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Character development the real victim in 'World War Z'

| Thursday, June 20, 2013, 8:10 p.m.

“World War Z,” Marc Forster's loose adaptation of Max Brooks' novel, survived production problems, writer changes and delays. It does a good job of establishing how quickly the fabric of society tears, in a thrilling, terrifying opening scene.

But what all of that time and money couldn't provide, evidently, is decent character development for anyone but the man Brad Pitt plays, Gerry Lane. Gerry is a former United Nations operative, who quit to spend more time with his family.

In the movie, he spends about 20 minutes with them before hopping back in the saddle. A drive through the streets of Philadelphia turns horrific, as enraged, savage people start attacking other people; then the victim becomes another attacker.

Yep. Zombies. It takes a little while for the powers to be to buy that conclusion, of course. After a suspenseful sequence in which Gerry and his family escape the clutches of the zombies, they are swooped up, literally, by the United Nations. His old boss, Thierry (Fana Mokoena), tries to convince him to help the cause.

So, he heads off to South Korea, where James Badge Dale has a nice bit as a tough-guy soldier and David Morse has a ball as a disgraced, possibly insane CIA agent, before heading for Israel. Somewhere along the line, Matthew Fox has a blink-and-you'll-miss-him moment. Lots of actors come and go, few registering.

It's not as if you can't tell the survivors from the zombies. It's that you're not given any particular reason to care about one group more than the other.

Then, finally, in the last segment, things change a bit. The group is pared down to Gerry, an Israeli soldier named Segen (Daniella Kertesz) and a World Health Organization doctor (Pierfrancesco Favino) listed in the credits as “W.H.O. Doctor,” which tells you a lot about how seriously the writers take the characters.

This bunch must face off against a group of zombies confined to a wing of a research facility. Here, we get back to the tension so nicely portrayed at the beginning of the film, but on a more personal scale.

About those zombies: Fans of the genre will note that they are not the slow-moving, “Night of the Living Dead” type. Instead, they move at great, reckless speed, driven by their hunger to bite, kill, move on. They hurl themselves off buildings, into helicopters, wherever flesh and blood might be. A scene in which they scamper all over each other, the pile building until they can mindlessly scale a wall in Israel, is pretty swell.

Not enough else is. Pitt remains a dependable star, and a better actor than that implies. His Gerry obviously cares about his family. It's just the rest of us who don't, and that's where “World War Z” falls short of what it might have been.

Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic is the chief film critic for Gannett.

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