MOVIE REVIEW: 'Zombieland' sequel a lot like the first — and that's not a bad thing

Photo by Jessica Miglio

Woody Harrelson is Tallahassee, Jesse Eisenberg is Columbus, Emma Stone is Wichita, Abigail Breslin is Little Rock and Rosario Dawson is Nevada in "Zombieland: Double Tap."

(R)

Two and a half stars

As with the other major studio sequel being released this week (“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”), “Zombieland: Double Tap” follows in the wake of a surprise original hit and is coming out many years later (nine) than most similar industry productions.

Given that when it dropped in 2009, “Zombieland” was the highest grossing zombie movie to date (it has since been eclipsed by “World War Z”), it is odd its’ sequel wasn’t made and released sooner. Especially, given the surge in popularity in everything (film and TV) zombie related and the bankability of the cast.

Being almost as popular as vampire flicks, zombie movies bring with them a surprisingly large amount of storytelling options, yet the filmmakers of “Double Tap” seem content with sticking close to the winning formula of the first and take few narrative chances. The result is about what you’d expect when you’ve come to expect that virtually every sequel will be a letdown.

That’s the bad news. The good news is – like not-great pizza – a just meh “Zombieland” sequel is still OK.

The studio was very fortunate to be able to bring back all four of the co-leads (Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg and Abigail Breslin), a group which, on paper, probably shouldn’t have had so much off-the-grid chemistry. The good/bad news is three of the four are still together on-screen most of the time and retain the magic while the fourth (Breslin) is given her own subplot which falls flat fast.

In looking in the rearview mirror, that’s actually a good thing.

Picking up the slack and then some for Breslin is Zoey Deutch (daughter of Lea Thompson) as a fellow zombie apocalypse survivor Columbus (Eisenberg) stumbles upon in a shopping mall. Clad in pink and delivering a spot-on Valley Girl rendering, Deutch (as Madison) immediately steals every scene in which she appears. And she eventually provides the perfect foil for the slightly grumpy Wichita (Stone).

During a post-screening text exchange, my fellow Atlanta Film Critics Circle member Josh Sewell suggested a mismatched buddy comedy starring Stone and Deutch would be a killer winning combo. Josh is right.

Another interesting new coupling takes place at the halfway mark with the introduction of Nevada (Rosario Dawson), a Memphis hotel owner who shares an obsession for all things Elvis Presley with Tallahassee (Harrelson). Starting rocky and not ending exactly as expected, the sparks between Harrelson and Dawson will likely continue if a second sequel gets a green light.

Returning director Ruben Fleischer (who made the dreadful “Venom,” “30 Minutes or Less” and “Gangster Squad” during the interim) and “Deadpool” writers Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick (plus Dave Callaham) put together something that looks and sounds a lot like the first “Zombieland” but doesn’t quite cut the mustard. Despite a budget almost twice as large as the original ($42 million vs. $23 million), the sequel can’t quite capture the original charm of the first.

But the carnage is even more graphic, which – in this case – is a plus given the material.

Another shortcoming of the sequel is the filmmakers’ attempt at making the Breslin subplot as interesting as everything else, and none of it works. Pairing her off with pilfering singer/guitarist/hippie Berkeley (Avan Jogia) on their way to a faux Utopia is not the way to go and introduces an “us vs. them” real world political dynamic not wanted or needed given the gonzo nature of the franchise.

Faring better (but not by much) is the inclusion of Albuquerque (Luke Wilson, taking over for original choice Matthew McConaughey) and Flagstaff (Thomas Middleditch), de facto doppelgangers for the Harrelson and Eisenberg characters who arrive and in short order dutifully take their exit.

Although it mostly happens in planned trilogies, the bridge – or second installment – is almost always the weakest link in franchises with multiple sequels. No one really hoped for or, for that matter, really expected a “Zombieland” sequel. In all fairness, it isn’t a total disaster.

Some parts actually work quite well – especially from a dramatic perspective. If the studio wishes to wrap it up well and end it all on an up note, it shouldn’t wait another nine years to do so. If this movie makes a profit (it almost surely will), they should get the final installment moving right now, especially if they want the core four stars to return again.

The studio almost let the iron cool too much with “Zombieland.” For whatever reason, this film was too late in arriving and for those who never saw the first, you should do so before seeing this movie; otherwise you’ll be completely lost.

Hopefully this franchise will end as good if not better than it began.

(Sony/Columbia)

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