Written by: Dave Callaham, Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“When you love something, you shoot it in the face...so it doesn't become a flesh eating monster."
While it seems like the past decade has mostly flown right on by, I have to admit that it feels like a lifetime since Zombieland hit theaters in 2009 to upend the resurgent undead sub-genre. Not only was I in a completely different place personally all those years ago (hooray for mid-20s angst, which has yielded to…[checks notes] mid-30s angst!), but you have to remember that zombies were in the midst of a big, unexpected comeback. Riding a wave that started to curl with Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, and Land of the Dead, Zombieland came along just before the undead tsunami would crest with The Walking Dead a year later. No, it obviously wasn’t the first zombie comedy, but it was a riotous, fresh take on a sub-genre that was already beginning to grow a little stale again. Simply put, it was exactly what the moment called for: a gory, hilarious romp with an unexpectedly tender heart beating beneath the bloodshed and laughs.
Going back to this well (especially a decade later) brings the natural anxiety that comes with trying to recapture any kind of lightning-in-the-bottle magic. This anxiety might be two-fold when it comes to comedy, which often relies on timing and originality to truly land. Just how funny can a joke be ten years later, especially when its target isn’t nearly as monolithic as it once was? Well, if Zombieland: Double Tap is any indication, the answer is “still kind of funny?”
To be fair, I’m not so sure it needs to be much more than that, nor do the filmmakers, who position this long-overdue sequel as just another excuse to catch up with the gang from the first film. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is still our narrator, who politely thanks us for choosing to hang out again, especially since we have so much more undead entertainment at our disposal. A brief recap summarizes the decade since Zombieland, wherein Columbus and his makeshift family forged an unbreakable bond that took them across America until they decided to settle in the White House itself.
With the exception of the zombie outbreak that continues to plague the world, things have been going well—until they don’t. Little Rock (Abagail Breslin) has grown tired of being treated like a child by surrogate father Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), while Wichita (Emma Stone) has begun to (rightfully) freak out over Columbus’s aggressive push for a long-term commitment. Both decide the only solution is to abandon them and hit the road, leaving the boys to fend for themselves—at least until Little Rock decides to take off with a hippie poseur (Avan Jogia), who promises a life of peace and tranquility at a fabled commune. Wichita’s only recourse is to return to the White House to reload with supplies and reluctantly mount a rescue mission with Tallahassee and Columbus.
I’m not going to pretend this is the most vital or compelling hooks for a sequel. In many ways, Double Tap resorts to the tired angle of effectively resetting the board for most of the characters, leaving them somewhat at odds for the duration of the film until they finally realize that, yes, they do need each other. Only occasionally does it feel like this film has anything on its mind beyond reuniting this quartet, thereby sort of reconfirming Zombieland’s own greatness in the process. A more clever film might manage to turn this sort of navel gazing into a commentary on sequels (especially comedy sequels), but this one really doesn’t have too much ambition.
And that’s fine, I guess: obviously, you could do much worse than spending another 90 minutes with this bunch. Everyone involved slides back into his or her roles with ease; sure, they’ve all done a lot of interesting work in the past decade, but there’s some comfort in the familiarity on display here. Eisenberg and Stone especially recapture the essence of their respective personas that made them stars; he’s once again a fast-talking, finicky neurotic, while she’s sarcastic, pragmatic, and tough. Neither Columbus nor Wichita have changed much in ten years, which could have been an interesting avenue to explore; instead, the film treats it as a matter of course. There’s not a whole lot of room for growth in Zombieland.
This means that Harrelson’s Tallahassee is the same hellraising redneck he was ten years ago. He’s still haphazardly slinging the Dale Earnhardt “3” on his vehicles and projecting a square-jawed masculinity to conceal a soft center, which here trades out an obsession with Twinkies and weepy moments reminiscing about his kid for a deranged quest to reach Graceland. It’s maybe a little dismaying that he, too, hasn’t grown much and is just reprising his schtick, but Double Tap counters with a scene where Harrelson does a killer Elvis impersonation. Try mounting any complaints over the sight of one of the finest actors of our generation doing a rendition of “Hound Dog,” then realize your folly.
The nature of the script unfortunately sidelines Breslin for most of the film, effectively positioning her as a damsel in distress (until, of course, she isn’t). Of all the characters, she’s arguably the most interesting, if only because she has noticeably changed; no longer a 12-year-old ass-kicker just looking to survive the zombie apocalypse, she’s become a young adult eager to live the disheveled nest. Having never (or, at the very least, rarely) encountered anyone her own age, she longs for the type of companionship that’s seemingly impossible in Zombieland. I found this to be one of the more interesting angles of Double Tap, but apparently the filmmakers disagreed and decided to strand Little Rock out in the margins.
In fact, there’s an entire, obvious subtext surrounding Little Rock’s angst that goes fairly unexplored. The presence of the Obama era briefly looms over Double Tap, reminding us that this fictional zombie outbreak more or less happened when the very real Great Recession worked to crater the hopes and dreams of two generations in reality. Columbus, Wichita, and Little Rock are such obvious surrogates for millennials (and whatever the hell we’ll end up calling the post-millennials) that it’s a bummer Double Tap doesn’t at least feign some interest in accounting for what it must feel like to lose your life to a force beyond your control. Only an admittedly funny exchange about ride-sharing (which never emerged in this reality, obviously) really draws attention to an otherwise overlooked aspect. I would have even settled for more humor of this sort to exploit the obvious differences between our 2019 and this alternate version.
Instead, Double Tap finds its cast and crew mostly content to play the hits. The opening credits open with more zombie carnage set to a Metallica song. There are updated riffs on the “Zombie Kill of the Week” gag to deliver some gratuitous gore. Columbus’s rules are as idiosyncratic as ever and have been updated to reflect the few changes that have swept through Zombieland in the form of the new, faster, smarter strains of the undead (dubbed T-800s because of course we’re gonna have some pop culture references in Zombieland 2). Like most of the new additions, these turbo-charged zombies are mostly window dressing to give the impression that you’re watching a sequel. None of it pops quite as well as it did the first time around, but it doesn't exactly feel like a half-hearted retread, either.
Some new human faces appear too: the always welcome Rosario Dawson pops up as a fellow Elvis fanatic and obvious romantic interest for Tallahassee, while her associates (Luke Wilson & Thomas Middleditch) drop in as rival doppelgangers to Harrelson and Eisenberg, leading to a brief riff-off to showcase everyone’s comedic talents. It’s an amusing bit that’s careful not to wear out its welcome, as this duo’s screen-time amounts to an extended cameo before the main group takes center stage again. Likewise, everyone involved must have known they’d really stumbled onto something with Zooey Deutch, who appears as a bubbly, air-headed rebound for Columbus following his break-up with Wichita. She’s a scene-stealing wild card, meant to add some obvious drama between the separated couple, but she’s incredibly funny in her own right. Her turn is perhaps a little bit arch and self-aware compared to the humor from the original film, but she’s so delightful that it’s allowable.
Besides, that archness is in keeping with the rest of Zombieland: Double Tap, a sequel that’s slightly enamored with the very idea of itself. Like many sequels that struggle to find a compelling reason to exist, it takes on the tenor of a victory lap or reunion, giving audiences another chance to hang out with some familiar faces in lieu of a compelling story. Recent weeks have brought a couple other long-overdue but ultimately unnecessary sequels in Rambo: Last Blood and 3 From Hell, both of which only served to diminish their predecessors, if ever so slightly. Double Tap isn’t that dire by any means, though, since it’s obviously a much more pleasant movie to watch since it’s so eager to pander to its audience with call-backs. Some are natural, while others are completely forced (look no further than the two sequences tucked into and after the credits), and yet there’s something good-natured about it all.
It’s hard to be too mad about a movie that just wants to hang out, shoot the shit, and crack a few jokes along the way. Maybe that sounds like a pass, but I have to defer to Columbus’s 32nd rule for survival: “enjoy the little things,” especially a perfectly fine, amusing sequel where Woody Harrelson belts an Elvis tune over the end credits.
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