If Brad Pitt ever finds himself caught up in a real-life zombie apocalypse, I suspect he’ll do quite well. His intrepid character in World War Z, Gerry, a former UN operative, becomes separated from his family, walks away from a horrific car accident, is nearly torn apart by shrapnel from an exploded helicopter, survives a plane crash AND being impaled chest to back by a length of steel, injects himself with not one but two deadly pathogens, all the while managing beyond reasonable expectation to escape the clutches of lunatics infected with a virulent strain of rabies. This is, without question, the most fortunate man in the history of zombie movies. And if you think all of that is crazy, you could drive yourself right into a straight-jacket miring in some of the movie’s more interesting technical points.
But, dammit, I say none of that matters, because, despite its inconsistencies, World War Z manages to thrill like few other action movies this year. And that’s saying a lot about a premise that primarily involves people getting their throats ripped out. Gerry, now a retired family man, finds himself pulled back into government service as the infectious disease spreads rapidly across the continents, turning its victims into ravenous crazies. What begins as a mission to escort a pathologist into Asia to search for patient zero becomes a cross-continental fight to the death, as Gerry follows a series of leads (some of them false) to what might be a cure located somewhere in Wales. Along the way, he picks up a lovely plot device named Segen (Daniella Kertesz), a Vasquez-like soldier who follows Gerry into the depths of hell and proceeds to kick twice as much ass with fewer limbs than when she started.
Gerry’s wife, Karin, and their two children have little to do except wait in a safe-zone for dad to return. Karin has her requisite scenes of fret and despair, as she waits for a daily phone call from Gerry. It’s a thankless job for actress Mireille Enos, but she goes about it admirably, nonetheless. Director Marc Forster knows the meat and potatoes of the movie are in its intricate action sequences, as Gerry moves from country to country, slaughtering the hordes of zombies standing between him and his goal. Forster has essentially given us a two-hour first-person shooter game that’s unusually exciting for the genre. He avoids going for easy laughs as a means of levity, choosing instead to allow the story to unfold organically as a bleak end-of-the-world scenario. By the time the story has shaken out, we realize we’ve become invested in Gerry’s outcome, precisely because Forster has been so straight with us.
One last thing: I continue to insist that Brad Pitt is one of the most underrated actors working; watch his recent work in The Tree of Life and Moneyball and tell me you disagree. Here, he plays a character without any real dimension and manages to make us care about him through a sense of urgency and the real possibility of never making it home to his wife and kids. Pitt has a natural ease, never seeming to strain for the right notes, a skill we’ve seen in film after film. He’s the real deal. Along with his uncanny knack for producing great films (like this year’s sensational 12 Years a Slave) I think Pitt may have finally shaken off the final vestiges of his Hollywood pretty-boy image and emerged as a cinema heavy-weight.