Army of the Dead
2021, R, 148 min. Directed by Zack Snyder. Starring Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Matthias Schweighöfer, Tig Notaro, Samantha Win, Omari Hardwick, Ana De La Reguera, Theo Rossi, Hiroyuki Sanada.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 14, 2021
Ever get the feeling that a film is all about building to one cool shot? In Army of the Dead, it's a two hour wait for Dave Bautista spinning around with a machine gun, back-to-back with Nora Arnezeder (somehow with perfect kohl eyes in the middle of a firefight), blasting away at zombies among banks of slot machines in a mid-level Las Vegas casino. There's a lot of sound and fury before we get there, because this is a Zack Snyder movie, and Zack Snyder no like subtle. Subtle bad. Subtle boring. No like, no good.
It's not that having a bunch of mercenaries storm into a zombie-infested Las Vegas needs to be a delicate examination of the metaphysical plight of the undead, and the human relationship with their own mortality as expressed through the continued existence of the body after the disappearance of all traces of identity. It's guns, zombies, slo-mo, more guns, bombastic classical music, and more zombies, for a patience-testing two-and-a-half hours. Slow and loud is the order of the day.
After an opening expositional action sequence that mostly plays like a very stylish truck commercial, the by-the-numbers heist mechanic is established as soldier-turned-fry-cook Scott Ward (Bautista) is convinced by mysterious tycoon Bly Tanaka (Sanada) to assemble the typical unlikely band of misfits to sneak into a now-zombie ravaged Las Vegas, and sneak back out with a vault's worth of cash before the U.S. government nukes the city on the Fourth of July. Liberally peppered with stolen plot points and visual nods to the endlessly superior Aliens, and a zombie design that owes more to John Carpenter's rightly-overlooked Ghosts of Mars than any corpse Romero touched, the only Of the Dead film that Army evokes is Uwe Bohl's dismal game adaptation House of the Dead.
Acting as his own DP, Snyder remains more assured with a camera than Bohl. Yet Army of the Dead's oddly crawling pace and underwhelming scale (Snyder never takes advantage of having a whole city to himself) leave too much time and space to see where it shambles with no bite. Out-of-date Vegas references, and stand-in locations where the producers couldn't get the rights cleared. Halfhearted attempts at political pertinence. Kinda racist, kinda stereotyping gags from any non-American characters. A shoehorned subplot with Scott trying to bond with his alienated daughter, Kate (Purnell), who tags along for convoluted but ultimately irrelevant reasons. And thank goodness for Bautista: If wasn't for him as the father figure leading this ragtag platoon, sporadically contemplating tofu recipes, and Schweighöfer as Dieter, the out-of-his-depth safecracker, then there wouldn't be a personality in sight. Unfortunately, they're both horribly underserved, and Schweighöfer's decision to depend on mincing, shrieking gay stereotypes that would have felt out of date when Night of the Living Dead was released proves that "memorable" and "good idea" are not always the same.Even if you like Snyder's non-superhero work, this feels like a serious step down. At least it's occasionally got the egregious meanspiritedness of his debut, his fascinatingly vile remake of Dawn of the Dead. No surprise he felt like revisiting the genre, since that film is the only one of his films that was universally respected and has weathered the storm of reappraisal (cough cough 300). Don't expect Army of the Dead to get that same kind of afterlife.