Jaap Buitendijk

Mireille Enos, left, Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove and Brad Pitt must contend with a widespread zombie outbreak in "World War Z."

Movie review: Brad Pitt charming and in charge in 'World War Z'

Published: Friday, Jun. 21, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 17TICKET
Last Modified: Friday, Jun. 21, 2013 - 6:10 am

Tips for surviving the zombie apocalypse:

A) Be very quiet; B) wrap your bite-blocking arm in thick magazines and duct tape; C) be Brad Pitt.

Pitt has hidden his inner John Wayne-Bruce Willis for too long. In the highly engaging "World War Z," he proves to be a capable, winning and – in the great American film tradition – exceptionally hard-to-kill action hero.

Pitt provides a steadying presence amid the zombie-plague chaos as Gerry Lane, a former U.N. danger-zone specialist called back into action when the undead start wiping out humans.

A kind of project manager for pandemic response, Gerry easily commands military men he's just met, despite his Blind Melon roadie haircut. He responds to hysteria and wisecracks with calm and grace, because time is too precious to react any other way.

He swiftly and decisively stops a comrade from being infected, repeatedly risks his own life for others and steps in to try to find the source of the pandemic when scientists cannot.

That last part's implausible. Actually, the movie's whole third act is hard to believe, though it still holds our interest. Considering that "World War Z" is a dead-serious zombie movie, two believable acts are plenty.

It's the best zombie thriller since "28 Days Later." It's also less ghastly. A true thriller rather than a horror film, "World War Z" treats its zombie plague as if it were SARS or ebola. Gerry isn't just out to survive; he's seeking a solution.

Early reports of "World War Z's" demise were exaggerated. Perhaps the shoot was as troubled as a recent article in Vanity Fair painted it. But neither on-set troubles nor reshoots that ballooned the budget to $170 million significantly diminished the final product. There are cracks in the movie – especially in that final act (the subject of reshoots) – but not as many as you might expect from reports.

Director Marc Forster ("Monster's Ball"), who biffed his first big action film, 2008's "Quantum of Solace," and Pitt, the neophyte action star and one of this film's primary producers, appear to have stitched up most of what ailed "World War Z."

The big budget did not equal loads of big set pieces. If you need to be blown out of the theater, "World War Z" might not do it for you. But it bests "Man of Steel" and other comic-book- claustrophobic blockbusters in creating an authentic sense of real-world stakes.

Gerry travels to South Korea and other hot zones, danger imminent with every step. Trips to and from are fraught with the threat of zombie attack. All movements must be hushed, because noise attracts the monsters.

From the looks of it, much of the budget went toward hiring scores of extras and teaching them how to behave as zombies, or toward computer-generated zombie imagery. It paid off, because the creatures appear highly menacing through much of the film.

Once infected, the zombies spasm and convulse but quickly gain what appears to be superhuman strength. Put up a barrier, and they will form a human ladder to get over it.

We first see them in a flash, their whiz-by nature enhanced by the movie's 3-D technology. They appear in the first big action sequence, set in Gerry's hometown of Philadelphia.

At the movie's start, Gerry's a stay-at-home dad, having quit the United Nations to spend more time with his wife, Karen (Mireille Enos, from AMC's "The Killing") and two young daughters. They're all piled in the family Volvo on a busy street when things go haywire. People are running from something the family can't see – something that, individually, will later dive into windshields head-first, compelled to spread disease.

Gerry drives through the chaos, endangering his family with his stuntman moves. But the greater danger in a crisis zone, Gerry says, is standing still.

The war-zone talk and Gerry's U.N. job suggest that "World War Z" will provide a broader global commentary. It does, for about a second, in mentioning that Third World countries' bad water renders inhabitants more susceptible to zombie infection. Then it returns to the zombie crisis at hand.

Forster ratchets up the stakes in that first action sequence and maintains a hum of tension throughout. "World War Z," adapted from Max Brooks' 2006 novel, does not give its characters or its audience breathing room. Yet the tension never feels oppressive because Forster deftly balances crowded action scenes with quietly intense interactions between a few characters.

Quieter scenes carry a thrill of anticipation, because zombies could be anywhere. "World War Z" will remind viewers who are sick of 3-D that it has its merits. Brad Pitt and jump scares did not exist in the same sentence before "World War Z" but they do now.

Pitt and Enos fit well together, both hippie-ish yet able to show laserlike focus. We don't learn much about Enos' Karen beyond her ability to spring into action just like her husband when the crisis hits. But Pitt and Enos impart a long history of intimacy in their few scenes together before Gerry is called away.

Gerry secured space for his family on a military ship that's at sea, beyond the reach of zombie chompers. That space is available only if Gerry agrees to embark on a mission to investigate the pandemic. So he leaves his family rather than expose them to the biters.

Those biters look scarier from far away. Close-ups of the undead in the film's latter sections threaten to dissolve the tension Forster and his cast so carefully built. Up close, the zombies fail the Wilson-from-"Cast Away" test.

The Wilson test gauges the believability of a big conceit, such as presenting a volleyball as a person's companion instead of sports equipment, or presenting zombies as terrifying villains instead of brain-dead nuisances. "Cast Away" viewers fall into two distinct groups: those who cried when the volleyball floated away and those who found the idea ridiculous.

"World War Z" viewers might form camps as well. Because once the giggles start, there's no known cure.


WORLD WAR Z

Three stars

Cast: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, Fana Mokoena

Director: Marc Forster

116 minutes

Rated PG-13 (intense frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images)


Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.

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