Five movies into Screen Gems’ successful franchise, you should know what you’re going to get with a Resident Evil movie. Let’s see if you agree: Each chapter usually begins with an action-packed set piece followed by the usual “My name is Alice…” shtick uttered with complete seriousness by series stalwart Milla Jovovich which is followed by more action usually involving a range of mutated ghouls, hand-to-hand combat and gunfire while a spasmodic soundtrack assaults your eardrums.
Now, if this is your thing, Resident Evil: Retribution is the sequel for you – and I’ll get into why shortly.
Those who have despised the series since it began in 2002 and questioned its durability at the box office, why are you even reading this? That goes for those detractors out there who balk at the franchise’s lack of faithfulness to the video games as well. In fact, that goes especially for you guys. Turn away. Because Resident Evil: Retribution will draw up the same complaints from you: It’s a loose interpretation of the Capcom video games, and an even more loose representation of the characters you love.
But as I’ve always said before, the Resident Evil films get a pass from me, save for the last installment, Afterlife. Understand this: Everything I say critically about Retribution is taken within the context of the series. I can’t rightfully say it’s a “good” film compared to some of the movies I’ve praised this year, but I can say, again, within the context of the series, Retribution is a vast improvement over Afterlife.
What it primarily gets right is by going back to its roots.
At the tail-end of Afterlife, Alice and her pals were on board a sea vessel and about to be blown away by the Umbrella Corporation. Retribution picks up where Afterlife left off (in a creative Dead Island commercial-esque way, I might add). The details of the opening assault we’re privy to are a bit messy (we appear to lose track of some pivotal characters), but what you need to know is that Alice is left in bad shape. When she wakes up, she finds she’s on her own again, but this time she’s in the hands of Umbrella and on their turf – a mammoth underwater fortress that holds various environments that recreate Tokyo, Moscow’s Red Square and Raccoon City (I kept thinking Philip Seymour Hoffman from Synecdoche, New York was going to pop up in one of them).
The bottom line? Alice wants to get topside, but she has to traverse her way through this sophisticated complex controlled by the Red Queen and filled with machine gun-carrying zombies, Axemen, regular zombies, giant Lickers and a whole bunch of familiar faces – many of whom were left for dead in the previous entries. Furthermore, Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory, who is as wooden as ever) and her Umbrella posse are hot on Alice’s tail. Luckily, Alice has help (in action and with needed exposition) from Ada Wong, played by the foxy Bingbing Li.
Oh yeah, Leon Kennedy (Johann Urb) and Barry Burton (Kevin Durand) are injected into the adventure to help out Alice, but these two characters are so poorly introduced, you have no idea what their names are until much later in the film. And they’re practically interchangeable. Nothing sets them apart save for the fact that Durand is more talented than Urb and tries to salvage the time he has on screen.
So, yes, writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson is returning to the franchise’s beginnings by containing the action and driving our collective heroes through a labyrinth of danger and, for the most part, it works. It’s ludicrously silly and brain dead, but I was along for the ride.
Anderson cements Alice’s emotional journey by adding a child to the mix, raising the stakes for the film’s heroine. A nice touch. There’s also this wounded gunslinger vibe about Alice this time that I appreciated. Anderson appears to be having much more fun in the action set piece department this time, more so than Afterlife which had sequences that felt lifeless. Combined with the pulsing score by Tomandandy, Retribution aggressively speeds along to a finish that, naturally, paves the way for what might just be the “final chapter.”
The Resident Evil sequels have always felt like they’re making it up as they go along and Retribution is no exception, but it’s scope, visual style, energy and soundtrack mask its flaws (messily, but they do mask them). With an inevitable sixth installment looming on the horizon, I’m now very curious to see how much bigger Anderson goes to close the series out. And I’m anxious to see how much more ridiculous the Resident Evil universe can get.