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Zombieland: Double Tap

Zombieland came out in October 2009, and went on to make $102 million worldwide against a reported budget of $28 million. Naturally, with such a huge profit margin, a devoted fanbase, and a cast and crew all reportedly itching to make a follow-up, a sequel was immediately put into development. And released ten years later. Without any noteworthy drama or development hell going on, how could it have possibly taken this long?

Well, to start with, this was released back in October 2009. Only a month before The Messenger, a year before The Social Network,¬†and two years before The Help. Hell, do you even remember the actress who played the character named “406” for all of one scene? Of course you don’t, nobody did at the time. But now everybody knows who Amber Heard is.

No movie with this cast could ever be made for $28 million today. In fact, the first one had the good fortune of being released before Hollywood had stratified into shoestring indie flicks and big-budget blockbuster franchises. It was a post-apocalyptic zombie film, made just before The Hunger Games and “The Walking Dead” led to so many wannabes oversaturating both genres. It was made back when fourth-wall-breaking meta humor and flashy self-aware celebrity cameos were still off-kilter and unexpected, and not part of an overall trend (due in no small part to Deadpool, also written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick).

By all appearances, Zombieland looked something like Galaxy Quest, National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Princess Bride, or any number of other such miraculous flukes, all far more successful and influential than they had any right to be. It was lightning in a bottle, something that could only have been made by these exact people at this exact point in time, under circumstances too unique and spontaneous to ever be foreseen or replicated. Naturally, this makes the prospect of a reboot or a sequel rather dicey, to say the least.

On the other hand, these are still great characters and their respective actors have all improved greatly in the past ten years. Plus, the basic premise is still a lot of fun, and there are still potential thrills to be found in the world of this franchise. And of course, it’s not like anyone in the cast or crew are especially desperate for work — if they all have ideas for a sequel that they love so much more than other gigs that would pay better, why not give it a shot?

Zombieland: Double Tap picks up ten years later, for the obvious reason that Abigail Breslin is clearly well past her teenage years by this point. In every other respect, however — with regards to the other characters, their interplay, and the state of the world around them — this feels like a film maybe two or four years removed from the first.

Granted, there would be far fewer people in a zombie-ridden world to consume goods and resources. Even so, I should think that all the ammo and gasoline would be pretty well used up by the end of the first post-apocalyptic decade. There would be teenagers with no living memory of a pre-zombie world. At this stage, the world should either be nearing its final collapse or on its way to rebuilding, neither of which seem to be happening. That might have led to some decent possibilities with regard to world-building, character development, and even some jokes.

Or we could throw it all in a dumpster and pick up more or less where we left off. That works too. Though I notice that Tallahassee’s obsession with Twinkies is never even mentioned once, so I presume that the world’s Twinkie supply has finally run out, if nothing else.

Anyway, the movie opens with the triumphant return of Tallahassee, Columbus, Wichita, and Little Rock (respectively played once again by Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin), slaying zombies in a slo-mo opening credits sequence on their way to the White House. Our crew proceeds to live in the White House for however long a time until Tallahassee makes himself into an overbearing father figure to Little Rock and Columbus proposes to Wichita. In desperate need of space, the sisters pack up and leave.

In his post-breakup funk, Columbus stumbles onto Madison (Zoey Deutch), a pink blonde bimbo stereotype straight out of goddamn 1994. Madison supposedly survived the zombie apocalypse by locking herself in a freezer at a shopping mall, though I prefer Tallahassee’s explanation: “Zombies eat brains, and she’s got none.” At roughly the same time, Little Rock meets the college-aged Berkeley (Avan Jogia) and immediately strikes up a mutual attraction with this stoned hippie poser who plays acoustic guitar covers of songs he claims to have written.

Little Rock runs off with Berkeley, so Wichita grudgingly goes back to Tallahassee and Columbus for help in finding her. Thus Tallahassee is forced to drive a minivan (Oh, the indignity!) down the east coast with a heartbroken Columbus, his would-be fiancee, and his bubble-headed girlfriend. Hilarity ensues.

Can we go back to the first movie for a minute?

Zombieland was the story of a paranoid shut-in, a homicidal psychopath, and a pair of con artists. Four people who trust nothing, keep nobody close, have nothing to lose, and are well-practiced at looking out for Number One. All of these traits are precisely what makes them so well-suited for surviving the zombie apocalypse, and it’s also what makes them critically flawed human beings. The first movie is all about these four characters learning how to trust, protect, and even love each other, rediscovering the bonds that make them better than zombies and give them a reason to keep on living.

Without all of that, the heart has been ripped right out of the sequel from the start.

I think the filmmakers were trying to make the second film about the concept of home, but it barely registers. Because this is still essentially a road movie that never stays in one place for very long, the film is structured in such a way that it can never really develop the concept of home into anything more than the vague notion of “home is where the heart is.” It’s a flimsy cliche that doesn’t add much.

Moreover, the basic notion of heightened yet hardened characters ready-made to survive the apocalypse is basically thrown out the window with our new arrivals. By this franchise’s logic, Madison and Berkeley are exactly the kind of needy, navel-gazing, brainless, vegan pacifists who’d be pretty much useless in a zombie apocalypse. Granted, the established team dynamic needed some shaking up and this is one hell of a way to do that. I can also appreciate the filmmakers challenging themselves, finding funny and semi-plausible ways to explain how the least threatening people imaginable could’ve possibly survived a zombie apocalypse for this long.

The problem is that these characters are one-note punchlines. I’ve seen rain gutters with more depth than these two. Remember that 406 character from the last movie I was talking about earlier? That girl was plainly and obviously dead meat from her first moment onscreen, and even she had more dignity and development than either of these two pathetically outdated stereotypes.

Then we have Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch, playing two characters who are inexplicably and unknowingly carbon copies of Tallahassee and Columbus. You know that scene in Shaun of the Dead, in which our main cast of characters briefly cross paths with another group of characters who look and act exactly like them for whatever reason? That scene worked because it was a quick throwaway sight gag. Here, it’s this MASSIVE extended pissing contest between Tallahassee and Albuquerque, while Columbus and Flagstaff breathlessly compare notes on the rules they’ve developed.

As with Berkeley and Madison, these two are a one-note joke that was played out before it even started. It’s contrived as all hell, it makes no sense, it’s far more annoying than funny, and it’s a colossal disappointment to have characters so inexcusably thin after the first movie gave us such wonderfully memorable characters. Nevada (Rosario Dawson) is the only newcomer who isn’t treated like walking punchline and actually has some degree of depth, which makes it all the more infuriating that she has maybe ten minutes of screen time in the whole movie!

That said, at least Zoey Deutch is talented enough as a comic actor that she’s able to wring some laughs out of the role. The same goes for Thomas Middleditch, and Luke Wilson seems to be having a ball. And of course Rosario Dawson has more than enough charisma to make an impression with very little screen time.

As for our four main actors, of course they’re all phenomenal. The chemistry between them is rock-solid, and it certainly helps that they’ve been living with these characters for the past ten years. Seriously, look back at the roles that Harrelson, Eisenberg, and Stone have played in the past decade — they’re all variations on their old Zombieland characters. The first movie defined the respective wheelhouses for each of these actors, and it’s legitimately great to see them back in their old comfort zones.

(Side note: I really do hate to keep going on about those three actors without giving the same kind of love to Breslin. Alas, with the dubious exceptions of August: Osage County and Ender’s Game, the young thespian hasn’t seen nearly so much big-screen success as her costars in the past ten years. Between her ill-fated three-month stint as Helen Keller in “A Miracle Worker” on Broadway, her two seasons on “Scream Queens” at Fox, and assorted smaller film roles ignored by the mainstream, Breslin’s built up a career of solid performances in bold yet strategic artistic choices that simply didn’t pan out.)

This brings me to the saving grace of this movie: It’s funny. From the opening Columbia Pictures logo gag to the mid-credits flashback with a returning Bill Murray, this movie gets plenty of great laugh-out-loud moments for every joke that bombs. The plot is predictable, the supporting characters are played-out stereotypes, and there are so many jokes that shouldn’t even work on paper. Yet the filmmakers are all having so much fun and they’re all such talented comedians, the movie still evens out into something that’s freaking hilarious.

The first movie’s irreverent streak is alive and well here. This franchise continues to sell zombies as legitimate existential threats without ever losing the sick sense of joy that comes with mocking and slaughtering undead ex-people. Moreover, this is still a post-apocalyptic world in which everything is up for grabs and nothing has any kind of intrinsic value anymore. Thus the characters are free to destroy, reclaim, or reinvent anything previously considered untouchable, to great comedic effect. It’s fun and subversive in a way that continues to set this franchise apart from other zombie fiction.

Then again, it also means we have to suffer through Tallahassee’s obsession with Elvis, a lukewarm retread of his Bill Murray worship in the previous film. Though it gives the filmmakers a chance to sweetly appropriate a story from Woody Harrelson’s actual life story, it’s still a rerun of so many better gags from the first film.

Speaking of Elvis, the movie’s soundtrack is a huge letdown. The first film had a soundtrack that kicked all kinds of ass, with so many awesome and perfectly selected songs tucked away into every corner. (My personal favorite is “Gold Guns Girls” by Metric playing under a Wichita/Little Rock scene, an inspired use of an underappreciated song.) With this movie, we’ve got “Master of Puppets” playing over the opening credits and it’s all downhill from there.

On the other hand, the action is superbly entertaining throughout. We’ve got a fantastic shootout around an RV. There’s a fight scene breathlessly presented as a single unbroken take. A freaking monster truck is involved in the climax, just before the most awesomely hilarious Big Finish that I’ve seen in a long time. That’s not even getting started on a zombie kill in Italy that had me rolling in the aisles.

Zombieland: Double Tap is a step down from the first movie, but it’s still a fun time. The new supporting cast is godawful, but the core actors and characters are as great as ever. The heart of the first film is sorely missing, but the franchise’s sense of humor and subversive joy are still nicely intact. Of course it also helps that the action scenes are a huge step up, even if the plot is sadly predictable.

If you haven’t seen the first movie, you should absolutely get on that because it’s still awesome. If you have seen the first movie, you won’t be wasting your time to give this a shot.

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