Dawn of Pitt: "World War Z" neutered but still a fun, tense ride

World War Z (2013) 
116 min., rated PG-13.

It's not uncommon to hear about mega-budgeted mainstream movies being plagued by a snakebit production. A mostly in-name-only adaptation of the 2006 best-seller by Max Brooks (son of Mel), "World War Z" is the latest $200-million, summer-released example, pushed back due to rewrites and seven weeks' worth of reshoots. But since what ended up on the screen is what really matters, how is the long-gestating final product? Despite what pre-release detractors might have thought, "World War Z" is surprisingly involving and a lot of meat-and-potatoes fun for an epic-scaled, suspense-fraught global-outbreak thriller.

Gerry Lane (Brad Pit) has retired as a United Nations operative to spend more time with wife Karen (Mireille Enos) and daughters Rachel (Abigail Hargrove) and Constance (Sterling Jerins). Retirement is mentioned too soon, as one morning on the traffic-laden streets of Philadelphia turns into hellish pandemonium, with a fast-acting virus making the living convulse and turn into the undead in only a matter of twelve seconds (cleverly counted by Constance's talking stuffed bear). Gerry and family escape to shelter and are soon picked up by a helicopter sent by his former UN colleague (Fana Mokoena) and taken to a US Navy ship near New York. Though reluctant to leave his wife and kids, he is asked to return to his old job, trying to locate where the growing pandemic began. If there's no vaccine in his travels from South Korea to Jerusalem, Gerry might be headed for the big sleep or, worse, become one of the undead.

The film's major Kryptonite is its restricting PG-13 rating, which is usually the kiss of death in the horror genre, but even this year's zom-rom-com "Warm Bodies" proved it could be done well. Here, the horror element is tame by today's standards, but the zombies still pose a threat, particularly when they're not transformed into video-game avatars or a colony of ants when they pile on top of one another to climb over Jerusalem's defensive wall. Though the source material retained the traditional zombie shuffle, the teeth-chattering undead in this film version are part of the relentless, freakishly sped-up new school (like the trail-blazing "28 Days Later" and the "Dawn of the Dead" remake). Too bad all neck-, brain-, and intestine-biting (as well as an amputation) is downplayed to the point of watering down the blood and gore, but such is life for horror diehards. 

The trifecta of screenwriters, Matthew Michael Carnahan ("State of Play"), Drew Goddard ("The Cabin in the Woods"), and Damon Lindelof ("Star Trek Into Darkness"), don't waste much time with intimacy or character development. It's pancakes for breakfast, the Lanes are then thrust into panic, and it's go, go, go. One must take a few leaps of faith in believing that Gerry would be chosen to go on such a globe-trotting trek and how he could pick up on important facts about the infected just by looking back as everyone else is running, but these logic hiccups are quickly forgiven. As directed by Marc Forster, who makes up for the mishandling of most of the action in "Quantum of Solace," the set-piece in Philly is tense, intense, and kinetic, if cut a bit too quickly and shot so chaotically to really get a good, clean look at who's infected and who's just running for their life. Even for the gutlessness of the powers that be at Paramount Pictures and their hopes to satisfy the hoi polloi, Forster still creates suspense, keeps the pace taut, and executes enough notably edgy set-pieces. There's a sense of atmospheric dread, a nice jump scare, and excitement in a New Jersey apartment's dark stairwell to the roof; a "bumpy" flight in an airplane headed for Wales is a harrowing knockout; and finally in the reworked third act, once Gerry and his Israeli escort soldier Segen (Daniella Kertesz) make it to the World Health Organization research facility, a trip to a zombie-infested wing is effectively quiet and more claustrophobic in its tension. Another plus is Marco Beltrami's memorable synthesizer score, evoking the creepy mood of "The Exorcist" theme, "Tubular Bells."

Casting Pitt was a wise choice for the story's human touch. He's the ultimate movie star with acting chops, being able to perform action and credibly play a devoted family man so the viewer has at least a strand of emotional connectivity. As played by Pitt, Gerry has our rooting interest, as he's resourceful and gutsy but never an entirely immune superhero. He's so selfless that at one point, when he knows he's gotten some zombie blood in his mouth, he rushes to the edge of his family's rooftop escape, counting to twelve and ready to jump. Enos, as his wife Karen, fulfills the emotional and physical obligations during the panic, but she's gone too soon, left to worry and wait for Gerry's phone calls. There are also quick-hitting moments with magnetic character actors (James Badge Dale and David Morse) and Matthew Fox, who apparently received the Terrence Malick of axes, only shows up to utter one or two lines and is then gone, but this is obviously Pitt's vehicle.

No matter how brainy it could have been, "World War Z," by the same token, knows how to ratchet up your heartbeat as a thrilling, popcorn-purging ride with enough rest in between. The anticlimactic, somewhat pat coda makes it clear this is just the beginning—"This isn't the end...not even close," Pitt literally interjects in a tacked-on voice-over—so even if this tentpole doesn't recover its full budget, hopefully a possible sequel will go the gutsier "R" route. Script problems notwithstanding, the cumulative effect of "World War Z" is one of fast-and-furious entertainment while you're in the dark.