Where There's Smoke There's Fire

Hot Streaming Garbage #1

Hot Streaming Garbage is a new column where I’ll be covering Hollywood’s latest new release dumpster fires that are available on steaming platforms.

Watching the snappy, perfectly cut trailer for Army of the Dead one would think it’s a lean genre hybrid (heist film meets zombie melee) that doesn’t waste a lot of time on unnecessary subplots or leaden dialogue scenes. Otherwise, my kind of jam. But this is, after all, the latest creation from ultra pretentious frat-boy director Zack Snyder, who specializes in transforming pulpy ideas into plodding, mean-spirited epics. The only thing lean about this one are the six-pack abs of star Omari Hardwick.

The set up is ripe with possibility: Las Vegas has been overrun by the undead after years of costly guerrilla fighting, providing the perfect cover for a band of mercenaries out to steal millions of dollars hidden away in a vault underneath the strip. Former war hero and current fry cook Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) can’t say no to the possibility of financial freedom after he’s approached by an entrepreneurial casino magnet (Hiroyuki Sanada) to assemble a team and infiltrate what’s left of sin city. Speaking of convenient subplots, his estranged daughter who works as a humanitarian volunteer could do saintly wonders with all that cash.

Aside from the fun rat-a-tat opening credits sequence depicting the fabled zombie wars leading up to the story itself, Snyder’s pacing and aesthetics are deathly boring at every turn. Every one of the diverse gunslingers has some kind of personality quirk, and motivations range from greed to greed. Their infiltration of Las Vegas, now the apocalyptic kingdom of an advanced (extraterrestrial?) clan of zombies who’ve created some kind of hierarchical culture in the aftermath of mass destruction, unfolds haphazardly with exposition being spouted at every turn.

At its core, Army of the Dead is concerned with very little beyond the cost of redemption, the extreme lengths with which someone will go to escape past traumas and impoverishment. And even worse, Snyder never capitalizes on Bautista’s hulking charisma and old soul yearning. Outside of a few kinetic action sequences, it’s a failure of ingenuity and artistic ambition, lazy to the gnarled bone.

Only slightly more rewarding is Taylor Sheridan’s clenched-cheeked thriller Those Who Wish Me Dead, starring the terribly miscast Angelina Jolie as a guilt-ridden smoke jumper who gets tangled up with a young boy being hunted by assassins (an effectively cold duo of Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult).

We know this is a Sheridan movie because evil professionals talk in shorthand and shoot innocent people in the face. Yes, the world is cruel, but does it need to be this dull? Here’s another example of a film with competing stories that seem to be happening in different universes. On the one hand, Jolie’s Hannah Faber spends much of the film getting to know young Connor (Finn Little) as they are hunted by both killers and a raging forest fire, stuck in one mode and cinematically inert.

The flip side gives us Gillen and Hoult’s icy hitmen, methodical and practical, who even complain that they aren’t given the right resources by their shadowy government-funded overseers to do the job right. And Allison Sawyer (Medina Senghore), the pregnant wife of a local sheriff deputy (Jon Bernthal) who runs a survival school deep in the wilderness. All of her scenes are nothing short of electric, especially the log cabin shootout where she turns a can of bear repellent into a handheld flamethrower. Too bad the film wasn’t completely dedicated to this tenacious character, a smart riff on the western B-side archetypes Sheridan so obviously adores.

If you had told me a week ago that my favorite film of the three reviewed here would be Joe Wright’s boozy, sloppy drunk hot house Hitchcock homage The Woman in the Window I would have rolled my eyes. But here we are! Check out the above image for a good indication of what kind of genre super-impositions are going on in almost every frame, especially the very good first hour that plays with perspective and time in interesting ways.

I’m not going to sit here and say The Woman in the Window is a great film, but it’s got a lot of spunk, visual flair, and a lively cinematic pulse that the latest hyper-masculine work by Snyder and Sheridan lack. Watching it’s nightmarish lunacy unfold (Amy Adams goes all in) reminded me of De Palma, Lee Daniels, and early Curtis Hanson. Sure, Wright (Atonement) doesn’t have the guts to go full-blown crazy, but I’ll still take half-way Hollywood nutso over the status-bro any day.

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