Train to Busan

Army of the Dead

28/05/21

Netflix

‘It’s fast, it’s frantic and above all, it’s fun to watch.’

That’s what I said about Train to Busan. Unfortunately, this is Army of the Dead and, though the expertly-edited trailer suggests that this could be up there with Sang-ho Yeon’s movie, the end result is frankly not in the same league. This is a film by Zack Snyder.

Snyder has previous form in this genre. His 2004 reworking of George Romero’s horror classic, Dawn of the Dead, was actually pretty good. It was the film that originated the idea that the undead didn’t have to shuffle along like… well, zombies, but could hurtle after their prey like Mo Farah on steroids. This might not sound like much but, in its own way, it was a bit of a game-changer. Of course, over the intervening years, Snyder has pursued a path of making his films bigger, louder and er… longer. Sadly, Army of the Dead is no exception. To be fair, it opens brilliantly. The title sequence galumphs merrily along to a jaunty tune, and manages to convey the film’s entire back story in a blood-spattered nutshell.

But then the titles end and we realise we’ve still got got two hours and twenty six minutes to go…

Former mercenary Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) has been a major part in saving the world from a zombie epidemic. His reward is a dead-end job, flipping burgers in a cafe. He’s understandably miffed. Then, he’s approached by Casino owner, Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Tanaka), who informs him of millions in dollars in cash, locked up in a vault beneath Las Vegas. The only problem is, the place is currently a walled-off zone, housing all the remaining zombies from a disastrous outbreak, and it’s due to be tactically nuked in a few days’ time. Would Scott be prepared to assemble a squad of former associates and head into the city to ‘liberate’ the money? He can keep fifty million and divide it up however he wants.

Before you can say “Hmm, sounds risky,’ Scott has his team assembled and is heading into Las Vegas intent on setting himself and his friends up for a more prosperous future. He has a way in. His estranged daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), works in a detention centre right next to the barricades. Scott and Ella are distant, mostly because Scott had to push a knife into his wife (Ella’s mother)’s brain back in the day, but, to be fair, she was turning in to a zombie. So here’s the ideal opportunity to reconnect.

Anyhow, in the mercenaries go and we’re all set for a taut, exciting bloodfest, right?

But no, Snyder wants to take every opportunity to establish his characters. It doesn’t help that they are a fairly tedious bunch, who seem incapable of making the right decision in any given situation. They say things that no real person would ever say, have a predilection for making bad jokes at importune moments, and an attempt to play up a feminist angle for Lily (Nora Arnezeder) is woefully misjudged. The most interesting of the characters is undoubtedly safe-cracker, Dieter (Matthias Schweighöff), but a plot hole the size of Nevada means that there’s no logical reason for him to to be on the team in the first place.

But what really weighs this down is the film’s lack of pace. Busan threw its characters headlong through a whole series of frantic set-pieces, hardly giving an audience the chance to take a collective breath, but Army takes us along at a slow trudge, with too many tedious stops along the way. Snyder always has a great eye as cinematographer – indeed, I suspect this is where his true talents lie. The world building here is skilfully done and the renderings of a devastated Las Vegas are spot on. There are also some stirring action sequences, including a thrill-packed helicopter flight, towards the end.

But it’s not enough to salvage the dead weight of what’s gone before. An odd conclusion (with another gigantic plot hole) seems to be setting up for a sequel but perhaps that’s just wishful thinking on Snyder’s part.

In short, this zombie film is ultimately toothless – and it sucks.

2.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsular

12/12/20

Apple TV

That odd, unwieldy title ensures there can be no mistake.

This is, indeed, the eagerly awaited sequel to Yeon Sang-ho’s zombie apocalypse action-flick, Train To Busan (2016), a film that completely reinvigorated a tired genre, providing the kick up the backside it was in dire need of. As in the first blood-spattered helping, it’s clear that the director doesn’t much care for ‘less is more.’ In Yeon Sang-ho’s world, zombies don’t stumble along like OAPs, they come after their prey like champion sprinters on steroids, and they come in overwhelming numbers. They writhe, convulse and gallop across the screen. They tumble off wrecked bridges, slither through shallow water and explode through glass barriers. Trust me, I’m talking peak-zombie.

Penisula is set four years after the first story. South Korea has now become a quarantine zone, a place completely overrun by the undead. They’re very short-sighted now, but are attracted to bright lights and loud noises. Surely nobody would be stupid enough to venture back there? Especially ex-army officer Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) and his brother in law, Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon), who, as we learn in the film’s pre-credit sequence, have every reason to be afraid of the undead.

But the two men are Korean exiles living in Hong Kong, where they are despised by the local population and can’t find work. So, when an HK gang lord hears of a lorry packed with millions of American dollars, abandoned somewhere in the quarantine zone, he sets about putting together a gang desperate enough to go after it. It’ll be easy. Bish, bash, bosh, and you’re millionaires! And of course, our two heroes can’t resist.

While Peninsula might not be quite as brilliant as its progenitor – it loses, I suppose, the surprise factor that the first film had in spades – it’s nonetheless superior stuff. The devastated cityscapes of what used to be Incheon are astonishingly rendered (and really make me wish I could view this on a cinema screen), while Yeon Song-ho’s encounter with Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun), a woman he failed to help in the past, gives us a reason to care about what happens to both of them.

The film’s trump card though is provided by Min-jung’s daughters, Jooni (Lee Re) and Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won), who have developed a way with cars (both real and the radio-controlled variety) that would put Max Rockatansky to shame. There’s also a lovely turn by Koo Kyo-hwan as Captain Seo, the former head of a military unit, now turned into a deranged despot, fond of organising bizarre games where he pits luckless captives against the infected. As before, the theme is clear. Humankind is capable of behaving in ways that make their zombie counterparts look almost reasonable by comparison.

There’s plenty here to relish: there are fight scenes, fright scenes and car chases aplenty. There are crashes, smashes and (literal) fireworks. In a nail-biting extended conclusion, the director mercilessly piles on the suspense – at several points he actually has me yelling at the screen – and there’s a satisfying reveal towards the end which I really don’t see coming.

Okay, so this hardly qualifies as a heartwarming film for the festive season, I get that… but if you’re in the market for a good zombie apocalypse picture, this one will be hard to beat.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Film Bouquets 2016

 

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It was an interesting year for film. Here, in order of release, rather than stature – and with the benefit of hindsight – are our favourite movies of 2016.

Room

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This superb adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel got 2016 off to a cracking start. There were powerful performances from Brie Larson and young Jacob Tremblay as the central characters in a tragic yet oddly inspirational story.

The Revenant

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Alejandro Gonzalez Inaritu delivered another dazzling movie, this one as savage and untamed as the grizzly bear that mauled Leonardo Di Caprio half to death – but made up for it by helping him win his first Oscar.

Anomalisa

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Writer/director Charlie Kaufman gave us a quirky (and deeply disturbing) animation that was a Kafkaesque meditation on identity and the bleak nature of the human condition.

Dheepan

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Jacques Audiard’s fascinating study of the lives of refugees never fell into cliche. There was violence here, but it felt horribly real and totally devastating. There were affecting performances from a cast of newcomers.

Victoria

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Sebastian Schipper’s film really shouldn’t have worked. Delivered in one continuous take, the fact that it hooked us in so brilliantly was just the icing on the cake – a real ensemble piece but plaudits must go to Laia Costa as the eponymous heroine.

Sing Street

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John Carney may have only one plot but when it was delivered as beautifully as it was in Sing Street, we were happy to indulge him. This was a beautiful, heartwarming film with appeal to anybody who has ever dreamed about pop stardom.

The Neon Demon

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The fashion industry as seen by Nicolas Winding Refn is a hell hole and here, Elle Fanning as Jesse, was the latest recruit. A weird mash-up of sex, violence and extreme voyeurism, this was the director’s most assured effort yet.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

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New Zealand director Taika Waititi offered up this delightfully quirky story about a troubled teenager (Julian Dennison) and his friendship with crusty curmudgeon, Hec (Sam Neill). This film reeled us in and kept us hooked to the end credits.

The Girl with all the Gifts

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Just when we thought the zombie movie had stumbled as far as it could go, Colm McCarthy’s film gave the genre a hefty kick up the backside – and there was a star-making performance from young Senna Nanua in the lead role.

Under the Shadow

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Babek Abvari’s film had all the tropes of the contemporary horror movie and a powerful political message as well. Set in post war Tehran, young mother Shideh (Narges Rashidi) struggled to keep her daughter safe from the forces of darkness.

I, Daniel Blake

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Ken Loach’s return to the screen resulted in one of the most powerful and affecting films of the year – a searing look at ‘benefits Britain’ that would have the most stony-hearted viewer in floods of tears. Should be required viewing for Tory politicians.

Train to Busan

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Another day, another zombie movie – but what a zombie movie! Korean director Sang ho Yeon gave us a galloping ‘zombies on a train’ thriller that nearly left us breathless. There were some incredible set pieces here and a nerve-shredding conclusion.

Paterson

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Jim Jarmusch presented a charming and quirky tale about a would-be poet living in a town that had the same name as him. Not very much happened, but it didn’t happen in an entirely watchable way. A delightful celebration of the creative spirit.

Life, Animated

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This compelling documentary squeaked in right at the end of the year – the true life tale of Owen Suskind, an autistic boy, initially unable to speak a word, but rescued by his love of Disney movies. It was funny, uplifting and educational – and our final pick of 2016.

Train to Busan

31/10/16

Zombie movies are a bit like buses: you wait for what seems like ages for a decent one and then two crackers come along at pretty much the same time. No sooner are we over extolling the genre-busting virtues of The Girl With All The Gifts, than Train to Busan comes thundering down the track. We’ve all heard of Snakes on a Plane, but Zombies on a train? One look at the trailer was enough to convince us that this should be our Halloween movie of choice.

South Korean writer/director Sang-ho Yeon is in the driver’s seat of this adrenalin-fuelled delight, which eschews the slow-witted lumbering zombies of George Romero and substitutes them for some hot-footed, rabid berserkers that would leave the crowd from 28 Days Later standing on the platform. They are everywhere in this film – tumbling through glass doors, raining down out of the sky and, at one point, forming an inhuman chain clinging tenaciously onto the back of a locomotive. It’s fast, it’s frantic and, above all, it’s fun to watch.

Our hero is Seok Woo (Yoo Gong) a wealthy fund manager who, from the very outset, presents as a man who looks after his own best interests. When he is obliged to (very reluctantly) escort his young daughter, Soo-an (the adorable Soo-an Kim) to Busan to rendezvous with her mother – from whom Seok Woo is separated – he expects nothing more than an uneventful journey. But there’s a barely glimpsed ‘incident’ at the station where the train starts from and an injured woman stumbles aboard and locks herself in the toilet. When she emerges, she is one of the undead and she quickly sets about biting everyone she encounters. This is a disease that travels like wildfire and, within minutes, the train is full of unwelcome travellers.  Seok Woo and a band of fellow passengers will have to use every trick they can think of if they hope to survive to the end of the line…

Like most zombie movies, this is more than it might at first appear. The train is a great big metaphor for humanity and it quickly becomes apparent that the most dastardly travellers on board are the ones who care only about themselves. Chief among them is Yong-Suk (Eui-sung Kim) a man who thinks nothing of flinging a helpless teenage girl to the ravening hordes in order to cause a diversion to escape their clutches. Time and again, the nice people (the socialists) are seen sacrificing themselves in order to help others. The question is, which side will Seok Woo end up on?

Don’t worry – this doesn’t feel anything like a lecture. While you could argue that Train to Busan isn’t particularly scary, it makes up for that shortfall by ramping events up to almost unbearable levels of suspense, utilising some incredible set pieces along the way. This is quite simply a cinematic thrill ride, one that grips like a vice all the way to its (heartbreaking) conclusion.

Don’t miss out. Book your ticket to ride before this one pulls out of the platform and disappears over the horizon.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney