Zack Snyder has slid his way back into the world of the undead. Ever the epic director, and a master of the cinematic slow burn, he has stepped past superhero lore, if only briefly, to deliver another eventful bit of noise. If his DC work can subsist in another category, Army of the Dead can stand well enough as a partial sequel to his game changing horror opus 17 years before. The big difference this time with this unified corpse gang; with them, it’s more personal. And certainly lengthier, detail-oriented even.
The remaining living zombies in the tail end of a disastrous global outbreak are angry buggers. Long haulers at the end of an extensive plague, their goal is simple: dominance. And in Las Vegas lies the last great stronghold of uninfected humans making temporary escape, as a neutron bomb aims to rid the stragglers. As this evacuation effort is picking up steam in its final 96 hours, the greedy Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) realizes he forgot some important bank in his hotel/casino, The Olympus. He hires one of his trusted advisors, the grizzled ex-soldier turned line cook Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) to lead a retrieval mission to shuffle a vault worth millions out of the casino, keeping careful to escape trouble. And perhaps live out his lofty food truck dream. Something that becomes a running gag throughout pitching his myriad ideas.
His fellow recruits could be considered the true definition of trouble, based on their collective personality traits. Among them, the plucky mechanic Cruz (Maria de la Reguera), trendy German safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighofer), and sarcastic pilot Peters (Tig Notaro). And per any heist movie in recent memory, we couldn’t consider any of their objectives easy work. If it’s not the surprisingly intellectual alpha zombies causing ruckus, namely their frustrated leader Zeus (Richard Centrone), then it’s Scott’s daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) slowing things down as she navigates her own path looking for stranded friends in the area of concern.
Snyder, accompanied by co-writers Shay Hatten (John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) and Joby Harrold (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) appear to cast a wide net in defining the word “concern.” It starts out like the logline in an old Corman picture; newlyweds are the first to be infected in the desert. Within an astonishingly short stretch of time, it only skyrockets out of control. After an extravagant opening title sequence destined to bring Richard Cheese, the momentum settles down into a familiar cadence making another Romero movie out of the ungodly merger between Casino, The Italian Job and The Longest Day. Despite it occurring over 4-5 days, it otherwise plays out as a consecutive run of hours that is more concentrated than spread out. Snyder, also his own cinematographer here, certainly wants to make a large spectacle out of something so simple, that grandiose attitude on lavish display through every inch of the retransformed strip. No disputing how much of a playground it is for characters to run amok, it’s just they’re all hanging around a bit too long.
At two and a half hours, Army overreaches and overstays its welcome, its core cast unable how not to waste each moment not reserved for an important action sequence (Wayne Dalglish leaves wonders all over the place with his expert fight choreography). When we need a beat or two to develop character motivation, it’s always on a winding road with exasperating uncertainty, never on the straight and narrow. We’re not holding on for too long, Snyder just doesn’t want to get to the point right away unless there’s actual eye-catching conflict in play. Call it cotton candy fluff if you must, that would be appropriate, but I’m sure it’d be much worse. Thankfully, Snyder stops short of handling editorial on his own; screen vet Dody Dorn (Come Away) does possess some skill and steady hands to get away with a few crafty choices, helping to maintain some consistency, and regrettably looseness.
It could be all on Bautista, however, shouldering this lumbering epic to its finish. With both legit acting chops and muscle going for him, compared to fellow WWE graduates who had to favor one over the other, the four-time guardian of a nondescript galaxy has gracefully raised his own leading-man pattern game. A role like Scott Ward effectively fits his brand more snugly than his last on-screen role in the cliché-bogged My Spy. He’s a confident hero in shorts, diving down like a swan and throwing punches like a kangaroo. Against so much extraneous filler, he navigates it all without fault. Even the very hesitation of knowing who to shoot; Ward’s wife had been killed amid the initial fervor. That adds a layer to the estrangement he carries toward Kate, reunited after years apart.
The supporting cast aren’t much in the way of slouching about, either. Granted, their respective traits do border on the vexing, but never do they allow gaps to build. Where Ward sometimes falters, Vanderoehe (a very game-faced Omari Hardwick) is there as the wise sage smooth-talker. Dieter is the timid rabbit who’s more at home in computer ethics, a conventional play. Mikey (Raul Castillo) is the trigger-happy mischief-maker, while Cruz joins him in accepting zero BS. Peters is perhaps the lame duck involved, with Notaro doing some of her best film work, despite being digitally swapped for the reputation-bruised Chris D’elia. It’s not her fault, though the editing could have been cleaner. And Martin (Garrett Dillahunt), Tanaka’s second in command, serves as point-man, having worked security on the hotel property, so he’s worth keeping an eye on Each of the players have some stake in the mission, all looking for a cut of the bounty buried in that safe. So they’re all not without motivation, we just struggle to connect with it until too late in the story.
Army needed to possess a better structural integrity. Its first act quickly breezes through initial pleasantries; the second hits certain snags debating on which direction to head into. The third certainly brings the slick, gory, CG-heavy adventure home, mindful of the literal ticking time bomb aimed at everyone’s heads. Baseline construction is sound, but its priorities are scatterbrained at best. So many of the problems Snyder creates could’ve been solved by trimming down 30 minutes to clear out the lag, and rearranging Ward’s character arc, if only to organically evolve the father-daughter reunion angle.
Nevertheless, with patience packed, if you are a bigger fan of Snyder’s high-concept energy than I am, its faults may be easier to overlook. I still got a kick out of Army of the Dead, for its on-point Oscar worthy craftwork, and especially Bautista’s badass machismo delivery. Zack may bring the best qualities out of his actors, and on visual strengths, but not so much on plot fulfillment. Not a complete compliment to the guy, but still two out of three should still be decent. Almost (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
Army of the Dead is currently playing in select theaters, debuting on Netflix May 21; rated R for strong bloody violence, gore and language throughout, some sexual content and brief graphic nudity; 147 minutes.