Las Vegas is a war zone in Army of the Dead, Zack Snyder‘s gore-tastic shoot ’em up about a team of good-looking mercenaries trying to steal $200 million from a casino safe. That would be hard enough on its own, but to complicate matters, a zombie outbreak has turned Vegas into a place of non-stop death and carnage. And just to further complicate matters, the government has decided to drop a nuclear bomb on the Gambling Capital of the World. So our heroes have to dodge the living dead, break into a safe, and get the hell out of town before they get nuked. Sounds like a piece of cake, right?
This premise – a zombie heist flick! – is oodles of fun, and fun is exactly what Snyder is having here. Seemingly free to do whatever the hell he wants thanks to some Netflix money, Snyder indulges himself, and why not? Vegas is a place of indulgences, after all. Those familiar with Snyder’s work will spot all his trademarks here – the rippling muscles, the slow-motion action, the burning-bright explosions, the on-the-nose needle drops (does he put The Cranberries song “Zombie” in this zombie movie? You know he does). Snyder also busts out a killer opening credits sequence, something he’s done before (see: Watchmen). The opening credits fill us in on what’s going on and introduce us to most of our characters.
After a military truck leaving Area 51 slams into some newlyweds fleeing Vegas and engaging in some vehicular hanky-panky (yes, the cause for the zombie apocalypse in this film is a blowjob), a super-strong zombie is unleashed and starts chomping on flesh. Before you can say George A. Romero, Las Vegas has been overrun with the living dead, and a team of mercenaries is brought in to fight what the media calls the Zombie War. Lots and lots of people die, and Snyder stages it all with glorious excess – huge guns blow bodies into ground meat; throats are torn; limbs go flying; heads roll; and geysers of thick red blood flow forth. Eventually, the decision is made to wall off Vegas completely, trapping the zombies within as if they were residents of Manhattan in Escape From New York.
The government then gets the bright idea to nuke Vegas – and they plan to do it on the 4th of July, complete with a fireworks show (no one will ever accuse this movie of being subtle). The potential nuking gives Army of the Dead its ticking clock as a team is rounded up to break into Vegas and heist a hell of a lot of loot from a safe, with all of this bankrolled by a shady billionaire (is there any other kind) played with cool grace by Hiroyuki Sanada.
The team consists of many of the same people who fought in the Zombie War, including leader Scott (Dave Bautista) and his pals Cruz (Ana de la Reguera) and Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick). They add more members fast. There’s wisecracking helicopter pilot Peters (Tig Notaro, who steals the entire movie); YouTube zombie-killing sensation Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo); and out-of-his-league German safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer). This is more than enough characters, but remember – Snyder loves excess, so he keeps throwing more and more people into the mix. Scott’s estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) ends up tagging along, as does the shady millionaire’s right-hand man (Garret Dillahunt), who is clearly up to something from the minute we meet him. Then there’s the Coyote (Nora Arnezeder), who knows exactly how to get into Vegas. There are a few other characters as well, but they’re so pointless they might as well have ZOMBIE BAIT on their foreheads.
The unfocused script, by Snyder, Shay Hatten, and Joby Harold, makes almost all of these characters extra-quirky to the extreme. Even Scott, the stoic leader of the group, has a running bit where he keeps talking about opening a food truck. But truth be told, a lot of these folks are duds. The only real standouts are Notaro’s chopper pilot and Schweighöfer’s hapless safecracker. Hardwick’s Vanderohe is occasionally fun, too, particularly in the scenes he shares with Schweighöfer. At first, the tougher-than-nails Vanderohe can’t stand the German safecracker, but soon the two develop an amusing friendship.
The zombies don’t fare much better as characters. Snyder tries to change things up by giving us some abnormal ghouls. Yes, there are the standard shuffling, mindless zombies, but then there are a group of Alpha zombies. They’re smarter than the average undead person, and they behave a little like the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park – hopping around, snorting and sniffing. They also spend the entire movie yelling “Gahhhhh!” at each other and everyone else, and let me tell you, that gets real old real fast. We get a zombie king, and a zombie queen. There’s a zombie tiger. A zombie horse. Even a zombie baby. These details should seem fresh, but they get lost in all of the mayhem.
And mayhem is really the name of the game here. Snyder stages long stretches of Army of the Dead like a videogame, with our characters moving down hallways and wordlessly blowing away zombies. These are technically action scenes, but there’s no grace; no style. Not even a blunt realness. Instead, it’s just shot after shot of people firing guns. This thing might as well come with a seizure warning due to the constant muzzle flashes.
It’s all very exhausting, and at 148 minutes, Army of the Dead more than overstays its welcome. It also tries to shoehorn in a few clumsy emotional moments at the last minute, and throws in a few twists and turns as well, but none of this works – and I doubt anyone is very interested in that sort of thing anyway. You don’t come into this sort of movie looking for character development. You just want to see some jacked people firing big, loud guns. And you’ll get that, and then some. There’s a certain fun to be had in Army of the Dead, but it’s the mindless, ugly fun that you wake up the next day regretting. Come to think of it, it’s kind of like a trip to Las Vegas.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
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