a great scenario where a bunch of the zombies are asleep in a series of dark rooms, and our characters have to walk between them without waking them up. There are lots of cool details here, from the oil filled backpacks our characters wear, so that they can fuel up the helicopter when they get to it, to the way that zombies in this movie sleep with their arms and legs out in strange ways, almost as if they were frozen in the middle of a dance move. The sequence is scary and clever in all the right ways, and of course, it does begin the start of attacks.
From there, however, we go back to a less than interesting bunch of sequences. Our characters all pair up and then separate ways, and you would think that this format might make for something entertaining, like in Clue when characters paired off to search the house together. Only here, the relationships between most of these characters are not explored, the reasons for the pairing are brushed over, and the movie doesn’t appear to make any effort to have us actually care about who we are watching. What we do get, every now and again, is some cool imagery. For example, at one point two characters head to the vault, where the money they are all after is being held. Only before going anywhere near the vault, they get a couple of zombies to walk towards the vault, one at a time. And each zombie sets of a new type of booby trap. From knives that shoot out of the walls, to a floor that pops up from underneath the characters, to two walls that smash together, crushing whoever is trapped in between, these ideas are a lot of fun. They call to mind the best sequence in the first Resident Evil movie, which was also a hallway of traps situation. Of course there’s the obvious question of why would there be a series of deadly booby traps surrounding the safe in a casino / hotel? All you need is one cleaning lady or maintenance guy to get curious, want to take a look at the safe up close, and boom, you have a death and lawsuit on your hands, but for the purpose of fun, it’s a pretty good scene.
Other than those scenes, however, most of this film is pretty empty. After all, we’ve got a story that gives very little motivation to the characters, and doesn’t even tell us a whole lot about any of them. The two characters we learn the most about are Scott and his daughter, Kate. She’s coming along because a woman who she has friends with went in, taking a job for some money to better the lives of her kids, despite leaving them alone on the outside of the Vegas compound. Why she would go in to a situation that pretty much means sure death is inexplicable, but Kate is there to get her out (and what makes Kate so sure that this woman is still alive is also pretty inexplicable.) Aside from that story, there is the one between Scott and Kate, where Scott’s wife, and Kate’s mother turned into a zombie, and Scott had to kill her. Kate walked in while Scott was doing it, and things have not been the same between he and Kate ever since. There’s one scene where this is addressed in a conversation between the two characters, and both the dialogue and acting are so lousy, that you kind of understand why more characters aren’t given back story here. Basically Kate has been angry at Scott, not for killing her mother, but for shutting her out ever since. And Scott shut her out because he can’t look at Kate without thinking of her mom. Something like that. Very cliched. Very corny.
This movie definitely goes through ebbs and flows, and it does pick up again in time for the ending. At that point, the head zombie takes center stage, donning a metal armored mask over his face that protects him from bullets. Pretty smart considering shots to the head are the only way to take these zombies out. In fact, it’s pretty cool that two zombies in particular are given roles that make them stand out as more meaningful than the other mindless monsters who are on screen just to be killed. Those two are the Queen and the Boss. The Boss zombie or King is the one who started the movie, escaping from that shipping container that was being carried by the convoy out in the desert. Most zombie movies don’t think to give individual zombies personality, separating them from the others, and that’a a mistake. This movie definitely gets that new approach to the genre right.
Army of the Dead is sort of an all over the place movie. The story is weak, but some of the sequences turn out to be pretty cool. The music is definitely a redeeming factor here, consisting mostly of remakes of popular songs from Viva Las Vegas, to Bad Moon Rising, to the End. Towards the end of the movie we get the song “Zombie,” by the Cranberries, and it’s nice to actually here the artist who populated the song covering the version of it that we actually know for once. Still the familiar music (even it is being sung by unfamiliar artists,) goes a long way. If only the story and characters could have been better. This movie constantly dips in and out of material that we can care about. It starts great, with that desert convoy scene and than hits a wall with thirty minutes of exposition that amounts to absolutely nothing. From there, we get inside the Vegas circle for some entertaining sequences before the movie goes back to autopilot again and loses our interest, once the characters split up. Finally, the movie brings things back to a place where we actually want to pay attention again, just in time for the ending. A movie that only makes you care about it or interesting in watching about fifty percent of the time, is not really doing its job. There are definitely things to like about this movie, but ultimately, it is not very good.