REVIEW – ‘Zombieland: Double Tap’ plays it safe by sticking painfully close to what came before

Comedy sequels are rarely a great idea. Just think for a moment and try to summon a truly great comedy which delivered a follow-up that either matched or succeeded its predecessor. You’re very likely to craft a list you could count on one hand. A brilliant comedy is really lightning in a bottle type cinema, meaning it’s nigh-on impossible to replicate. But when a comedy goes gangbusters at the box office, the call to try it again with a sequel usually follow fairly quickly.

In a rare case of taking an extended break between films, Zombieland: Double Tap arrives a full decade after its predecessor. It’s a risky move to make. The audience may have moved on. The appetite for a sequel may have died. Or, most dangerously, the hype and expectation built up over ten years may simply be too great to live up to. In rather disappointing fashion, the sequel plays it safe by sticking painfully close to what came before.

Yes, this sequel is mostly just a rehash of the first film with a bigger budget and a few new cast members to liven things up. It’s highly likely if you loved Zombieland and are happy to essentially revisit this film all over again, you’ll walk away from Zombieland: Double Tap completely satisfied. For those of us who expect a sequel to offer something more to justify its existence, there’s very little extra here than what we saw back in 2009.

Not much has changed in the ten years since we last visited Z-land. After a mad-cow disease caused the zombie apocalypse, America (and presumably the world) is still overrun by flesh-eating creatures out for the blood of those uninfected. Given they’ve spent a decade of living with zombies, the pseudo-family of Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) are now quite astute at dealing with the dangers lurking around every corner.

But, as noted and nicknamed by Columbus, the zombies appear to be evolving into several particular “species,” each with their own unique and potentially dangerous attributes. There’s the rather harmless Homer (as in Simpson) aka your classic dimwitted and slow-moving zombie, easily distracted by something as innocuous as a butterfly. You’ve got your Hawking (as in Stephen) who appear to pertain more use of their brain than other members of the undead.

Then there’s the stealthy Ninja who secretly stalk their prey from the shadows before launching an unexpected and deadly assault. But the most menacing and threatening strain of zombies is the newly-discovered T-800, named from the infamous Terminator cyborg, given they can also take a number of bullets and still shockingly fail to go down.

With an arsenal of weaponry at their disposal and electricity still seemingly powering the entire country, courtesy of renewable hydroelectricity (yes, a green-conscious message sneaks in here), our quartet are living happily in their new residency at the White House. But young Little Rock begins to pine for people her own age and the chance to break free to potentially start a family of her own.

Feeling entirely smothered by the overprotective Tallahassee, Little Rock takes off in his beloved car with Wichita, who’s feeling equally trapped after an unwanted marriage proposal from Columbus. The pair soon stumble upon Berkeley (Avan Jogia), a hitchhiking, pot-smoking hippie musician who lives by the law of “conflict avoidance.” When Little Rock leaves her sister stranded for a foolish road trip to Elvis Presley’s Graceland with her newfound beau, Wichita joins forces with Tallahassee and Columbus to bring her back home.

Much like its predecessor, Zombieland: Double Tap succeeds by virtue of its terrific cast, their engaging familial chemistry, a neverending series of gore-filled visual gags, and zippy pun-laced one-liners. For better or worse, this sequel serves up pretty much everything you were handed in the first film. Call it fan service or just flat-out lazy writing, but there’s little to differentiate this follow-up from what’s come before.

As someone who adored Zombieland, this sequel fell strangely flat with this film critic. By passively replicating the same ingredients again, the film ultimately feels like a case of been there, done that. That’s not to suggest everything here isn’t still entirely breezily enjoyable, especially at only 90-odd minutes long. It’s just the element of refreshing surprise is now gone, leading to an experience that simply doesn’t feel as fun a second time around.

Structurally, there’s a lack of narrative flow to the sequel, as it hurriedly leaps between each location or set-piece without any semblance of rhythm. This is a film that understands what an audience enjoyed the first time around and wastes literally no time giving it to them. Just seconds after the opening credits, we’re thrust into a super slo-mo bloodbath montage, as our four heroes lay waste to a mass of hapless zombies. But it’s a painfully dated and overly long sequence that belongs back in 2009. It’s essentially the first signal that this film has no plans to try something new and seems happy staying in the past.

Where Zombieland: Double Tap truly comes to life are the pitstops to several new locations where we meet a few fresh cast members to invigorate this rather stale sequel. In a scene-stealing performance, Zoey Deutch plays Madison, a helpless blonde sorority dum-dum, complete with bright pink velour Von Dutch outfit and, of course, an equally-bright Louis Vuitton handbag. It’s a ridiculous character that easily could become very grating very quickly. But, in Deutch’s capable hands, Madison is somehow wildly endearing and downright hilarious. Unsurprisingly, Madison constantly irritates Tallahassee, leading to some of the film’s best lines and driest humour. When she unexpectedly leaves our trio, you long for her to return. Thankfully, she does, and just in time too.

While the moment was entirely spoiled in the trailer, in the film’s greatest scene, Tallahassee and Columbus come face to face with their doppelgängers in the form of monster truck-driving Florida (Luke Wilson) and introverted nerd Flagstaff (Thomas Middleditch). It’s a scene that offers plenty of laughs, particularly as both Tallahassee and Columbus can’t seem to recognise the uncanny resemblance spotted by everyone around them. But the sequence flips into an all-out action zombie showdown that’s both wonderfully tense and thrilling. Frankly, it leaves you wanting more and really could have played out for longer.

But it should come as no surprise the real delight of Zombieland: Double Tap is the reunion of Harrelson, Eisenberg, Breslin, and (yes, she’s now that much of a megastar, she gets credited last plus the extra “and” before her name) Stone. Eisenberg continues to showcase his penchant for playing these adorable nerd roles, even if Columbus can become slightly annoying at times. He was a lonely soul in the first film, and it’s clear he’s finally found his pack who he’s now steadfastly loyal to. Eisenberg and Stone still have that magnetic chemistry that doesn’t make sense on paper, but somehow translates well on screen. And who doesn’t love to watch Stone dish up plenty of the acerbic wit she delivers so achingly well.

Harrelson does his usual good ol’ boy shtick, which you really can’t help but adore. Tallahassee is every bit as wacky and outlandish as he was in the first film, and Harrelson seems to be the one having the most fun here. His affection for his pseudo-daughter Little Rock is the film’s beating heart and it’s genuinely charming to see witness his paternal side truly shine through. In one of the sequel’s most original creations, he’s given a love interest in Reno (the ever-reliable Rosario Dawson), a gutsy, no-nonsense survivor who resides in the Elvis-themed Hound Dog Hotel. The pair have terrific chemistry and their scenes together stand as some of the film’s few highlights. Reno is a sadly underdeveloped character, leaving you aching for more depth and backstory. But, as usual, Dawson makes the absolute most of it.

The lesser of the quartet is Breslin, who sadly isn’t given a whole lot to do here but plod along on a romance subplot devoid of any actual romance. The heart of Little Rock’s narrative lies with her longing to find her true soulmate, which she foolishly thinks she’s found in the insufferably “woke” hitchhiker. It’s an earnest effort to highlight the family she yearns for was already right by her side. But it’s simply not an interesting road trip to take and the pacing of the film drags anytime we switch back to Little Rock’s journey.

This all barrels towards a bombastic conclusion that’s so hastily constructed, it genuinely launches from absolutely nowhere, leaving an audience rather puzzled as to how quickly we’ve arrived at the film’s ending. This finale features so many elements we saw in the first film’s climactic moments, it’s truly the laziest way to wrap up this sequel. Trapped within a millennial hippy sanctuary known as Babylon, our heroes face off against a giant swarm of T-800s from atop a booming skyscraper that’s woefully crafted using some genuinely awful CGI work. The entire Babylon commune is a bizarre creation that never once looks anything other than the backlot of the Sony Pictures studio.

It proves to be a disappointing ending to a relatively enjoyable film. There are still plenty of laughs, thrills, and cameos (stay for the credits) to make Zombieland: Double Tap a decent way to spend 93 minutes. But it’s really nothing more than the same beat-for-beat routine we experienced ten years ago. This sequel is little more than just throwing together a stack of fun ideas and hoping it all works out for the best. The end result is a film that’s perfectly fine, but far from the greatness of the original. You get the occasional moment of true brilliance shining through, but it’s surrounded by too much filler to bring the entire film down.

Every movie sequel must contain some connection to its predecessor. That’s unavoidable. But the best sequels stretch for something more, and that’s simply not the case here. There’s plenty for fans of the original to lap up, and maybe that will prove entirely enough. Yet, after ten years of anticipation, Zombieland: Double Tap hardly seems worth the wait.

Distributor: Sony Pictures
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, Emma Stone, Rosario Dawson, Zoey Deutch, Luke Wilson
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Producer: Gavin Polone
Screenplay: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Dave Callaham
Cinematography: Chung Chung-hoon
Production Design: Martin Whist
Music: David Sardy

Editing: Dirk Westervelt
Running Time: 93 minutes
Release Date: 17th October 2019 (Australia)