For almost 45 minutes, Yeon Sang-ho’s “Train to Busan” is on pace to become the best, most urgent zombie movie since “28 Days Later.” And then — at once both figuratively and literally — this broad Korean blockbuster derails in slow-motion, sliding off the tracks and bursting into a hot mess of generic moments and digital fire.
But oh, those first 45 minutes: they’re genre heaven (or the undead equivalent). Equal parts “Snowpiercer” and “World War Z,” the film introduces itself as the rare pastiche with enough personality to feel like something new. A sequel of sorts to Yeon’s “Seoul Station,” which received limited festival play and never received U.S. distribution, “Train to Busan” unwraps its premise so elegantly that no prior knowledge is required to get swept along by its opening act.
Something is wrong in the verdant hills of Jinyang. A truck driver rattles his vehicle up to a military checkpoint, where he’s told that the area up ahead has been quarantined. He’s not buying it; the MERS outbreak that blitzed through the country in 2015 and likely inspired Yeon’s film hasn’t left much of an impression on him. So he drives on, eventually flattening a deer who runs into the middle of the road. “Such a shitty day,” he mutters. He has no idea — he’s already fled the scene by the time the roadkill twitches back to life and hops onto its feet.
Deeper in the quiet city, a dapper Disney dad named Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is too busy earning his reputation as a corporate bloodsucker to notice the brewing zombie apocalypse. While (too) many of his moral failings are left to the imagination, we know that the recently separated Seok-woo refers to his employees as lemmings, and doesn’t make time for his young daughter, Su-an (Kim Su-an, who delivers a ferociously believable child performance).
All of that begins to change when Seok-woo retrieves the girl for a birthday trip to visit her mother (she must be some kind of monster not to get custody in this situation) and they take an early morning train — oblivious to the threatening imagery on the periphery of Yeon’s compositions. The last person to board the high-speed KTX train is a girl with a curious bite on her leg.
Yeon shines as he introduces the film’s supporting characters with the sneaky glee of a chess master arranging his pieces for a blindside attack. As Seok-woo and his daughter walk through the cabin, we’re introduced to a baseball team, a girl with a crush on one of the players, a pregnant woman (Jung Yu-mi), her salt-of-the-earth husband (the super charismatic Ma Dong-seok), an old lady, her sister, a fresh-faced train employee, and more.
The only passenger to receive special attention, however, is the homeless man in the bathroom. All zombie movies need a social conscience, and “Train to Busan” is nominally devoted to the subject of economic discrimination. Survival isn’t possible, as Seok-woo soon learns, when the rich think only for themselves, and it’s telling that the KTX crew is so preoccupied with removing the poor stowaway that they fail to notice when a young girl starts eating the paying customers.
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Characters will die with a randomness that feels capable of reviving the entire genre — the movie may be on rails, but it’s hard to overstate the degree to which Yeon’s script revitalizes a familiar premise (and uses action to articulate its central theme) by leveling the playing field. It’s key that “Train to Busan” quickly establishes rules of the game — the zombies are fast, their attacks are based on sight, and infection spreads within seconds — and resists the convenience of violating them until everything goes haywire in the inexcusable third act.
Yeon cherrypicks genre tropes in order to steer this story toward action rather than horror. He gleefully punctures the film’s austerity in order to send waves of zombies stampeding over themselves down the narrow train cabins. His favorite trick is to shoot through a window as a flesh-hungry passenger runs face-first into the glass, reasserting the physical reality that eluded similar blockbusters like “I Am Legend.” It’s even fun when the chaos spills outside and zombies begin falling from the sky, losing their grip on the landing gear of military helicopters.
But it’s only a matter of time before Yeon loses his own grip on the material, and everything that made “Train to Busan” so exciting begins to sludge into runaway nonsense at 200 MPH. As the carnage ramps up and surviving characters are forced to become a ragtag group of zombie-fighting ass-kickers, Seok-woo’s inevitable evolution from elitist prig to hero of the people gets lost in the shuffle. A half-assed side plot involving his potential involvement in the outbreak doesn’t help, nor does Yeon’s decision to let his protagonist off the hook by introducing an unbelievably scummy and selfish villain to shoulder all of the movie’s awfulness.
As the characters whittle away into archetypes (and start making senseless decisions), the spectacle also sheds its unique personality. There are really only so many ways that you can stage people sneaking around zombies in a confined space, and it’s even worse when they’re spotted and forced to fight back, if only because it’s not convincing to see a zombie throw in the towel after taking a light thwack to the head.
Yeon’s eventual surrender to such cartoonish imagery may be unsurprising given his background in animation (this is his first live-action feature), but “Train to Busan” is easily his least realistic film. This one is pitched for the big houses and the cheap seats, betraying the bitter streaks of humanism that made previous work like “The Fake” and “The King of Pigs” feel so unflinchingly real. “Train to Busan” preaches that equality is the key to survival, but Yeon doesn’t do the rest of us any favors by sacrificing the very things that make him special.
“Train to Busan” opens in theaters on Friday.