“They hate this.”

Directed by: Ruben Fischer

Written by: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick

Starring: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin

“Time to nut up or shut up,” is the mantra of Woody Harrelson’s character, Tallahassee, in Zombieland, a film that does the first more than the second, but not in the way you would think. It’s better than it had a right to be.

Harrelson (more on him later) is a zombie-killer who loves his job. Maybe he’s the flip side of George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air. And he does it with gusto, although he still can’t nail the “Zombie Kill of the Week.”

My sustained reaction as the movie rolled was relief. While I loved the creativity of the opening credits, along with Eisenberg’s voiceover describing our latest descent into post-apocalyptic anarchy (second one in a month if you count snowpocalypse in D.C.) .

Relief because the credits were about as gore-filled as the movie got (not really a head-half-blown-open kinda moviegoer), relief that the move knew how to downshift and relax, something about which most contemporary movies have no clue, relief that the characters got (a little) space to unpack, relief that the Bill Murray cameo was spot on and not too long—and most important, relief that the climax was so anticlimatic.

Let me explain: Hollywood movies–and they have been this way now for decades–are forever locked in a game of can-you-top-this, if one-upmanship.  So forgive me if I expected an endless final reel of turn-it-up-to-11 zombie attacks, with our heroes trapped, Butch and Sundance-style in a desperate situation from which there looked to be no escape. I expected a major character would kick it, in pure sacrifice to his friends, all Terminator 2, with the others watching agape in admiring gratitude.Maybe another would get munched by a zombie, and we’d all have to endure a will-she-or-won’t-she-want-face-for-dinner moment. Finally, the survivors, in whatever form, wearily make their merry way onward as the closing credits appear backed by a suitable rock anthem to keep you pumped as you push out of the theatre.

Too cynical? Nine out of 10 movies like this would have done so, without apology.

Zombieland didn’t. It stayed true to what it really was all along. And the clue lies in where Eisenberg’s character, Columbus (you had me on board there, Ruben Fischer), ends up in the last act: a funhouse. These four zombie-slayers, and the rest of us, were on a thrill ride where no one was going to get hurt. And like most funhouses, you end up laughing more than screaming.

To me, a lot of that had to do with Woody Harrelson. He owns the movie and fills it with his kind of manic energy, something I have missed as his career has charted an uneven–but rarely uninteresting–path. His brief appearance in No Country for Old Men was a highlight. I’d ask where he has been, but Wikipedia tells me he has been working steadily throughout the decade.

There’s a reason why directors such as Milos Forman, Oliver Stone and the Coen brothers have used Harrelson. He invests. And his characters (dating back to his Cheers bartender) have always been smarter and more in control than they appear to be. You can say he’s a one-note actor, but he’s had a longer and more varied career I suspect than most ever expected.

The pendulum seems to be swinging back toward Woody and I’ll welcome as it happens. Doesn’t mean I”ll watch 2012, though.

No review of Zombieland would be complete without a scene from its natural companion piece:

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