Army of the Dead Movie Review: This all brawn and no brain zombie heist is predictable yet fun
Amidst all the action, guns, raining bullets and headshots that would put a sniper to shame, the film dearly lacks the heart that's been the core of Snyder's previous works
As a cinephile, it's tough to not fall in love with Zack Snyder's filmography. After a period action film (300) as a sophomore project followed by an animation film (Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole), a psychological fantasy action film (Sucker Punch) and a few superhero films under the DC Extended Universe, Snyder's back to a genre that he made his debut with almost 20 years ago. After Dawn of the Dead in 2004, he returns to zombie territory with this week's Netflix release Army of the Dead and it feels like his professional life has come a full circle. What happened on and off-screen for his last film, Justice League and how he came on top of it at the end makes it more gratifying but his latest outing will stand out as one of the superior films in a genre that's almost filled with mediocre films, while at the same time, being one of his most middling works.
Cast: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Huma Qureshi
Director: Zack Snyder
Streaming on: Netflix
A military convoy's payload is compromised, causing an apprehended alpha zombie to go loose and start infecting the whole of Las Vegas. In a regular zombie film, the runtime would be filled with a story of how the survivors escape from the clutches of the walking dead as the living ones are taken down one after the other. But here, all of that happens right during the opening credits and we see a large wall of shipping containers barricading the infected within the city... because what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. The actual story begins when a casino owner Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) employs an ex-mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to plan a heist on his own casino. Ward, after a Seven Samurai-esque recruitment, goes into the contained zone as a team. One of them does call the plan a "bad goddamn idea", but rarely has anything entertaining come out of sticking to common sense.
Instead of going against the stereotypes connected with the genre, Snyder keeps them and tweaks them in his unique fashion. The team does split up unnecessarily, the youngest member will obviously be the freewheeling one that goes against the orders of the head and one of them is bound to be the double-crosser. But Snyder does try to make the scene worth watching thanks to the paybacks. For example, one of the team members meets their end in the hands of a zombie tiger. That's right, the film has a zombie tiger, an alpha zombie who knows to use an elevator and to ride a zombie horse, and even a zombie queen who is pregnant. Right from the get-go, Snyder makes it a point to make his film stand apart from the rest of them from the genre. The credits sequence showing the sin city getting infected is basically poetry in motion. We see a layman winning at a casino only to be engulfed by a cloud of zombies as tokens fall over them from a slot machine. There are topless waitresses running towards old but rich men who would have actually wanted it if not for the fact that the women have turned into ghouls. What more can define a zombie infestation in Las Vegas than seeing an Elvis Presley impersonator turned into a biter?
The novelty Snyder brings into a genre where you think you've seen everything has always been his forte. Snyder's love for biblical references is anything but new. His entire DCEU franchise of films had hope as the common theme and portrayed Superman as the messiah of the powerless who sacrifices his life and then gets resurrected. It continues in Army of the Dead where the convoy from the first sequence is named the four horsemen. The filmmaker's hostility to the last President of the US is well known and he even openly endorsed Joe Biden before the elections. In the film, he takes a dig at Trump where a news report, about nuking Vegas on July 4th, quotes a line of the President that calls the idea as "really cool and the ultimate fireworks show" and it's "actually kind of patriotic if you think about it." When we're subjected to Snyder's antics, it's all fun and plays but they stick out like a sore thumb from the rest of the extremely predictable plot that spoils the game.
Past all the visual glory, the film leaves you wishing you had more reasons to sit through a 148 minute-long film. Amidst all the action, guns, raining bullets and headshots that would put a sniper to shame, the film dearly lacks the heart that's been the core of Snyder's previous works. There are subplots that have been laid out to make up for it, like one involving Ward and his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) who he thinks has been avoiding him after seeing him force a knife down her infected mother's head. There's also another one involving Geeta (our very own Huma Qureshi) who is initially shown to be a single mother with a plan to save her family, only to end up being a damsel in distress. The emotional sequences in Army of the Dead are a far cry from the filmmaker's Dawn of the Dead where one of the best parts involved a bunch of survivors communicating with another man stuck on a terrace on the opposite building with the streets full of zombies. He does sort of makeup to it with some witty humour and action. Matthias Schweighöfer as the German safecracker provides the former while the rest of the cast making sure there's no dearth of killings. Like from his film 300, a bunch of talented shooters go against a horde of biters in this gorefest and the close-quarter combat sequences are a treat to watch. Seeing the blood of the dead splattering on the screen is sure to invoke the first-person shooter game lover in you.
Army of the Dead is a high-budget extravaganza that has no qualms in showing off its potential. A film about the dead not really living up to that potential is the unfortunate part. Despite the brilliant art direction that shows us a post-apocalyptic Vegas and outstanding makeup, it's hard to cover the lack of an unpredictable core story that was expected to be a 'World War Z meet Ocean's franchise' film. On the whole, Army of the Dead is an undistinguished film that can be entertaining if you can check your brain at the door.