Paying tribute to the black combat soldier, “The Walking Dead” is an earnest, socially conscious pic that is not terribly effective as an actioner or personal drama. If not for its foul language and sexual humor, film would have been nicely suited for the small screen, though without a recognizable cast and the genre’s more conventional pleasures, it’s doubtful the movie will have stronger impact on video, its natural destination after a short theatrical life.
Made 20 years after the U.S. pulled its forces out of Vietnam, and almost a decade after the Vietnam movie genre reached its peak, “The Walking Dead” deserves some credit for its audacity in being so out of touch with current filmmaking trends.
Yet, after numerous Vietnam war features, docus and popular TV series, a film about Vietnam needs a stronger story and fresher point of view to justify its existence — and entice audiences.
Alas, the only new thing about Preston A. Whitmore II’s movie is that its chief protagonists are black, though it doesn’t really explore their ethnic backgrounds or racial and class tensions, two issues that were more effectively handled in the 1987 Vietnam drama “Hamburger Hill.”
Set in 1972, tale centers on Sgt. Barkley (Joe Morton) and his fellow Marines as they are assigned their last mission, which involves evacuating all remaining survivors from a POW camp abandoned by the Viet Cong. Thoughit appears simple, the seasoned fighter knows there are no routine missions in a war like Vietnam.
Barkley has good reasons to be anxious, for only two Marines have combat experience: Pvt. Hoover Branche (Eddie Griffin), a 22-year-old cynic who has survived two tours of duty, and Cpl. Pippins (Roger Floyd), a former criminal whose toughness and “ease” with killing borders on dementia.
But for the other soldiers, it’s their first bloody journey: Pfc. Cole Evans (Allen Payne) is a devoted father who enlisted to provide base housing for his wife and daughter, and Pfc. Joe Brooks (Vonte Sweet) is a naive youngster who joined the Marines to achieve manhood and secure a better future.
Writer-director Whitmore can’t decide whether “Dead” is a suspenseful actioner, a la “Platoon” and “Hamburger Hill,” or a psychodrama, though he mostly opts for the latter. Each of the five characters gets to disclose a “secret” and reflect on his life. Result is a muddled film with a structure punctuated by tedious flashbacks, interconnected by some not very authentic or thrilling shootouts. The constant cutting between military and civilian life is meant to build tension but instead dissipates whatever momentum develops.
Helmer lacks the technical savvy and visual style that an action film requires — the combat sequences are poorly staged and roughly integrated into the story. But Whitmore coaxes decent performances from his talented cast, headed by Morton as a former pastor whose troubled past has made him a kind of surrogate father. Standout work comes from Griffin as a foul-mouthed soldier who initially resists any emotional attachment to his fellows but at the end learns a lesson about the value of camaraderie.
Pic was shot in Orlando and Chuluota, Fla.; physical locale is not particularly convincing. Other tech credits are just average.