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REVIEW: Gerry Lane tries to be a typical dad. In the morning, he cooks pancakes for his two daughters, he sips coffee with his wife, makes jokes and dabbles in some small talk. All pretty meh. But two things make him a little different. 1) Let’s not kid ourselves, the guy’s Brad Pitt. Normal’s straight out the window even if he’s just a guy played by Brad Pitt. 2) He’s a former UN investigator with some obvious trauma in his past. Why? All while he’s flipping’ flapjacks, suckin’ down the java and teasing his girls, he’s got one eye glued to the flickering TV set on the kitchen broad shelf. There’s some goings on out there that he clearly wishes he was in on, but he’s made a choice to be a stay-at-home pop and he’s sticking to it. The news is prattling on about some outbreaks and martial law around the globe and it’s got Gerry a bit distracted, but he plays is it cool because first, as mentioned, this is Brad Pitt and cool is a natural by product of his Brad Pittiness, and second, he doesn’t want to scare the kiddies. Good dad.
That doesn’t last long though. Later that morning as they are driving in the congested streets of downtown Philadelphia, traffic has come to a standstill and there is a growing police presence that becomes a little unsettling. That’s because just a few blocks up, that whole “outbreak” thing the TV news was going on about? It’s here. And what is that outbreak? Well, it’s a virus thingy and it’s spreading fast you see and well it’s gone and made people go all crazy in the head. And not that crazy in the head like when you see an ad for a triple-cheese stuffed crust combo pizza but your still five hours from quitting time yet you think it about it so much that the report you were supposed to hand in is nothing but lists of cheeses and pizza ingredients crazy either. Though it does involve eating. Just not triple cheese stuffed crust pizza. Your face. They want to eat your face. So yes, they’re zombies. Not a surprise. It’s practically in the title. It’s a world wide crap your pants cluster-muck (that’s a word, right?) of a zombie apocalypse. And it’s come to Philadelphia where ex-UN investigator soon to be reinstated UN investigator Gerry Lane is now on the case.
And it’s Pitt that makes the ride tolerable really. There are many great things happening here but they are always ruined by so many ridiculous things. Like: Walling up your city to keep the herky-jerky spazoid zombies out and then singing at the top of your lungs about it so the herky-jerk spazoid zombies know where you are. Or, going on a top secret night mission through sleeping zombie-infested territory and not turning off your cell phone. That’s not cool, Brad. Not. Cool. These are just a few of this distractions that make it hard to fall totally into the film. Yet, while the story is not exactly fresh, the action and a lot of the dialogue is effective. Director Mark Forster builds great suspense throughout and though Pitt is another in a long line of silly indestructible heroes, he does have an earthy charm about him that makes it comfortable for us to follow. He’s likable and we want to go where he goes and learn what he learns. We know he’s going to be the guy to figure it out and that’s necessary in a film where chaos is the focus, even if we want to yank that stupid d-bag scarf off his neck.
World War Z ultimately doesn’t live up to its potential. The movie wastes time on things it doesn’t know how to handle better, such as the obligatory doting wife and the asthmatic daughter who just fill in blanks in the action hero screenwriting template. But it does have some exceptionally well-crafted and directed action moments and redeems much of its faults in a nail biting finale that wisely brings the global scale down to a personal level, Pitt-ing one man against one zombie. Good stuff.
Scene Setup: Aboard an off-shore Navy carrier group, scientists have traced the pandemic to patient zero in South Korea. A special team is assembled to go there and Gerry is first asked and then basically forced into joining in order to prevent his family from being shipped to a refugee camp on land, a place he certainly doesn’t want his wife and kids to be. So he ships off after a touching farewell and lands in Gyeongi-do, South Korea. There he learns that it all started when a Korean doctor was bitten by an A.W.O.L. U.S. soldier that had gone a little looney and attacked a small village before getting captured and eventually dying. Well, before waking up in zombie mode. Meanwhile, inside the military facility, he catches site of a man behind bars mumbling to himself. Who is he? C.I.A., that’s who. And he was caught selling guns to North Korea, who, interestingly enough, have had no reported cases of zombies. He has a tale to tell.
The Scene: (Timestamp 1:18:15) The unnamed C.I.A. operative is a peculiar fellow. Haggard to say the least, he is disheveled and missing most of his teeth. He is also highly satirical in welcoming a UN official, clearly mocking their ability to contain the outbreak. Gerry is amused, but curious, pulling up a bench to speak more. “Why did you sell guns to North Korea?” he asks the prisoner. “Why not?” he replies. Turns out the North Koreans are surviving the outbreak and, as the operative explains, it isn’t because of the guns. That’s only half the reason. “How then?” Gerry prods. The answer is unsettling. The man reaches into his mouth and yanks out his last front tooth.
In what he calls the greatest feat of social engineering in history, every tooth in all 23 million heads were pulled in only 24 hours. No bite. No zombie. Brilliant. Gerry is hard-pressed to believe it, but pushes for more information. He gives it. “More books. Fewer receptions. Boutros Boutros.”
It’s a throwaway line that is missed if not paying attention, simply because David Morse, playing the disturbed C.I.A. operative (in a rather spooky extension of his persona in the other film he and Brad Pitt did together – 12 Monkeys) is spine-tinglingly good. In the movie’s only truly grounded moment, where it suddenly seems like a plausible thing, a man who has worked his life behind the lines, undercover and witness to obvious horrors, reveals that this is a tragedy easily avoided. His snarky welcome to Gerry seemed jokey at first, but with this second line later about Boutros-Boutros Ghali reading more book and attending fewer receptions we learn that it is deep-seeded. With only a few words, he subtly and effectively criticizes the UN for their mishandling of a number of international events that, if managed properly, might have been avoided. He then ask Gerry to think about why certain things are as they are, such having to burn the zombies to stop them and more importantly, why Israel was able to seal of their entire country almost a week before the undead started attacking. He implies that there are answers.
This knowledge of the undead is more far-reaching than Gerry even knows and perhaps, has larger political influences. The information is vital to both Gerry and the story and so we have to ask why is it being delivered by a whacky C.I.A. agent in a South Korean military jail cell? First, as an audience, we are attached to Gerry as our escort through this tale. At this point, he is established as the one that will lead us to the end and so it is important that he remain vulnerable but in control, which he does here. This information, for the sake of the story, must be regarded with skepticism. We must question its authenticity and legitimacy but it should also have a taste of truth. Conspiracy theorists are often painted as crazies in film and is so treated here as well. This makes it familiar for us and we recognize what our role in this is immediately.
The man removes his last front tooth waiting to do so as a demonstration for anyone listening. This also is a metaphor for what he sees as the UN and his C.I.A. detractor’s efforts in the recognition, prevention and fight of the pandemic: they are toothless. But watch him carefully. He also collects his teeth and arranges them in their proper order on a card table in his cell, each representing something of value to him. He’s obviously been doing it himself and it raises the question of sanity, sure, but also planning. The man is doomed. He understands this. The country is overrun by zombies and there are few soldiers remaining on the mostly ruined base. He will die in that cell most likely from starvation unless he lets the zombies bite him through the cage. Certainly the soldiers will abandon him or will turn from attacks, so he has committed himself to his last resting place. Teeth are the delivery method, a bite opening the skin to allow the virus to flow. Even in his questionable madness, he will not allow that last indignity to take him. He will stop it where he stands and dies, at least in his small part of the world.