Army of the Dead
Since his feature debut in 2004, director/writer/producer/cinematographer Zack Snyder has made a career out of creating very stylized, and very divisive, movies. Stuff like 300 (which I dislike), Watchmen (which I love), Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (both of which I am pretty mixed on) and, of course, the recently released Zack Snyder’s Justice League (which I mostly liked), all seem to have their passionate defenders and haters. For me, his gritty visuals, muted colors (making blood pop out that much more), equally dark tone, slow world building and thin characters used as pawns for his themes work some of the time. That is actually an apt description of his latest, the zombie/heist epic Army of the Dead (streaming on Netflix).
Approximately 60% of it works (it runs nearly two-and-a-half hours, so that’s a fairly decent hit-to-miss ratio). The setup is good, there are several thrilling zombie scenes (especially one where the team tries to make their way through a horde of sleeping zombies) and the major cast members each have a couple of nice moments. Additionally, the characters are spectacularly thin, the social commentary, while present, is distractingly underdeveloped and the heist is extraordinarily uninteresting. Nothing surprising happens here, causing things to drag a bit. Yet this is so tightly plotted that I honestly can’t point to exactly what should have been trimmed. Everything is connected to everything else, leading directly to the climax. The result is uneven, but generally fun. If you can tolerate Snyder’s trademarks, you will probably enjoy yourself.
The opening scene, involving a military convoy transporting mysterious cargo, brings death to Las Vegas. Then, we get one of Snyder’s specialties: an opening credit sequence montage that efficiently introduces the premise (zombies have completely taken over Las Vegas) and a few of the characters (whose basic traits are on display). It is not only creatively edited; it is also quite effective in quickly setting up the necessities of the story. Instead of wasting time, Army of the Dead is able to leap right into getting the characters where they need to be.
Soldier-turned-cook Scott is presented with an enticing proposition: a casino in Vegas has over $200 million in its vault. Fight through the zombies, break into the vault, bring the money back to its rightful owner and $50 million is his to split up however he wants, all before the government nukes the city. That gets us to the gathering the crew sequence, which swiftly tells the audience who everybody is in about a sentence each. There’s Scott’s trusted army friends, the inexperienced safecracker, their employer’s personal security, the cynical pilot who will need to fix the helicopter on top of the casino to fly them out to safety, the guy who loves killing zombies, the seen-it-all coyote who knows her way around the area and Scott’s estranged daughter. The ticking clock suspense and zombie threat are more interesting than the surface level personality conflicts and the heist itself.
The fight scenes are pretty good because Snyder and his team keep things intimate. They are about what the characters need to do, or not do, in order to survive. Where people are in relation to each other and how many bullets they have left are the most important factors. This material has been well thought-out, including some quality gore. That is more than I can say for the other half of the plot.
While this is technically a heist movie, don’t expect any detail in that department. The plan is essentially “walk down to the vault, crack it, take the money, then fly away.” So much time is spent preparing for the heist (it takes up most of the first hour) that I was disappointed by how routine it is. An elaborate heist in the middle of a city infested with zombies sounds fun, but the heist is really just an excuse to get a bunch of characters to fight the undead. That aspect is definitely the worst part of Army of the Dead.
Overall, though, I would say Snyder’s better tendencies outweigh his lesser ones here. Even his propensity to be super serious is cut into a tad by the amusing line delivery by the cast. Dave Bautista is charismatic as Scott and he has good chemistry with Ana de la Reguera and Omari Hardwick (who has the best lines) as his army buddies, as well as Ella Purnell as his daughter. Tig Notaro as the wisecracking pilot and Garret Dillahunt as the security guy seem to be having fun with this as well. They prevent the proceedings from becoming too dour. Army of the Dead had me remembering why I have enjoyed Zack Snyder’s work and why I haven’t. Much of what people praise him for and bash him for are here. It is certainly a mixed bag. I recommend it for fans of zombie movies and, obviously, fans of the director. But be ready for some annoyance with your entertainment.
3¼ out of 5
Dave Bautista as Scott Ward
Ella Purnell as Kate Ward
Ana de la Reguera as Maria Cruz
Nora Arnezeder as Lilly
Garret Dillahunt as Martin
Omari Hardwick as Vanderohe
Matthias Schweighöfer as Dieter
Tig Notaro as Marianne Peters
Raúl Castillo as Mikey Guzman
Theo Rossi as Burt Cummings
Directed by Zack Snyder
Screenplay by Zack Snyder, Shay Hatten and Joby Harold