South Korea managed the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic unusually well, which is basically the opposite of how Yeon Sang-ho’s 2016 “Train to Busan” predicted the country might react to such a disaster. In a genre of mostly forgettable flesh-eating thrillers, Yeon’s cult zombie hit stood out as one of the more entertaining, coupling local paranoia — about corrupt leaders and overzealous military, in an indirect critique of the scandalously mismanaged 2014 Sewol ferry accident — with a kooky yet effective “Snakes on a Plane”-style conceit: What if an outbreak occurred on a contained, fast-moving train? (Something similar happened — minus the zombies — when the coronavirus struck multiple international cruise ships earlier this year.)
Before, that “Can they get to Busan before the zombies get them?” dynamic focused Yeon on delivering a kinetic, character-driven action movie. But the franchise’s subsequent installments (starting with the nasty feature-length animated prequel “Seoul Station”) have felt relatively unfocused by comparison. According to Yeon’s cynical worldview, dark-hearted humans can be far scarier than the undead. The same holds true in the director’s ugly and all-around unpleasant “Peninsula” — selected for the canceled 2020 Cannes Film Festival, and already a box office success in South Korea — which picks up four years later with a much bleaker vision for the country.
Apart from a smattering of survivors, South Korea has been abandoned, its once-ultra-modern mega-cities reduced to apocalyptic ruins. In the previous films, Yeon wreaked devastation on Busan and Seoul, and here he turns his attention to the port city of Incheon, now a smoldering wasteland, its skyscrapers dark and bridges lying broken like giant carcasses in an elephant graveyard. Somewhere in the zombie-infested city sits a truck loaded with $20 million in U.S. currency, just waiting for someone courageous enough to come back and recover it.
The challenge falls to four Korean refugees, tired of being treated like second-class citizens in nearby Hong Kong, and convinced that they can retrieve the loot under the cover of darkness — since zombies are believed to be “blind at night.” To say that the small squad has vastly underestimated the difficulty of the mission would be an understatement, although the zombies aren’t nearly as menacing as the still-uninfected humans who’ve managed to evade them all this time. A rowdy band of mercenaries known as Unit 361 roam the city in packs, scavenging for food and rounding up stragglers, whom they force to compete in cruel arena games.
It’s not that the zombies aren’t a threat (there’s a seemingly infinite supply of them lurking out there), but they’re practically incidental in a sequel that strives for more of a “Mad Max” feel, pitting these four desperadoes against the heavily armed humans who now run Incheon. Huge chunks of the movie are dedicated to bonkers cross-city chase scenes that feel like the CG equivalent of vintage “Speed Racer” sequences, as digitally rendered vehicles drift along frictionless roads. But it seems a waste to make a zombie movie, only to reduce the lumbering brain-eaters to faceless machine-gun fodder, or roadkill splattered against the windshield of speeding SUVs.
There’s still the risk that one of the four could get bitten, although now, instead of watching innocent people flee for survival, the story involves a group of vaguely sketched characters recklessly putting themselves in danger — in horror-movie terms, the equivalent of dead-meat coeds venturing upstairs when we know there’s a serial killer lying in wait. That makes “Peninsula” much more difficult for regular audiences to identify with, putting the pressure on Yeon to invent set-pieces that justify what seems like a suicide mission.
Among the team members, Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) emerges as the most compelling, seen at the outset trying to escape the initial outbreak, a challenge that called for a tough decision to leave a family stranded along the road. Jung-seok’s been wrestling with his guilt all these years — although, to be fair, characters made far more difficult judgment calls every five minutes in “Train to Busan.” That movie had a kind of simple-minded but straightforward morality that tended to work itself out, as those who made tough sacrifices were treated as heroes, while greedy and self-interested parties met gruesome fates.
The dilemmas aren’t quite so elegant here, though there’s something karmic about giving Jung-seok a second chance, as the woman he abandoned, Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun), and her two daughters, Joon-i (Lee Ra) and Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won), could be the key to making it out alive. Here, the presence of children — like the imperiled siblings in the “Jurassic Park” movies — feels like a ploy to appeal to the younger segment of a four-quadrant audience, who might appreciate such cute ideas as using a disco-lit RC car to distract the zombies.
Whereas most of the movie takes place in a grubby, blue-tinged murk — a blend of hokey day-for-night lensing and virtual set extensions that’s badly suited for home viewing, but might look frightening in darkened theaters — day breaks just in time for a big, Michael Bay-style climax. The film has clipped along at a reasonably brisk pace until this point, only to downshift into a laughably protracted slow-motion finale, full of gratuitous lens flares and overwrought strings.
The villains so far have been a pair of Unit 361 leaders, Capt. Seo (Koo Gyo-hwan) and Sgt. Hwang (Kim Min-jae), although the zombies remain always on the edges, ready to rush the scene as required to lend that extra jolt of jeopardy. During the 20-minute chase from the center of town to the port of Incheon, they swarm as they did in “World War Z,” like so many CG lemmings, plunging from bridges and ambling into the roadway. By the end, it’s impossible to say how many of them there are, or where they are in relation to the characters, beyond that there are more of them, enough to populate the next film in the franchise.