The rumor goes that director Ruben Fleischer, screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick, and stars Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin all mutually agreed that they wanted to make the film that would ultimately emerge as Zombieland: Double Tap almost as soon as Zombieland hit theaters back in 2009. And (the rumor continues) the film has sort of loosely been in development ever since. I don't see any real reason to believe that this is a lie, but it's not a very inspiring truth. One likes to imagine, if this really were in development for ten years, that Reese & Wernick (at some point along the line, Dave Callaham joined them, at least enough to get a shared credit) would have spent that time nurturing ideas and really ironing out exactly what would be the purpose of returning to these characters and this setting, doig something that would really let us feel the passage of time and what it means for this story. Instead, Double Tap feels like the writers realised the night before shooting was set to begin that they didn't have anything, and better crank something out fast.

If nothing else, the filmmakers have at least done a halfway decent job of evolving the character relationships, if not really the characters themselves. It's ten years into the zombie apocalypse, and at some point since the last movie, Tallahassee (Harrelson), Columbus (Eisenberg), Wichita (Stone), and Little Rock (Breslin) - the film doesn't slow itself down by reintroducing the quartet, correctly assuming that they have such boldly-drawn personalities that any newbies will figure out what's up pretty fast - have set up shop in the White House, which conveniently is still surrounded by the barricades put in place to keep the president safe back when the zombie outbreak first happened. This presumably did not work, and so our heroes have made it their home, resulting in rather fewer really inspired gags at the expense of the setting than I expected. At any rate, things are getting strained: Little Rock, now fully a young woman, is annoyed at Tallahassee's insistence on treating her like his tiny daughter, and Wichita is growing terrified at Columbus's desire that they start thinking of themselves as a stable, for-all-time couple, and not just two people sleeping together. So the sisters flee one day, leaving the boys in a state of depression (Columbus) and wrath (Tallahassee).

All of this is less the plot than the pretext, though it's clear that everybody involved thought that the Columbus/Wichita situation had some meat on its bones. In practice, it's mostly just there to provide context for a throughline of jokes: see, Columbus has sex with the impossibly dumb Madison (Zoey Deutch), who has spent the apocalypse hiding inside a frozen yogurt cooler in the local mall. And literally just hours later, Wichita (who has since been abandoned by Little Rock) returns. And so now she keeps verbally stabbing Columbus for being an asshole, and worse yet, an asshole with bad taste in women. There is a relationship drama in there somewhere, but most of this is designed to set up Stone with a whole lot of reaction shots.

That's the film's strength, anyway. Double Tap is a bit flimsy in a lot of ways, but it has a backbone of iron in the form of its cast, including not just the four returning stars, but Deutch as well, along with Rosario Dawson as Nevada, another expert survivalist who turns Tallahassee into a quivering bowl of jelly. And, to be honest, minus Breslin, who gets gated off in her own subplot with Avan Jogia as a boring hippie going by the name of Berkeley (one of the more conspicuous holes in the movie's world-building; even if we concede that the rule of "only use your hometown as your name" has become so ubiquitous that all these strangers would know it, hippies since time immemorial have made something of a show of breaking from traditional naming conventions). But that still leaves us with a lot of people, and the best thing that Double Tap does is to arrange different little beats between every pair of them. Deutch, being the new cast member who shows up first, is the main beneficiary of these pairings, which has led to the consensus opinion that she steals the show and gives the best performance. I don't think either of those is strictly true: she's very skillfully executing an extraordinarily narrow one-joke character, which doesn't feel like all that much of an acting challenge (the vocal fry is more than half the battle). What she is doing is catalysing Eisenberg, Stone, and Harrelson, giving each of them new angles to play, freshening up their characters, and in Stone's particular case, giving her a fantastic opportunity to trot out the withering sarcasm that's one of her main strengths as an actor. Honestly, nothing but a whole feature of Stone throwing shade at Deutch would probably be the best comedy of 2019; it would certainly be better thanΒ Double Tap, which becomes meaningfully worse whenever it's doing anything else.

Maybe that's a harsh way of putting it, but I think it's fair. Double Tap has virtually the same suite of comic ideas as Zombieland: Eisenberg's brightly nerdy voice-over provides an ironic gloss to images that are otherwise standard gory horror fare, often with speed-ramping, while onscreen text that is acted-upon by the environment (though it does not act upon the environment itself) synopsise his beloved list of rules for surviving the zombie-filled environment. And then the aforementioned banter. Kudos to Fleischer for deciding to use some visual flair in making his violent comedy, for comedies that are actually well-made as cinema have become essentially extinct; this is maybe pushing the limits of "well-made", but at least it's something. At the same time, there's a very droning same-ness to far too many of the jokes, and it's a same-ness compounded by the fact that this is a sequel. The insistence on the rules was already not the first film's strength, and it feels, somehow, to be even more of a big deal here, and it's just not really doing anything after the first little refresher. It's part of the film's larger meta-problem, which is that it cares a lot about world-building: the characters have their own taxonomy of zombies, other characters have other taxonomies, still other characters have an alternate way of dealing with the zombies altogether. And the film finds all of this endlessly interesting, to the detriment of its comedy. And of its zombie action, frankly.

But let's stick with comedy, since that's nominally the main genre. Double Tap is far too excited about explaining: explaining how the world functions and the characters function in it, mostly, but this bleeds into a tremendously annoying tendency to double-underline every punchline and, at worst, even have the characters all but explicitly state "this was a punchline" (this is at its very worst when Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch put in extended cameos as clones of Harrelson and Eisenberg, and Stone spends the next ten minutes delivering variations on the line "isn't it absurd and thus funny that there are two people who are like the main characters but are not main characters?"). It's the death of humor, and coupled with Double Tap's odd insistence on being more of a proper zombie movie than I recall Zombieland being, it leads to the movie being just not all that much fun. Hanging out with the characters, at least, is fun; the actors haven't lost a step, and Deutch and Dawson bring in new forms of energy that makes it feel fresh and lively. But hanging out with fun characters only goes so far, and Double Tap runs into that limit hard.