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`Walking Dead’ Lively, But A Little Out Of Focus

Frank Bruni Detroit Free Press

“The Walking Dead” Theater: North Division cinema Cast: Directed and written by Preston A. Whitmore II, it stars Allen Payne, Eddie Griffin and Jor Morton Running time: 94 minutes Rated R

What mix of motives lures young men into the military and lands them in the middle of war? Are the triggers any different for young African-American men?

Those seem to be central questions asked by “The Walking Dead,” which tracks the progress of a group of black Marines in Vietnam over a chaotic few days. The answers run the gamut from insightful to insipid, acute to ambiguous.

Although the first half of the movie seems to be positioning itself as a commentary on the connection between racial slights in American society and the number and experiences of black men in Vietnam, the second half largely squanders that promise.

“The Walking Dead” loses not only its focus but also its nerve, succumbing to a host of standardissue action-flick flourishes.

It reaches out for grisly melodrama in the form of a white Marine who goes violently bonkers for poorly explained reasons, with unclear relevance. It culminates in a cliched, hurried affirmation of brotherhood amid bloodshed.

To its credit, it’s never dull, thanks both to the lively dialogue scripted by writer-director Preston Whitmore II, a former Detroiter enjoying an increasingly bright moviemaking career, and to equally lively performances from talented actors including Eddie Griffin and the smashingly handsome Allen Payne, both of whom appeared last year in “Jason’s Lyric.”

But the movie never achieves the meaning or coherence to which it initially seems to aspire. Although advertisements for “The Walking Dead” tout “the untold story of the black experience in Vietnam,” the movie is seldom that sweeping, definitive or authoritative.

It’s actually set in 1972, toward the end of the war. The characters played by Griffin and Payne are members of a Marine unit with a mission to rescue Americans at a prisoner-ofwar camp.

The movie opens as they receive those orders. A chopper then wings them through the night to the middle of the jungle. As soon as they land, they are assaulted by enemy fire, and several Marines die.

As the survivors trudge through dense foliage to their destination, each reveals a bit about himself and the movie flashes back to show his life immediately prior to military service.

Payne’s character, for example, found that when he was ready to move his wife and young child out of an impoverished neighborhood, landlords in more prosperous areas weren’t willing to rent an apartment to a black family. For him, a military career meant guaranteed housing outside the ghetto.

Flashbacks for other characters, however, draw increasingly indirect links between racial matters and military enlistment.

There’s an interesting idea here. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come across directly, forcefully or consistently enough.

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