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MOVIE REVIEW: Brad Pitt takes on zombies in 'World War Z'

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Special Photo: Paramount Left to right, Brad Pitt is Gerry Lane, Abigail Hargrove is Rachel Lane, and Mireille Enos is Karin Lane in "World War Z."

World War Z

(PG-13)

2 stars out of four stars

Born under a wickedly bad sign, "World War Z" has been mired in development hell, multiple script overhauls, reshoots and release date delays that started as far back as 2007 when its rights were acquired by Brad Pitt's Plan B production company. Before the dust settles, it could very well wind up being the biggest flop in movie history.

The first whiff of trouble came when devoted fans of the 2006 book by Max (son of Mel) Brooks caught wind that the movie would bear little in common with the source material. It turns out all of their concerns were justified. The only things the film and book shares are the title and zombies. Instead of a darkly comic recounting of past events, the movie is set in the present day and is a standard-issue summer popcorn movie lacking any of the books's heart, wit, sarcasm and astute political observations.

Never going into detail of how it happened, an epidemic -- initially diagnosed as a virus -- spreads over the globe in what seems like seconds and every continent except Antarctica is overrun by zombies. Instead of being told from the perspective of multiple victims, the film is presented through the eyes of Gerry (Pitt), a former United Nations employee whose previous talents lie in settling political unrest in Third World countries.

After showing a few innocuous minutes spent in the company of Gerry, his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and their two too-adorable daughters, director Marc Forster and five credited screenwriters get to the action. During a morning traffic jam in Philadelphia (actually Glasgow, Scotland), swarms of the undead blanket the city with the efficiency of an ant colony. These aren't your typical lumbering, mobility-challenged zombies either; they move at a clip that rivals that of jungle cats.

Barely escaping capture and/or infection, Gerry's family is airlifted to an offshore battleship where he's told by his former U.N. boss that only he can save the world and strongly implies that if the reticent Gerry doesn't get with the program, the women in his life will be taken back to Philadelphia.

Developing out of thin air an encyclopedic knowledge of all things zombie in an instant, Gerry first goes to South Korea to interrogate a toothless CIA agent turned traitor (David Morse) who sold guns to the North. Exactly why he has no teeth is uniquely bizarre and appropriately discomforting.

Not learning much, Gerry decides Israel should be the next stop on his global tour because that country's millennium-old walls have thus far done a superb job of keeping the zombies out. Perhaps they know something no one else does. After the dank darkness of Pennsylvania, the underbelly confines of a ship and the gray nighttime Asian rain, a stopover in the sunbathed Middle Eastern desert is a welcome visual relief.

The Israeli chunk of the film not only offers up the best visuals of the otherwise iffy 3-D presentation, it also comes as close to typical summer movie action as the film will get, both on the ground and in the air. As Israel blends into somewhere in Europe, followers of the productions' checkered history will recognize this third act as what was recently (last fall) completely rewritten and reshot.

Back again in claustrophobic close quarters, the last portion of the movie has some action but is mostly presented as a medical procedural. In the context of sci-fi, the ending makes sense and does offer a bit of closure but still feels oddly incomplete. The treatment of the zombies throughout -- as disease carriers and not horror-based monsters -- is also a novel concept but one that is ultimately left unfulfilled.

Because he has grown to become such a high-profile off-screen celebrity, watching any movie starring Pitt now presents a double-edged sword. The masses want to see him on-screen, but it's becoming increasingly harder to suspend disbelief and pretend he is a character and not Brad Pitt. This same thing occurred with Pitt's "Interview with the Vampire" co-lead Tom Cruise. While each man can act competently, neither is in possession of much range and Pitt doesn't do himself any favors here by sporting bad hair, a half-realized beard, little to no makeup and a wardrobe easily attainable at any Wal-Mart.

Although reports of budget vary widely, almost all in the know concur that in order to make a profit of any kind, "World War Z" will have to clear $400 million at the box office. Even with Pitt as the lead, it's unlikely any zombie film will ever make $400 million or more. (Paramount)