Review: ARMY OF THE DEAD, Bloated Run Time And Disproportionate Emotional Attachments Drag Down Snyder's Latest
Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a decorated mercenary who now slings burgers at a greasy spoon, is approached by business magnet Bly Tanaka to do a job. Tanaka has a proposal for him, go back to Las Vegas and steal back two hundred million dollars of his money left behind in a casino vault. Why hire a mercenary though? Wouldn't this be a job for a crack team of handsome or beautiful thieves and other experts in other fields deemed necessary?
Under normal circumstances, yes, but Vegas is no longer the Vegas we once knew. Devastated by a zombie outbreak the only residents of Vegas are now the hordes that shamble inside its walled off border. Ward was the last of the soldiers to leave Vegas before the final part of the wall came down so he is the obvious choice for this mission. And a cut of the heist would get him out of the diner and living the life a hero should be living.
Ward goes back to his original team - Maria (Ana de la Reguara), Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) and Marianne (Tig Notara) - to form the base of his crew. They also bring on safe cracker Dieter, social media star Mikey Guzman and a couple of his closest people, notably Canadian actress Samantha Win. More on her in a bit. Now all they have to do is get inside, past the guarded perimeter outside.
Oh. They have to do all this before July 4th because the President is planning to nuke Vegas in the World's greatest fireworks display, once and for all wiping the zombie scourge off the face of the planet. Or out of town at least. That gives them a couple days to get in and get out with the cash. Just as long as everything goes according to plan. They just need a way in and Ward may know someone working at the nearby refugee camp who can help.
All the traits of a Zack Snyder film are on full display here. Even a desolate wasteland such as a devastated Las Vegas has its charm. Snyder's penchant for using slow motion is back too, specifically during the opening credit sequence where the story of the zombie outbreak happens behind neon pink credits.
A key selling point of any zombie flick is the violence and things get bitey and even a bit chompy - here kitty, kitty. It's fitting that the person who is commenting the most about the zombie tiger gets taken out by it at the end, and it's a glorious bit of animal of the dead meets The Revenant. Nothing has changed about the way you kill a zombie so there are a lot of headshots. A lot. In the opening prologue Vanderohe has an industrial strength skill saw that he uses to slice and dice the zombies. Sadly, we never see it used beyond that. He brings it with him but then, nothing. That's a shame. Such a loss of potentially good gore.
Everybody is there for by and large the same reason, the money. The money will cure all woes. The money gives everyone something better than what they already have. This isn't greed, this is desperation. There are some that do take advantage of it, like Nora Arnezeder's The Coyote, the loner who takes people like Geeta the refugee into Vegas who is part of a subplot where she wants to find money to buy her freedom from the camps.
You bring on certain people to fill certain roles. You bring on Tig Notaro so she can deliver her dark whit and snappy retorts. She's the dark comic relief. She's their ride out of Vegas. Brought on to fly the dilapidated helicopter left on the roof of the Casino. Otherwise, she's up on the roof waiting for everything to fall apart in the final minutes so she can come to the rescue. Likewise, Matthias Schweighöfer's Dieter is another role meant for lighter comedic relief from tension that is really never there. But, if you're ever going to attach yourself emotionally to someone from the team chances are Dieter is going to be your guy.
Garret Dillahunt has played more than his share of bad guys over the length of his career so it comes as no surprise that his Martin, part of Tanaka's security team, joins the heist to ensure everything goes to plan. But who's plan, right? He is to Army of the Dead what Paul Reiser's Burke was to Aliens.
This is not the only Aliens nod in this film either. You'll know the other key one when you see it near the end of the movie, or there is the time that Kate goes into another hotel to look for and rescue her Newt. Okay, that last one's maybe a bit of a reach. But if you don't recognize the nod when they're on the rooftop of the casino then you haven't seen Aliens and that's probably an even worse offense here.
The problem we have with Army of the Dead is that there is this glut of emotional baggage that comes with it. The movie pauses way too often for far too long in some instances to wax emotional about what the zombie outbreak has done to Ward, his family and his relationships. Army of the Dead feels like a 90 minute film asked to stretch it out for two and a half hours until the next zombie movie shuffles along. And that's a problem, there's just a lot of filler. Zombie movies have always been about, you know, exploring our humanity, where we look into ourselves when we're faced with a crisis. Part of what makes us human is our relationships so Ward is looking to reconcile his with his daughter who he became estranged from during the crisis.
Here is where Army of the Dead threatens to lose its viewers. It's what relationships the story focuses on and for how long. The problem is not the relationship between Ward and his daughter. Sure, perhaps too much time is spent on them. That’s on the viewer and their own barometer. But there are others that come way out of left field that have no pretense and are shoved aside so abruptly all you can say is, ‘What the hell was that?’. Of note as well is that there are characters we are meant to become attached to who are dealt with vaguely or as an aside. You may feel kind of cheated out of a fulfilled emotional attachment to characters you like or want to see make it through to the end.
It's not that Bautista cannot handle anything that isn't action related either. He does quite well with it to be fair. It's just that there is too much time in these moments, spent waiting for something to happen. There's a total lack of tension and necessity too. Because not all heists go according to plan the team finds out they have to move quicker than anticipated nor do we get the sense that they fell pressured to move quicker because of the fuck off giant and organized zombie horde brewing in the next building over.
Through the misappropriated and disproportioned emotional attachments and attention directed at the second stringers we would be remiss to not talk about what is hands down one of the best set pieces of the whole film, that of Samantha Win's character Chambers. Brought along by Raul Castillo's Mikey Guzman she gets separated from the team and has to fight her way out from a horde. Win started out as a stunt performer so she already had the foundation to pull off an amazing routine. This set piece comes early but compared to the whole it's something special and her skills are utilized perfectly. Banger stuff.
There is an interesting zombie mythology here there's this, for lack of a better word, kingdom of zombies inside the area, ruled by the Alpha zombie we see in the prologue. Once Las Vegas was overturned by zombie invasion and was walled off a hierarchy among the zombies grew with a King and Queen. So there you sort of have your nod to Escape from New York/Escape to LA kind of scenario where you have this walled off zone and a small kingdom and ruler that arises from the ashes that our heroes have to deal with apart from your regular zombie. It makes for some of the more interesting imagery in the film, this image of a ruler and his followers. Dare I say it's almost reverent.
I don't know what to make of Snyder's suggestion about zombie survival in this movie. A moment between the King and his Queen that... it's really... it's really weird, without saying what it is. Apart from that we will admit that we don't dwell too much into zombie lore as much these days, to know what is a new idea and what is repurposed, so the inclusion of hibernating zombies or a zombie hierarchy of chosen zombies is interesting.
To keep up with his fast running zombies style Snyder hired a lot of free runners and parkour people to go bouncing around the desolate ruins of Las Vegas to make it look all very exciting. Thing to note, zombies ignore foot paths. If that's something you want to keep in your pocket for later when the actual zombie apocalypse hits, maybe run past as many jungle gyms as you can when being chased to slow them down?
The campaign to allow Snyder to provide his own cut of his previous film reaped tremendous rewards. I cannot imagine that anyone would want a Snyder Cut of Army of the Dead. I could not imagine what a four hour version of this would look like if there was. At two and half hours there is already way too much, imbalanced emotional filler between the set pieces. Our emotions are often directed at people that don't impact, by and large, to Ward's own journey of reconciliation, or they come out of the blue and never seen again. If there was an actual cut then I would suggest cutting at least a half hour from this if only to just speed it the hell up. It would only make it stronger than what it is. It's not a terrible experience but also it's not something I think I would go back and sit through again.
Army of the Dead launches globally on Netflix today.