ByBenjamin Marlatt, writer at

An outbreak of an unknown disease has turned those infected into cannibalistic “zombies”. After his daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin) becomes one of the infected, Wade Vogel (Arnold Schwarzenegger) takes her home from the hospital, hoping he can do whatever he can to protect her. As her condition worsens, though, Wade slowly comes to the unfortunate realization that there might not be any hope for her.

Maggie is a film that needs a big disclaimer for those expecting a typical zombie film, Schwarzenegger film, or what many Arnold fans might see as a long-awaited combination of the both.

It’s none of the above, and that is exactly why I enjoyed the movie as much as I did.

Those expecting zombie blood, guts, gore and dismemberment won’t find what they’re looking for here (there are a few instances of those infected being killed off, but it’s done in a manner meant more to evoke heartbreak instead of thrills and excitement). Those expecting Schwarzenegger to open up a can of whoop-ass won’t find what they’re looking for here. Imagine The Walking Dead if created by Terrence Malick. That pretty much sums up this film.

First-time director Henry Hobson (coming from an art and title design background on projects like Snow White and the Huntsman, The Tree of Life, The Hangover Part II and The Lone Ranger) sets up a slow burn doom and gloom setting (colored with a mix of hazy greys and dreary sunsets by cinematographer Lukas Ettlin) that fully commits to its grim tone (there’s no third-act rush to reach the miraculously contrived cure) and doesn’t waste its time with ho-hum cliches that have bogged down the zombie genre. He and writer John Scott 3 give us just enough of an intro backstory, and then turn the film’s focus on a father’s fight to protect his daughter, even if his admirable intentions sometimes blind him from the tragic fate no one can avoid. Aside from what kinda comes off as a lazy narrative cheat where the doctor just lets Maggie go home as an owed favor to Wade, this succeeds as a more intimate, character based take on the zombie genre.

Intimate and character based: Two aspects I don’t think I ever imagined myself saying about any Schwarzenegger movie, even his good ones.

And it’s those two aspects that are really what make this film as engaging as it is. Obviously, we’ve been inundated with zombie this and zombie that for decades, and it’s only amplified with the success of AMC’s The Walking Dead (which like this film also never refers to its infected as “zombies”). But with so many zombie films and few doing something unique with the limited narrative (George A. Romero’s works obviously, Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later and more recently Warm Bodies), the genre’s gotten a bit stale. With Maggie, though, the zombie affliction is simply a device for the relationship between Breslin’s Maggie and Schwarzenegger’s Wade. Really, you could replace her condition with any other terminal disease and the character arcs aren’t all that affected.

It’s no surprise that what’s been piquing the curiosity of those interested in this film is Schwarzenegger. One wonders what drew him to this project (he also serves as a producer on this film) and, vice versa, what Hobson and casting director Ryan Glorioso saw in him. Rarely has Schwarzenegger dropped the action in favor for a more serious, dramatic turn. Despite being a horror film, End of Days had him playing a more tortured ex-cop who lost his faith following the murder of his wife and child. Sabotage featured him trying to channel something similar to Kurt Russell’s Dark Blue and Denzel Washington’s Training Day (both of which were written by Sabotage director David Ayer). Neither worked.

Yet while his best film still remains Terminator 2, this is the finest performance he’s ever given, though the competition amongst the others is fairly thin. Not to say movies like Predator, Total Recall and even Collateral Damage are bad, on the contrary, but Arnie’s mostly coasted through his career on charisma and a commanding screen presence. This is a low-key, surprisingly really good turn that’s void of the trademark Arnold-isms that he’s banked his entire career on.

Of course, you can always argue that it helps not having loads of dialogue to sift through, and having the young and talented Abigail Breslin to play off of is a big plus, but I gotta give the man his due. He does a very fine job with this role, and both he and Breslin effectively sell their father/daughter relationship. It’s not a “For Your Consideration” performance or anything, but given the fact that Arnold’s not getting any younger and isn’t the action star he once was, this at least hints at the possibility of more onscreen options he can take that are suited for someone his age.

Fans expecting and wanting another run-of-the-mill zombie flick will largely be disappointed with Maggie. Viewers’ perceptions prior to seeing this may play a part in determining their final thoughts on the film. Those looking for something different, though, will find Henry Hobson’s directorial debut to be a small-scale but highly effective effort, one that is bolstered by the strong performances from Abigail Breslin and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the latter turning in the most pleasantly subtle work he’s given in his iconic career.

I give Maggie an A- (★★★½).

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