Since making the first Zombieland, director Ruben Fleischer has made the disappointing Gangster Squad (2013) and then last year’s Venom (much maligned by the critics but popular at the box office) and the original screenwriters, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have given us the two hilarious Deadpool movies. On this one they’re also joined by Sly Stallone’s Expendables co-writer, Dave Callaham and the result is pretty entertaining even if it doesn’t manage to kick the franchise up a notch. Part of the problem for a movie like this is that the first time around, most of the fun was in the chase as our four characters buddied up and betrayed each other with relentless monotony. To get us back to that, they need to ‘break up the band’ in order to create the circumstances where we want them to get back together again. It mostly works, although the Wichita storyline is much more compelling and engaging than what happens with Little Rock.
There’re also the inevitable new characters to liven things up. Zoey Deutch’s Madison is a cliched daffy blonde who (for me at least) grates in her early scenes but manages to grow on you (a bit) as the story develops while Avan Jogia’s Berkley is a mostly bland and functional character that really only exists to enable the Little Rock storyline to play out. Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch pop up about halfway through as Albuquerque and Flagstaff, doppelgangers to Tallahassee and Columbus. They’re essentially a sight gag (and a pretty funny one at that) and Fleischer keeps them around just long enough to maximise the laughs before they overstay their welcome. But it feels like there was the potential to get more than just laughs from these two mirror images in the way their reflections might open up a bit of self-examination from the two main male characters. In the end, only Wichita comes close to this, but its potential is let go before it really gets anywhere.
The real winner in the new batch of characters, though, is Nevada (Rosario Dawson) who more than earns her place in the story as an equal to our quartet of heroes. She’s tough and funny and no-nonsense and sexy enough to pull the rug out from underneath Tallahassee’s masculine bravado. Her arrival in the story saves Harrelson’s character from just spinning his wheels in the rut of who he was in the first movie and she’d be a welcome addition to the little band if they were ever to reunite again.
And it’s not only new humans that we get in this sequel, there are also new zombies. The zombie hoard has evolved into three distinct groups – ‘Homers’ (the dumb ones that act like Homer Simpson), ‘Hawkings’ (the smart ones that can work things out like Stephen Hawking) and the ‘Bolts’ (a new breed of fast and powerful zombies named after Usain Bolt). It’s a good idea that is funny when its used to good effect but isn’t used nearly enough to make the most of what could have been a fresh narrative direction.
In the end, it’s business as usual in this second outing but, as was the case in 2009, business is good. There’s a lot of really funny gags to keep us laughing (the leaning tower of Pisa gag is hilarious), the clever intrusions of the graphics spelling out Columbus’ rules as they becomes relevant to the story are back, there’s even a very clever Bill Murray reference or two that echo one of the funniest moments in the first movie (keep your eyes peeled for the Garfield 3 rubbish bin in the mall scene).
And, of course, there’s plenty of gory zombie deaths to satisfy our bloodlust as Tallahassee endeavours to achieve his goal of ‘zombie death of the year’ (complete with cutaways to his main competitors as the writers come up with inventive and gruesome ways to dispose of the undead). In some ways, the zombies are sort of the McGuffin of these films in that they’re not really the main game; they’re the backdrop to the perils and interactions of our heroes and the development of their relationships. And speaking of our heroes, all four actors slip back into these roles with an ease the belies the years that have passed. Only Breslin is noticeably older and that becomes of feature of her character (“I’d really like for you to stop calling me little girl!”). But it’s this comfort and familiarity that prevents the film from really offering us anything new. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but once we’ve laughed at all the gags and enjoyed revisiting the four main characters and even gotten to know and like the new ones, there not really much new under the sun. It all feels a little bit safe and samey and the third act feels like it’s been forced into the narrative rather than being allowed to evolve as a natural consequence of the story. Still, I had a good time and I wasn’t sorry I saw it and I’ll certainly go and see a third movie if they make one. I just hope it happens before 2029. The way things are going in the world, we could be in the real zombie apocalypse by then.