How could a zombie heist film possibly be boring? Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead” somehow manages to answer that question, with an awesome concept bogged down by a torturous two-and-a-half-hour runtime, dull characters, and surprisingly banal action.
The film follows a former mercenary who assembles a team to rob a casino in zombie-infested Las Vegas just days before the U.S. government drops a nuclear bomb to destroy the city and its undead inhabitants. Alongside this horror heist is a subplot about an oppressive refugee camp filled with the potentially contaminated and an attempted link with the mercenary’s estranged daughter.
With the right material, Snyder is a brilliant director, capable of crafting tense, exciting, immersive action movies. “Watchmen” is a superb film, blending richly drawn characters, exciting fight sequences, and bold philosophical questions in an exceptional adaptation of Alan Moore’s iconic graphic novel. “300” is wildly fun, with phenomenal action set pieces, endlessly quotable dialogue, and perfect use of the slo-mo with which Snyder has become so closely associated.
The film’s opening and title sequence demonstrate the excellence Snyder can achieve. It is pretty close to perfect, teasing the threat with a tense and hilarious first scene before launching into a high-energy montage establishing the undead threat’s Las Vegas containment in a lively, exciting sequence. It’s a shame that the rest of the movie fails to live up to its promising beginning.
Instead, the subsequent two hours drag with protagonists as lifeless as the zombies they face. Between the clichéd writing and dull performance, Dave Bautista’s turn as the protagonist lacks both the emotionality and entertainment needed to craft a compelling central character. As an actor, he fails to deliver the required charm or emotional depth to carry a film.
The weak character writing is not a sin that can be attributed to the entire film, as the background members of the crew are lively and fun, with specific personalities that both stand out and gel as a cohesive ensemble. As with many heist movies, the team-building scene was another comedic gem, and one of the only moments that lived up to the opening’s potential. The charm of the background players brought into focus how frustrating the central characters were; I wanted to be watching someone else’s story instead.
Particular standouts are the German locksmith unprepared for any violence (Matthias Schweighöfer), cocky yet loyal adrenaline junkie (Raul Castillo), and snarky helicopter pilot (Tig Notaro). Notaro was a last-minute replacement for Chris D’Elia, who was removed due to sexual harassment allegations. However, ethics aside, Notaro seems a much better choice than D’Elia, with a dry sensibility suiting the character and ensemble well. In fact, she fits so well into the film, you’d never know she filmed in front of a green screen after the fact.
Along with the dry main figures, “Army of the Dead” consistently frustrated through teasing fascinating concepts or set pieces, only to not follow through on any of these ideas. Early on, viewers are introduced to a zombie killing saw that never kills a zombie, piles of undead corpses that would reanimate in rain that never comes, and robot zombies that have no utility or explanation aside from the cool visual.
Each of these ideas could make for a compelling twist, something to raise the stakes as the firing of Chekov’s proverbial gun. But the gun stays on the wall and instead the characters must make unrealistically idiotic choices to maintain plot momentum. And when you don’t particularly care about the characters, their choices or fates become meaningless.
Typically in a Snyder film, even if the plot is lacking, the action at least is fun and stylized with stellar visuals and choreography. For some reason, “Army of the Dead” eschews the stylized slo-mo in favor of a poorly lit, gritty aesthetic.
“Oceans 11” meets “Evil Dead” is an interesting film to try a darker, more realistic violence, as it fails to suit the film’s aesthetic, leaving a tonally confused final product. Further, the frequent darkness and rapid cuts render it difficult to even make out the fights, which ought to be a highlight in an action movie.
“Army of the Dead” had the potential to be a wildly fun movie, with a comedic sensibility and energetic tone. A handful of sequences even delivered on this promise, showing life and fun in an otherwise dry affair. It is these very scenes that make “Army of the Dead” so frustrating, a glimpse into the film it could have been, the film Snyder has the talent to make. Hopefully this promise will be realized in the upcoming sequels.