Yeon Sang-ho’s 2016 film Train to Busan was a hit because it put a fresh spin on the zombie genre, limiting the characters’ freedom of movement — much of the film takes place on a train — and setting a timer by giving that train a destination, and an uncertain welcome on arrival. The sequel faces the usual question of whether it’s possible to capture lightning in the same bottle twice, but Yeon at least tries something completely different this time out.
Where Train to Busan was relatively contained, Peninsula is sprawling. In the years since Train to Busan’s zombie outbreak, the entirety of South Korea has been quarantined and deemed a lost cause. Survivors have found refuge in Hong Kong, but are treated as second-class citizens due to their former proximity to the virus. One such survivor, Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won), is wracked by guilt over having lost his sister on the ferry to Hong Kong. He and his brother-in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon) barely scrape by, but are given a chance at really starting a new life when a group of gangsters offers them a job: Go back to South Korea and retrieve a truck full of millions in U.S. currency, and split the money once they get it out.
When they return to South Korea, they find something halfway between The Last of Us and Mad Max: Fury Road. The city is populated by roaming zombies, as well as a last group of hold-outs who make their base in a mall and send out a motley militia to kill the undead and bring back supplies. Unfortunately, they also use any other survivors they find for sport, pitting them against zombies in cage matches.
The living end up posing the greatest threat to Jung-seok and Chul-min, with the zombies becoming props rather than the active force they were in Train to Busan. The stakes are compelling: the hold-outs soon figure out that there may be a way off of the island, and do everything they can to try to take Jung-seok and Chul-min’s places on the boat back to Hong Kong. But the story still feels less urgent than Train to Busan did. Perhaps it’s the current moment, but watching people utterly fail to cooperate and instead slaughter each other while bigger, more deadly problems loom is depressing, and certainly less resonant than Train to Busan’s group of passengers ultimately putting aside their suspicions and selfishness to band together and try to make it out alive.
There’s nothing new about the zombies in Peninsula except that they’ve increased in number. Unfortunately, that increase doesn’t make them a greater threat, as the characters have more room to outmaneuver them, since they aren’t trapped in a moving tin can the way they were in the first movie. The concepts introduced in Train to Busan — the zombies’ poor eyesight and sharp hearing — make for tense moments, as sneakiness is paramount to survival. Those sneakier tactics aren’t necessary for the rough-and-tumble, heavily armed militia, who use giant lamps and rockets to sic zombies on their prey. So as soon as the militia is introduced, the movie is vaulted into cartoonish territory.
Peninsula turns into a sort of Fury Road with zombies, as Jung-seok and the stragglers he teams up with get caught in chase after chase with the militia and the people the militia is supposed to be protecting. Cars careen through a poorly CGI-generated version of Incheon, mowing down hordes of CGI-generated zombies, and mowing down any real sense of danger as well.
The characters are accordingly more cartoony, too, with the garrulous Sergeant Hwang (Kim Min-jae) and Captain Seo (Koo Kyo-hwan) coming across as caricatures — the cocky alpha male and the slimy schemer, respectively. Their full commitment to outsized characters helps keep the movie fun, but ultimately lessens the impact of what are meant to be the film’s most emotional moments. It doesn’t help that Jung-seok is a fairly stock character, as opposed to Train to Busan’s Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), who was exactly the kind of asshole who would be the bite-hiding villain in any other zombie movie. Instead, Peninsula’s stand-out character is Joon (Lee Re), a young girl who drives like a Fast & Furious character, and doesn’t take any bullshit from the adults around her.
But one truly great character isn’t enough to make a whole movie memorable. Train to Busan had a compelling central team and an innovative approach to a familiar genre. It actually turned its limited scope to its advantage, as actual actors (for the most part) played the zombies on the train, rather than CGI fluff. Even without being compared to Train to Busan, Peninsula lacks the grounding to be able to stand alone. There’s never a dull moment, but there’s nothing to make a lasting impression, either.
Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula is in theaters now.