Equal parts John Hughes and John Carpenter, 2009’s Zombieland embraced rambunctious gore, raucous laughs and a weighty thesis: Can you really learn the best way to live when you’re surrounded by the undead? Its emotionally legitimate explorations of facing fears, taking stances and discovering bravery were enough to sustain it, but it also included the century’s greatest cameo so far.
The film’s necessarily nomadic survivors of a zombie outbreak nickname themselves to honor cities they once called home: Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Wichita (Emma Stone), Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). After bristling and bickering, this band of misfits fell in line — and in love, in Columbus and Wichita’s case — alongside a Twinkie-obsessed tough guy named Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), who boils life’s essence down to a two-pronged choice to nut up or shut up.
For a sequel this monumentally lazy and lousy, Zombieland: Double Tap certainly has some sizable cojones to comically castigate a big-name actor, again playing himself, for chasing a creatively bankrupt payday. You might think that ruins a surprise. The only thing that’s spoiled here is the movie’s carcass, from which you can almost see maggots wriggling forth within the first few minutes. Columbus’s smug, off-putting voiceover insists it’s hard to know what Zombieland smells like unless you’re in a 4D theater. Even the 2D crowd will be acutely aware of its inescapable, overpowering stench.
The decrepitude of Double Tap (named for one of Columbus’s cardinal zombie-killing rules) feels even more depressing when you consider the drive on either side of the camera shown on the original by the core team of players, all of whom return. Director Ruben Fleischer’s flair for visual wit and effective performances got waylaid by the bombastic bloat of 30 Minutes or Less and Gangster Squad. (Fleischer’s unexpectedly buoyant rebound with 2018’s Venom seems now like a fluke.) Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick hadn’t even gotten another film made let alone dug into Deadpool. That film’s runaway success has seen them default to elbowing audiences’ ribs at a speed and strength that constitutes felonious assault.
As for the actors, Eisenberg was not yet a nebbish cottage industry unto himself but instead an uncommonly engaging action lead. Stone hadn’t blossomed as a comedic leading lady let alone an Oscar-winning dramatic actress, but still oozed classic movie-star charm. In his yokel-Snake Plissken turn, Harrelson finally found a bankable genre outlet for his idiosyncratically wily nature. Breslin, an Oscar-nominated moppet for Little Miss Sunshine, seemed on the cusp of good choices as a teenaged actress.
The only interest from any of these talents here seems to have stopped at whatever the bank was offering on deposited funds. “Back again?” Eisenberg says in the film’s introductory voiceover. “We know you have a lot of different options for zombie entertainment, and we appreciate it.” Boy, isn’t that joke about the surplus of zombie entertainment in Zombieland’s wake rattling your thoracic cage already? It’s instead a signifier of how Double Tap skips straight to The Walking Dead‘s seventh-season sluggishness from the start — like the result of bots analyzing Zombieland for nine years and spitting out a facsimile screenplay.
Double Tap swaps “For Whom the Bell Tolls” with “Master of Puppets” for another slow-motion intro, which now feels as fresh as a classic-rock station’s Mandatory Metallica gimmick. And they trot out that aforementioned actor again, who already did a zombie film this year with 10 times the nerve and verve. Why, it’s enough to make you long for Eisenberg and Harrelson’s other unnecessary sequel-to-a-hit. And that movie’s sole creative inspiration was to let Harrelson play twins.
The only thing that has evolved in Double Tap are the zombies, whose re-mortality rate is dropping. Our heroes refer to these newly unstoppable undead as “T-800s.” It is, of course, a reference to the Terminator series, which knows from bad sequels but not quite as intimately as Zombieland does now.
Columbus and Wichita have embraced domesticity, but his from-nowhere marriage proposal makes her skittish. Even though Little Rock (Wichita’s sister) is now 21, Tallahassee still sees her as his ersatz little girl and can’t reconcile her increasing curiosity for exploring the world … and whatever dating scene remains after the zombie apocalypse. Nervous that comfort is constricting them, the siblings scram. But then Little Rock runs off with the first guitar-slinging drifter she meets, a pacifist with no protective weapons. Afraid for Little Rock’s safety amid the growing number of “T-800s,” Columbus, Tallahassee and Wichita reunite to track her down.
In tow is Madison (Zoey Deutch), a dim-bulb blonde who survived for years a freezer at an abandoned mall. Madison takes up with Tallahassee and Columbus after the ladies have left … and Columbus sleeps with her just before Wichita returns to seek their help finding Little Rock.
Watching dramatists like Eisenberg and Stone grimace through basic love-triangle bickering that’s both unspeakably bad and unfathomably beneath them is numbing on its own. But in its treatment of Madison, Double Tap also ladles on mean-spirited misogyny in the spaces where its predecessor found meaning along the macabre and mirthful. Deutch’s mannered, and sometimes manic, vocal fry isn’t enough to jolt Double Tap with any electricity. But if she didn’t go big, you’d most likely go home.
As for Tallahassee, he insists that Blackfoot blood runs in his veins while Native American chanting fills the surround speakers. Yeesh. He also gets a girlfriend (Rosario Dawson, present), and his Elvis obsession affords Harrelson the opportunity for a not-bad closing-credits cover of “Burning Love.”
Double Tap devotes its flabby midsection to one long, stupid joke about mirror-image characters to Tallahassee and Columbus who unexpectedly show up. It’s as funny as the skits they sometimes put Terry Bradshaw in on Fox NFL Sunday. The doubles’ presence culminates in a trick-shot action sequence clearly meant to look like Matthew Vaughn’s work on the Kingsman films but that more closely resembles an annoyingly fattened, fanned viscount. (Double Tap sure ain’t a jester, with two good jokes — a stealth Kingpin reference and David Gray wisecrack — across its 99 cumbersome minutes.)
As is often the case with long-delayed sequels, the cast and crew insist they needed to wait until the time was right. To cite Tallahassee’s coin-flip nomenclature: If Double Tap represents everyone’s idea of “right,” they’d have been better off with “shut up.”