**Warning – This review may or may not contain spoilers, and it doesn’t make the slightest difference**
Roger Ebert famously gave Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 3.5 stars out of four – read his review here – and even quickly returned to the film in another article to declare, “I admit it: I loved Indy.” The gist of his thoughts, summed up when he says, “I want goofy action,” is that the movie is good specifically because it’s stupid. Doing impossible things, sword-fighting while standing in moving jeeps, giant ants, and lots of monkeys, are just the “pulp fiction” “goodness” that he’s after, and kudos to the film for delivering.
I imagine, somehow, Ebert might be inclined to rate Army of the Dead pretty high, and if not, he’d have some explaining to do.
Zack Snyder‘s latest is a smorgasbord of the fantastically stupid dished out by characters who exist in the film no more or less than they do in any random still image, and connected by a plot that defies explanation in any given decision or as a whole. It’s a roping together of zombies and death based on scenes of guts flying Snyder wants to film and fitting them is going to happen and whatever plot excuse is needed is what’s on the menu.
The film opens with the release of the zombie apocalypse and a long, and frankly brilliant, montage runs us through the credits and the story of containing the zombie menace and destruction within Las Vegas by walling off the entire city. The action gets going when one Mr. Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) approaches Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) with a proposition. With no real way to kill all the zombies in Las Vegas other than to just nuke the city (which makes no sense), the U.S. government is about to do exactly that. Tanaka, the owner of one of the casinos, has $200 million in the vault beneath his casino and will let Scott keep $50 million if he goes in and gets it.
Now Scott has to put together a team, which has to include a safecracker, because Tanaka has no other way to get into his own vault. That may seem nonsensical, and it is, but it’s nothing compared to the existence of booby traps leading to the vault which only make sense insofar as Snyder also likes Indiana Jones, or the fact that Tanaka has no way to disarm them.
The team also includes some of Scott’s friends who were with him during his initial escape from Vegas, a helicopter pilot (Tig Notaro), Tanaka’s head of security, Martin (Garret Dillahunt), and eventually Scott’s daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), who Scott allows to come with the team because it says so in the script. The team also takes on a “Coyote” (Nora Arnezeder), which in this case is a person who can sneak you into the city, and just for purposes of being yet more bonkers, knows the ins and outs of how the zombies operate, despite the fact that no one else does.
Armed with all the firepower they can carry and virtually all of their skin exposed, the team enters the city with the plan of opening a vault they aren’t sure they can open and powering a generator that runs an entire casino, and a helicopter, with about 20 gallons of gas. They are met with a horde operating under hierarchic rules that are laughable but allow for near-slapstick, extended scenes of a zombie queen contorting and howling like an acting school “warm-up” prank. The team then proceed toward the casino, travelling through other casinos (or wherever), because the script says they can’t just walk on the streets. After all, inside is where all the “creepy” happens.
In keeping with Mr. Ebert’s “goodness,” zombies get slaughtered, people are scared, zombified tigers trot about (because how cool does that look?), and to add a bit to the “magic of cinema,” Snyder buries you in background distortion, because blurry is the new lens flare. If nothing makes any sense, that is, apparently, to the good, and if every plot reveal (which is being generous) makes the overall effort make less sense, that’s irrelevant as long as things look slick, there’s a lot of running, and a head gets sawed off. You might wonder that no one in this group takes a beat to realize that, according to the possibilities of this plan, they might be able to actually carry $3 million out, but that would be to misunderstand the thing you’re watching.
The real crime of the effort is that the supporting cast is misused, even though they provide the only moments of interest that don’t involve heads exploding or rampaging super zombies. Tig Notaro is the best part of the movie and almost as a magic trick is the best, most realistic character. Purnell is occasionally fun, though she has almost nothing to work with that might imply an actual character. Most of her focal moments give the impression of a gag reel longer than the film, because she’s still nearly busting up in the take Snyder used, and how could you blame her? Dillahunt is a great actor with nothing to do except try to remember that his character’s name is not “man who twirls mustache,” and it’s a shame. If he and Arnezeder (who was set up to actually maneuver into a cool, Manga-esque badass) had a whisper of character development, they would have been a lock to headline a sequel, which is already a better movie just in my suggesting its existence.
In the end, the schlock and awe certainly show up in full force, and if you agree with Ebert, in that the stupidity’s the thing, and see no way to quantify the difference between that and Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the Quatermain and similar films that inspired it, then you are about to go on one hell of a ride. On the other hand, if you can appreciate a film that is ultimately rather stupid, but don’t like being called stupid, there isn’t much to hold your interest here.