'Zombieland: Double Tap' Review: A Wonderful Cast Keeps This Sequel Mostly Fresh

Zombieland: Double Tap, like its 2009 predecessor, is a triumph of casting and style over substance. As the original was, Double Tap has the slick sheen of the highest-end marketing campaign, looking polished and buffed even as it depicts the blood-soaked world in which a zombie apocalypse has taken over and a few human stragglers fight their way towards survival. Double Tap manages to succeed even mildly thanks largely to its core cast members, who charm their way through a script that sometimes smacks of being written on the day of shooting.Once again, we're following the exploits of an unlikely quartet: there's the cheerful narrator Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), his country-fried partner Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus' fierce paramour Wichita (Emma Stone) and her little sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), all named after cities to hide their true identities. When we meet up with them this time, they're finally making a home for themselves, in the biggest one of all: the White House. After some briefly idyllic faux-domesticity, though, the foursome turns to two. Little Rock, now in her early twenties, chafes at Tallahassee's overbearing nature, running away with Wichita, who freaks out when Columbus proposes marriage.Plot, though, is of a secondary nature to a film like Zombieland: Double Tap. As the goofy ad campaign has noted, the film comes from the director of last year's inexplicable hit Venom and the writers of Deadpool. (If you're wondering why the ads are goofy, it's because the aforementioned director and writers...directed and wrote the first Zombieland. Why not lead with that?) And Deadpool, especially, thrives on being a heavily meta, fourth-wall-breaking story with a title character who's keenly aware of the fact that he's in a movie. There's not quite that level of audience acknowledgment in Double Tap, in that none of the characters stare down the camera to emphasize a gag. But Columbus' narration starts by tipping to the audience. During one scene with a particularly bloody zombie kill, he warns, "Put your Milk Duds down for this one", and at another point, he references that only a 4DX theater can make you understand how Zombieland smells. Lucky for Double Tap, the level of smugness pervading the Deadpool movies is mostly absent here. The jokes, which come roughly as fast as they do in those superhero films, work more for two reasons. One is that the characters in Double Tap are allowed to be characters, not just pawns in a rib-nudging feature-length circle jerk.The second is that the cast in Double Tap heavily elevates the material beyond what it might deserve. Eisenberg, now more easily identified thanks to his symphony of smug in The Social Network, always carefully toes the line as the almost perversely upbeat Columbus. What he perceives as domestic bliss with Wichita is mostly one-sided in the early going, but even after entanglements arise, he seems just so happy to be playing a rare well-rounded nerd. Stone, after a decade that's brought her an Oscar and recent, deserved praise for her darkly comic role in The Favourite, returns to one of her earlier characters also toeing a line: she's still got solid chemistry with Eisenberg, even though the glare she gives in a few sequences reads more like "Why did I agree to be in this movie again?" Those few sequences are driven by one of the new characters, Madison (Zoey Deutch). Madison is, putting it lightly, a dumb-blonde character to end all dumb-blonde characters. Deutch, too, is toeing a very careful line. Madison, who we meet in an otherwise abandoned mall, is the constant butt of jokes; Deutch takes a character who comes close to being straight-up, nails-on-the-chalkboard-level annoying, and makes her far funnier than she ought to be. The rest of the new cast is, for the most part, adequate; one setpiece, in which Tallahassee and Columbus encounter a different pair (Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch) who are essentially their mirror images, seems designed mostly to allow director Ruben Fleischer to show off a fancy, effects-aided one-take fight between humans and zombies.At one point early in Zombieland: Double Tap, Columbus reads with fascination an issue of The Walking Dead, eventually deeming it "unrealistic". It's a funny aside that tips its hand to what might be the larger stumbling block for this zombie film. When Zombieland opened in 2009, though the comic series The Walking Dead was going strong, the massively popular AMC adaptation had yet to begun. Now, a decade later, most of the actors in Double Tap have had pretty big rises in fame, and zombie culture as a whole has reached the opposite end of its faddish nature. So yes, there are bloody kills in Double Tap, a bevy of pop-culture jokes, a script that's always reminding you that it knows you're watching, and flash to spare. But it's that overly talented cast that makes this a somewhat enjoyable, if slightly aging, experience./Film Rating: 6 out of 10