Army of the Dead (2021)

Thanks to the post-production remodeling of the mythical “director’s cut” of Justice League for HBO Max, there has been a ton of online critical reclamation of Zack Snyder’s artistry this year.  The “It’s pretty good, actually!” consensus on The Snyder Cut has earned him the same “vulgar auteur” status previously bestowed upon filmmakers like Tony Scott, Paul WS Anderson, and Michael Bay – real meathead types.  Personally, I’m not seeing the vulgar genius of Snyder’s work, at least not in relation to his absurdly expensive Justice League revision.  That 4hr superhero epic registered with me as the pinnacle of plot obsession in contemporary cinema, getting so mired in the connective tissue between action sequences that it transcends the medium altogether by becoming Television.  The Snyder Cut couldn’t be faulted for being erratic or messy like the previous edit of Justice League, but in smoothing out all rough edges on that compromised vision, Snyder created a pure-plot experience completely devoid of recognizable humanity or imagination. I almost admire The Snyder Cut for pushing the modern superhero picture to its obvious endgame (a $400mil TV miniseries), but I might just be telling myself that so that I feel like I got something out of the time investment.  Either way, it’s interesting as a cultural curio but aggressively mediocre as entertainment media, so that the director is only worth engaging with for the hype he inexplicably generates.  It’s less that the emperor wears no clothes; it’s that I don’t understand why everyone’s so ecstatically complimenting the emperor’s Ed Hardy t-shirt.

Even with my Snyder Cut skepticism still festering as an open wound, I can at least admit that 2021 has been a career-restorative year for the director in other ways.  His new straight-to-Netflix zombie epic (everything he makes is a dialed-to-11 epic) isn’t exactly a whiplash-inducing return to form after the exhaustion of Snyder Cut discourse, but it’s still a charmingly goofy, mildly entertaining follow-up.  I’ll take it.  Army of the Dead is easily Zack Snyder’s most enjoyable movie since his Romero-homage debut Dawn of the Dead (penned by James Gunn, who turned out to be the more talented voice in the room), by which I mean it’s Passably Okay.  It appears that the zombie flick is the only appropriate fit for Snyder’s obnoxious blatancy, from his boneheadedly literal soundtrack cues to his exhausting emphasis on every single scene as the most Epic, all-important moment ever.  Army of the Dead surely would’ve landed with more impact and novelty in the nu-metal aughts, when Snyder’s previous action-horror felt like a breath of fresh air.  It’s starting to become adorable that he’s somehow still stuck in that long-putrid era, though.  He’s been hacking away at the same dirtbag Godsmack aesthetic for so long that it’s pushed past tacky to become full-on kitsch.  I understand the temptation to reclaim him as a misunderstood genius in that context, if not only because it’s a funny gag.  In practice, though, his movies are way too draining to be worth the small flashes of enjoyment you can glean from them, even when they’re Passably Okay overall.

Dave Bautista stars as a superhuman burgerflipper who has survived the zombie apocalypse by laying low working the grill at a greasy diner.  He’s approached by a shady casino owner who hires him to break into the quarantined city of Las Vegas and recover an abandoned vault full of untraceable cash, guarded only by hordes of cannibal corpses roaming the otherwise empty streets & gambling halls.  From there the movie is a blend of militant zombie-shooting action horror and a self-amused heist film.  As those two genres run in tandem, there’s all the assembling-the-team montages, first-person video game gore, disastrous getaways, and witty interpersonal banter (mostly notably delivered by Tig Notaro as the resident wiseass) fans of either side of the divide could hope for.  And then there’s more.  And then more.  And more.  Army of the Dead‘s 148min runtime is an outright war crime, dulling all its genre-blending, Vegas setting fun with at least an hour’s worth of superfluous material that should have been lopped off in the editing room.  Like 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, the film peaks during its opening credits, which squeezes in an entire zombie movie’s worth of exposition into a concise, bite-sized morsel of a montage (set to a Richard Cheese song, another Dawn of the Dead callback).  It’s the only part of the movie that could be considered concise, considering how unnecessarily weighed down and laborious everything that follows feels.  There’s a fun 90min movie buried somewhere in this macho, self-important excess, but Zack Snyder does not make those kinds of movies.  Pity.

If we can have a years-later Snyder Cut revision of Justice League, I think we also deserve an Un-Snydered cut of Army of the Dead.  I’m not saying we need to toss out all his unashamed meathead tendencies, where the initial zombie breakout is caused by roadhead and the years-later evolved zombies are referred to as “Alphas.”  Keep all the Gym Bro action horror you want, just make the damned thing zippier.  There’s a stripped down, streamlined, self-contained movie in here that absolutely rules, but you have to squint real hard through the Hoobastank fog to see it.  Snyder needs someone to push back on his All-Out Epic tendencies, especially when it comes to explaining each and every baby step in the plot.  Instead, like with The Snyder Cut, he’s allowed to turn the modern zombie movie into modern zombie television, something we’re all sick of after 29 seasons of The Walking DeadArmy of the Dead is already greenlit to spin off multiple prequels and animated side plot series on Netflix, the same way The Snyder Cut reconfigured Justice League into a 4-hour made-for-TV miniseries.  That mode of literal-minded, plot-obsessed Epic filmmaking is not some vulgar stroke of auteurist genius in the modern media landscape.  It’s just how big-budget “movies” are made now in a post-MCU world.  At least this one has its moments.

-Brandon Ledet

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

Finally, I can say I enthusiastically enjoyed an American Godzilla film.  Weirdly, it happened to be the one that stars King Kong.

The ongoing MonsterVerse franchise has been building up to this moment since 2014, ever since Godzilla re-emerged from the ocean waves with a chonky, dour make-over.  Every entry in that franchise so far has tread in varying shades of mediocrity while trying to offer an MCU-scale franchise to the King of the Monsters: 2014’s Godzilla in its tedious attempts at self-serious majesty, 2017’s Kong: Skull Island in its goofball aping of Vietnam War Movie tropes, and 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters in its muddled, belabored kaiju fight choreography.  Even though those films have been on a steady incline in terms of pure entertainment value, I did not expect the quality to shoot so high in Adam Wingard’s contribution to the series.  Godzilla vs Kong is just incredibly fun to watch in a way previous MonsterVerse films haven’t been.  Its monster action is constantly inventive, surprising, tactile, and gross – majorly exceeding the expectations set by its more cautious, middling predecessors.

Director Gareth Edwards was widely mocked for describing his 2014 Godzilla film as a “post-human blockbuster,” but I feel like this years-later sequel actually makes that phrase mean something.  In Godzilla vs Kong, the titular monsters are the main characters of their shared film (with Kong playing Lead and Godzilla settling for Supporting).  The humans on the ground level merely orbit around the kaiju like satellites around a planet or flies around a picnic spread, adding nothing consequential to the narrative.  Each monster is paired with a young child who believes in their respective Good Nature: King Kong with a deaf cutie who teaches him American Sign Language and Godzilla with returning-player Millie Bobby Brown, who’s gotten really into conspiracy podcasts since her last appearance (making this the second film in the very niche genre of Big-Budget Horror Sequels You Would Not Expect To Be About Podcasting, after 2018’s Halloween).  They’re both adorable but make very little impact. The bulk of the storytelling is illustrated through the kaiju fights themselves, the same way that broad soap opera narratives are conveyed in the wrestling ring.

Wingard’s major accomplishment here is in punching up the action choreography in the film’s fight sequences.  Although both creatures are CGI, the impact of their blows hits with genuine force & resistance.  Wingard simulates the body-mounted camera trickery, jaw-crunching jabs, and earth-shaking thuds that make human-on-human fight choreography in modern action cinema feel tactile & “real”.  When Godzilla wrestles Kong under the ocean, the ape emerges to puke up the water he’s inhaled.  When Kong rips off the head of a lesser beast, he drinks blood from its corpse in ecstatic victory.  This may be the cinematic equivalent of a young child smashing their action figures together in a sandbox, but it’s at least a child with a sense of humor & spatial reasoning.  By the time our two sky-high combatants are squaring off in the neon lights & smoke of a half-smashed Hong Kong, I can’t imagine having any other response to this film other than an enthusiastic “Fuck yeah!”

I understand the argument that a Godzilla film shouldn’t be this gleefully hollow.  Considering the creature’s grim-as-fuck origins in the 1954 original, I totally see how treating this property like another (better) adaptation of the Rampage arcade game could come across as artistic blasphemy. There are plenty of Japanese sequels to Godzilla that are equally, deliberately goofy, though, and Wingard’s film feels true enough to their smash-em-up spirit.  Godzilla vs. Kong cannot compete with the best of its Japanese predecessors, especially not all-time classic titles like Godzilla (1954), Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), or even the recent satirical reboot Shin Godzilla (2017).  As far as American takes on this character go, however, I believe this is by far the best to date.  When Gareth Edwards attempted to make a dead-serious Godzilla film respectful to the monster’s roots, he inspired far more boredom than awe.  Respectful or not, Godzilla vs Kong is not at all boring.  It’s fun as hell.

-Brandon Ledet

Spawn (1997)

Oof. I remember enjoying this post-Batman superhero action-horror as a mouth-breathing 11y.o. dingus, which inspired me to revisit it despite its garbage reputation. I still don’t think I was entirely wrong. Spawn has plenty of great raw material for a belated cult classic reclamation. Along with Blade & Black Panther, it’s one of the few major instances of a black superhero headlining their own comic book movie. Its grotesque practical effects & Satanic 90s aesthetic also make for a fun novelty in stops & starts, and its notoriously shoddy CGI work is so outrageously bad that it almost achieves something outright surreal. Too bad the film is ultimately a bore. And an annoying one at that. It’s embarrassingly cheap, inert schlock, which is a shame because it otherwise has the makings of an all-timer in retro cult action-horror.

After an assault of X-treme 90s fonts & soundtrack cues steamroll over the opening credits, an insanely rushed over-ambitious info dump sets Spawn up as a fallen mercenary soldier who’s been chosen by the Devil to lead Hell’s army as it conquers Earth. And because stopping all the demons of Hell from invading Earth is not enough motivation for him to turn superhero, we’re also dragged through some domestic melodrama about the widow he left behind in death, providing him personal reasons to care about the fate of humanity at large. Naturally, Spawn defects from the Devil’s plans and attempts to save the planet from his evil reign. There’s also a weapons-trading espionage subplot that keeps the newly formed Hell Hero busy for a chunk of the runtime, but I couldn’t imagine giving enough of a shit to bother recapping it here.

There are two major faults at the core of this movie: one adorable and one reprehensible. Firstly, the effects are just unfathomably bad. The practical gore stunts are a joyful reminder of how tactile & grotesque this kind of action-horror media used to be before computer effects took over as an industry standard, which only makes the film’s early-PC-gaming CGI effects look even goofier by contrast. The set pieces in Hell are particularly embarrassing, unworthy even of the original DOOM desktop game. At least those effects are laughably bad and so bizarrely unreal that they make you feel like you’re losing your mind after being immersed in them for minutes on end. The movie’s other problem is much less endearing, and it’s one that Spawn shares with far too many other films: John Leguizamo just will not shut the fuck up.

Despite playing the titular Spawn and proving himself to be a compelling marital arts performer in many other films, Michael Jai White does not earn top billing here. That honor belongs to Leguizamo, playing a phenomenally annoying demon clown named Violator who’s dispatched to pester Spawn into acting out the Devil’s commands. The film’s grotesque practical effects work is at its most beautifully upsetting in Violator’s prosthetic costuming. His shapeshifting abilities allow him to transform into a variety of nightmarish clown monstrosities, each more hideous than the last. The only problem is that he’s impossible to listen to for as long as he shrieks & rambles about Spawn’s duties as the Devil’s servant. It’s the kind of untethered, out-of-control performance that you get when hyperactive comedians like Jim Carrey & Robin Williams aren’t reined in with a strong, guiding hand. Except that Leguizamo isn’t nearly as talented nor as adorable as either of those (equally annoying) goofs, so even when he’s at his best it still feels you’re like babysitting a hyperactive child.

I almost want to give this movie a pass despite its glaring faults, because it feels like the exact kind of superhero media I wish we could return to. After over a decade of being asked to take superhero movies super seriously as grim philosophical epics in a post-Nolan world, it’s really refreshing to return to the goofier ones that play like live-action versions of Saturday Morning cartoons: Catwoman, Batman & Robin, Corman’s Fantastic 4, etc. You know, kids’ stuff. For kids. These movies aren’t “bad” the way their reputations would suggest. They’re just goofy & over-the-top, which is at least more personality than you’ll see in the three-hour behemoths we get now every time Marvel releases another big-budget-spectacle-of-the-month. Spawn should be a commendable example of that kind of retro-juvenile superhero relic, especially since its gory Satanic imagery makes it a novelty in the genre: an R-rated kids’ film. You could even argue that John Leguizamo’s annoying presence enhances that experience by making it feel even more authentically juvenile; his is the only performance that actually matches the cartoon energy of the film’s intensely artificial backdrops & backstory.

I’ve seen this exact R-rated kids’ action horror sensibility done worse (The Guyver), but I’ve also seen it done much better (Yuzna’s Faust). Ultimately, I can’t fully warm up to Spawn because it has so much potential as a reclaimable cult classic that it’s incredibly frustrating that it falls short of earning it. If you have fond memories of this vintage superhero action-horror leftover from your childhood I recommend leaving them that way and just revisiting Blade instead (or, better yet, Blade II). As fun as the Satanic iconography & absurdly cheap CGI can be in flashes, neither are worth the Leguizamo-flavored headache they accompany.

-Brandon Ledet