By Elias Savada.
All the things that made the original so great are lacking in its new CGI-heavy follow-up. Its heart is still pumping with adrenaline, though”
You know the saying. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. The problem with South Korean fillmmaker Yeon Sang-ho’s new zombie thriller is that he already succeeded, marvelously, in that genre with his action-packed 2016 apocalypse classic Train to Busan. For his latest effort, you need to flip that saying on its head: If at first you succeed, don’t try, try again. Sadly, all the things that made the original so great – especially the claustrophobic choreography aboard the eponymous vehicle – are lacking in its new CGI-heavy follow-up. Its heart is still pumping with adrenalin, though.
Oh, and don’t call Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula a sequel. At least according to the writer-director, who claims it’s just a continuing episode (actually, it’s the final one) in his undead trilogy, one that also includes the animated feature Seoul Station, a prequel released right after the first film. Of course, if you go by the branding under which Peninsula is being promoted on this side of the planet, it’s easy to understand why most folks might look at it as the sequel that it isn’t.
So, yes, now that I’ve cleared that up, this next “chapter” in Yeon’s post-apocalyptic universe, set four years after that fateful train ride, was released last month in his home country, where it had the best box office since movie screens were re-awakened after the Covid-19 virus shutdown. Now getting a worldwide send-off “in select theaters,” you might be more concerned about pulling your mask down for a kernel of popcorn and a sip of soda than watching the weird catastrophe unfold on the screen.
The film opens with a brief excursion back to when-all-hell-is-breaking-loose 2016, then finds its current hero, Captain Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) stuck as an illegal refugee in Hong Kong with his widowed brother-in-law, Cheol-min (Kim Do-yoon). They will soon become pawns in a search for a multi-million dollar stash back in zombie country. All they need do is navigate the undead and a mean-hearted militia after tip toeing back to a virus-infested Incheon on the South Korean peninsula.
The grab-and-run operation obviously goes south despite a far-fetched, promising start (like finding a needle of moolah in one particular haystack in a city sprinkled with dead people and discarded vehicles). At this point, Yeon sets up the other pieces on his zombie cheeseboard.
The corrupt are all members of Unit 631, militarized scavengers ruled by Captain Seo (Koo Gyo-hwan), but more in step with the boastfully sadistic Sergeant Hwang (Kim Min-jae), who enjoys pitting captured loners called “wild dogs” against zombies in ludicrously organized gladiator death sport matches.
The only survivors of concern all belong to the same family, one that, way-too-coincidentally, Jung-seok had a very brief encounter with in reel one. Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun) is the protective mother of her two pre-teen daughters. They shelter with a quirky grandfather figure (Kwon Hae-hyo), apparently, like the mother, previously part of the corruptors before turning protective for the sake of the family unit. It’s the chatty, resourceful, and cute-under-all-that-grime kids who will offer the brighter, comic side in an otherwise bleak film. The older daughter, Jooni (Lee Re) has too-impressive driving skills for a girl her age. Her younger sister, Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won) is a wiz with radio-controlled toy vehicles, used to deflect the zombies attention when the fast-moving undead are looking at them, excitedly, as their next victims.
And that brings me to my biggest peeve with the film – illegal underage drivers. Well, one named Jooni, at least, who has the pro-circuit lead foot that might suggest her father was, say, Dale Earnhardt or Richard Petty (he wasn’t). She also has better stunt driving skills than Evel Knievel. He wasn’t her dad, either. Also, can her feet reach the pedals? And who taught her those extraordinary skills and, considering the streets are filled with debris of all sorts of animal, vegetable, and mineral, where could she practice and learn all the back alleys that she knows the family SUV can precisely squeeze through? One more thing (or, am I putting way too much thought into this): how come the junked cars, with drivers that were mostly plucked out of their vehicles by their dead friends, families, co-workers, etc., are so well placed along the curbs to allow super-fast car chases?
Interaction on multiple levels proceed as the good, the dead, and the ugly fall into each other’s laps, fighting for life, liberty, and the pursuit of money.
Otherwise, Peninsula‘s action moves along frantically enough, except when the zombies pause briefly so the heroic main characters can be shown experiencing slo-mo anguish. There’s plenty of quick editing (particularly in the climactic Grand Prix/Mad Max race to a port-side rendezvous), moments of heroism, and oodles of killing of the living and the dead (they’re often interchangeable), but it’s just way too heavily lathered on.
It’s okay, I guess, that people, as writ in Yeon’s screenplay, are still doing stupid things in a country filled with zombies, like unbuckling a dead truck driver.
IMHO, more isn’t better. It’s time to leave the Undead alone.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).