2 out of 5
Directed by: Zak Snyder
I was a Snyder apologist for a long time. In general, if I am entertained, I am willing to overlook a lot about a movie, or a show, and with Snyder – I walked away from each of his movies deeply satisfied. Thus, bring on all the criticisms: I’ll acknowledge them, but still enjoy the craftsmanship, and writing that I felt leaned in to whatever tone for which whichever movie was aiming. Man of Steel was where I faltered. I would’ve been fine with the “gritty” representation of Superman; I was more disappointed by how boring the movie was, visually. This was followed by a similar feeling with Batman v. Superman, and then the reviews of the initial version of JLA turned me off completely. Though these were all DC projects, and so I could put some blame on corporate oversight or something, a trio of humdrum productions was enough of a nail in my fandom coffin.
But then there was the positive reception to the legit “Snyder cut” of JLA, and then Army of the Dead seemed to suddenly sneak its way to a release on Netflix, and also had a good reception. Maybe this was it – maybe it was time to reevaluate Zak, and I could join his club again.
And then I watched Army of the Dead. …Over the course of, like, a week, because I found it unrepentantly boring at times, and very visually unremarkable, and that’s all especially weird when we’re talking about a zombie-overrun Vegas, Omari Hardwick wielding a giant buzzsaw, an Ocean’s 11 heist in the midst of the apocalypse, and a frikkin’ undead tiger. I was, in short, not entertained.
Indications as to this fate are present from the very beginning: while Snyder’s method of skipping through the plot setup through opening montage is kind of a fun nod to his previous zombo flick, Dawn of the Dead, as well as his Watchmen, and I think it’s a clever way to zip through the kind of stuff we’ve seen in countless other genre entries, the pacing and cheek of this montage are off. It’s set to lounge music, with violence a’blaring in slo-mo, but Snyder’s attempt to shift from chaotic comedy to dramatics – showing us key cast members holding up momentos of the ones they lost – is not effected smoothly, and the further attempt to then do some actual relevant storytelling within this same section is almost confusing, throwing into question how invested we’re supposed to see in what we’re watching, or if it’s just random events.
After this, the premise that emerges is promising: Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is the right man for a job as tasked by slimy businessman Tanaka(Hiroyuki Sanada) – break into the walled-off, overrun Vegas and bring back the 200 million bucks I have stashed there. Cue a getting the scene together bit, which also falls flat. After recruiting his friend, Maria (Ana de la Reguera), we start going after the “types” – demolition, wild card, etc. – but none of them display any real skills, or the requisite quirks of said types. They show up on screen, say one half-funny line, and then we’re done. Fair enough, that’s usually as much screentime as the getting-the-team together bit allows for, except there are no real thrills or charms to liven this up and distract from the character cutouts.
Essentially, just keep rolling this for 148 minutes: Army of the Dead sedately slumbers through its wasteland, encountering oddly little resistance – and not, like, for a plot point, but rather seeming like a budget constraint, despite its $90 million size – and dropping in to character confessions of love and emotion at the oddest of times. Snyder’s purposefully chosen lenses, which have a very short depth of field and put a single object in focus, leaving the rest blurry, allow for some cool snapshots, but feel wholly unsuited to an ensemble action flick: those character moments, besides being clunkily written, stick out because it never feels like actors are actually in the same location (accepting that one – Tig Notaro – was actually added in post…); the extreme close-ups and blurriness make each shot feel like that focused character or feature exists all on its own. Maybe good for a different kind of zombie flick, which emphasizes loneliness, but I don’t think that was the intention here.
And all of these things make the nigh-complete pointlessness of the plot – there’s more to it than a heist, of course, but all this reveal does is engender a big ol’ Huh?? – and completely illogical character decisions and inconsistencies painfully, painfully unignorable.
I do think we get some good performances out of Bautista and Reguera and others, and, despite the writing not offering much for them, the movie is actually cast exceedingly well. Like, if we had had effective Wild Cards and whatnot, we had the right people here for it. And for the few, brief scenes during which action is allowed to play out, it can look cool. But not impressive; it lacks the Wow feature that’d initially made me like Snyder, and which started filtering out with that Superman movie. And I don’t just mean slo-mo, but just, like, scene composition, and pacing – nothing here looks especially unique in that regard. It’s just another movie, save with blurry edges and a whole lotta nothin’ happening, propped up by a watchable cast and the very occasional cinematic spark.