Army of the Dead review: Zack Snyder finds some life in Vegas
Netflix's ridiculous bloodfest has the right hero and an unusual villain.
Has there ever been an actor like Dave Bautista? The Guardians of the Galaxy star has arms bigger than my whole family combined, but he's not a typical big-screen muscleman. The action-movie expectation is that literal giants — Schwarzeneggers, Rocks, even Hemsworths — will wink at their own physicality. Their very selves become self-aware jokes. Bautista carries himself differently because he always seems to be carrying himself, as if his massive body-built strength requires constantly lifting the weight of the world.
In Army of the Dead (in theaters now and streaming Friday on Netflix), Bautista plays Scott Ward, the kind of special-forces ultra who can rescue the secretary of defense from zombie-plagued Las Vegas during the opening credits. Scott fights the undead and also the mega-undead, with guns and knives and bare hands. He's flanked by a badass crew who all resemble downloadable Call of Duty tattoos. This is a maelstrom movie, veering without control between violent snark and sappy feels. Somehow, Bautista's weary eyes convey a quirky authenticity. His broad-shouldered defensive posture yearns for human connection. And I love the decision to give Scott a glasses strap, which makes this deadly soldier look like the dad-ly manager of your local hardware store.
Scott's a veteran of a violent outbreak that left walking corpses in charge of a walled-off Sin CIty. He lost his wife the hard way, and doesn't speak much to his daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell). A magnate named Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) finds Scott flipping burgers, and makes an offer: $200 million lies buried in Tanaka's casino. He needs a crew to walk through the deathtropolis and heist the impossible safe. Time is running out. The government drops a nuclear bomb on Vegas in four days. Scott's prize will be a fortune well earned. "Try not to get nuked or murdered by the undead!" his daughter deadpans.
Dead has fun assembling its army. Raúl Castillo comes on strong as Mikey Guzman, who posts his zombie kills on social media. Omari Hardwick plays somber Vanderohe, a chainsaw philosopher with thoughts about Joseph Campbell. Maria (Ana de la Reguera) is a trusty lieutenant. The pilot, Peters (Tig Notaro), never stops talking. Scott finds Kate working in the McCarren Quarantine Camp, a refugee village right outside the zombie walls, where abused women dodge the predatory guard Cummings (Theo Rossi). There's more. It takes 50 minutes for the gang to enter the city, at which point most character dynamics descend into an hour and a half of general splatter.
It's been 17 years since director Zack Snyder remade Dawn of the Dead with maximum adrenaline and lighthearted wit. In Army, the adrenaline's more maximum. The wit has gotten heavy enough to crush brains. There are some safely ridiculous needle drops: Elvis, "Viva Las Vegas," guess which Cranberries song. The dialogue lands somewhere between hardcore bullet fetishism and perpetual irony. Everyone is their own comic relief, and everyone loves their artillery. "Don't ever touch her again," Vanderohe says when another man touches his skull-buzzing saw. Meanwhile, Cummings calls his gun "beautiful" when a squadmate asks, "Can I touch it?" Tanaka explains that the safe will get unlocked by the safecracker (Matthias Schweighöfer), but what he actually says is: "Finally, she succumbs to the sheer dominance of his gentle touch." It's a Zack Snyder movie. People wanna f--- metal.
Army of the Dead is a refocusing project for the filmmaker, after his ambitious plan for a supergod saga evaporated in the weirdest way. Two hundred million dollars wouldn't have covered the cost of any his DC films, but even a years-later double-reshot Justice League only brought his heroes to the end of their beginning. Army feels unencumbered by corporate necessity, and alive with violent thrills. Snyder does his own cinematography, and his perpetual close-ups could be the camera hugging the actors. It's better than any of his superhero outings, even if the frantic energy can't hide some shaggy storytelling. Garret Dillahunt plays a character who is obviously up to no good. People keep telling him they know he's up to no good. Surprise: He's no good!
Notaro was added into the movie in post-production, after the deletion of original costar Chris D'Elia following multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. A rough situation, I know, but you always spot the fuzz around Notaro. It's possible nobody making Army noticed how distracting it is, because the whole movie already depends on digital futzing. Snyder has a compulsion toward indulgent overload I admire. (The first scene has an orgasm that is also an explosion.) But CGI wrecks that instinct. A couple solid zombie attacks turn Flubbery at critical moments: blood splashing too perfectly, heads that click when they should crunch. That zombie tiger doesn't even belong in video game, because games have better graphics. And this genre is so overexposed that Dillahunt actually just got done killing zombies in Fear the Walking Dead. The Vegas setting doesn't freshen enough familiar tropes. Weren't we already on the Strip three Resident Evils ago?
All of which makes Army's imaginative flourishes welcome. There's a class of intelligent undead led by an imposing leader (Richard Cetrone) and a grinning queen (Athena Perample). As featured creatures, these Alphas are grotesque and brazenly campy. I love Notaro's immortal reaction: "Was that a zombie in a goddamn cape?" The royal monsters are distinctive characters, with a palpable chemistry and a secret that shocked me. Their scenes are scary, and when's the last time zombies scared you?
This is already a franchise property, with upcoming prequels and an inevitable teaser ending. The Alphas are exciting, even when the final act turns their villainy generic. And Bautista's presence smooths the rough patches. Scott has a lot to do: fix a parental relationship, rekindle a romantic one, rescue a missing mom, find cash, avoid that bomb. Nothing beats hearing him describe the food truck he wants to open. He'll serve "artisan grilled cheese sandwiches," or maybe "tofu cheesecake." Army of the Dead grills its cheese to a crisp, but Bautista adds some healthy flavor. His headshots never miss your heart. Grade: B-