With the exception of the films of George Romero, the zombie genre has never been my thing. I’m sure, the recent success of the television series The Walking Dead has plenty to do with its strong cast and dramatic stories (so I’m told), but when zombies are involved, my interest goes out the window. The same can be said for the theatrical adaptation of the Resident Evil video game series. Until the third film in this wildly successful franchise, I kinda hated these movies. I use the word “kinda” because when the mesmerizing Milla Jovovich is involved, I tend to stop dead in my tracks. Despite being the star of a popcorn action franchise, Jovovich is actually a pretty decent actress who along with husband and writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson have transformed this series from zombie shoot em up to sci-fi superhero saga.
For me, the Resident Evil films started to get interesting with the third outing, when the series leaned more towards science fiction than horror, making Jovovich’s lead character Alice part of a larger story and giving her superhuman powers that would rival a Jedi. The previous outing, number four, aka Resident Evil: Afterlife, appeared to be a decent swan song for the series only to hit us with yet another cliffhanger. That cliffhanger was a reminder that good had not yet completely defeated evil and if Anderson had his way, the series would continue with two more features.
For the uninitiated, Anderson and Jovovich’s version of Capcom’s Resident Evil is the story of covert operative Alice, who turns against her employers, the villainous Umbrella Corporation just as they inadvertedly release a deadly virus upon the human population. The so called “T-virus” not only turns the living into undead zombies, but produces monstrous mutations and creatures that resemble something the devil would dream up. Though the spread of the virus reaches apocalyptic levels, the Umbrella Corporation remains strong, and like the mad scientists they are, the world has become their petri dish for experiments. Over the course of the series, in her battle against Umbrella, Alice has picked up and allied herself with survivors along the way. This latest outing, Retribution, picks up where the last left off, with Alice and company engaging Umbrella operatives in a firefight aboard a freighter that doesn’t end well.
The “Evil Goes Global” tagline for this latest venture is actually a bit misleading. As Alice discovers, Umbrella’s grand evil plan does affect the fate of the world, but most of the film is set in one location, a massive underground training facility that harbors small simulations of city streets in Moscow, Tokyo and New York City. Now their captive, Alice awakens within this facility and is subjected to torturous interrogation only to be rescued by another former Umbrella operative, the infamous Ada Wong (Li Bing Bing). Alice’s longtime nemesis, Umbrella chairman Albert Wexler (Shawn Roberts) is alive and well, but he is not the villain of this story. The current mastermind behind Umbrella’s quest for world domination is none other than “the Red Queen”, the artificial intelligence from the first film that “went homicidal” when the T-virus was first released. The enemy of her enemy is now her friend, and led by Wong, Alice discovers that if she is ever to escape, she must join forces with Wexler, who is on the outside.
Standing in Alice’s way, is former “Raccoon City” cop and friend Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory), now her foe, since her mind is now under the control of the Red Queen. Aiding her are clones of allies long since dead, like tactical commander James “One” Shade (Colin Salmon), Carlos Olivera (Oded Fehr) and Rain Ocampo (Michelle Rodriguez), unaware of their former lives. Wong’s back-up comes in the form of Leon S. Kennedy (Johann Urb), Barry Burton (Kevin Durand) and former NBA star Luther West (Boris Kodjoe) whom Alice befriended in the last film. Their idea of a rescue plan is to make things interesting by setting timers on explosives, which will detonate above the facility in two hours. That tired, ole, race-against-the-clock gag is put into play as Alice and friends must navigate through faux cities and suburbs, while evading Jill and her army before the roof literally comes crashing down upon them.
Even though the Resident Evil franchise has turned more towards sci-fi than horror, it isn’t smart science-fiction. Like the previous films, Retribution’s story is really just pure nonsense that hasn’t even been fully thought out by the filmmakers. By now I’ve accepted that style wins out over substance here and there is some spectacle to enjoy to a certain degree. Yet after five films, it’s really starting to wear thin. Early on in the series, there were some elements that gave the main character Alice, the opportunity to evolve. For the last few pictures, she’s basically been the same character. Most of the time, instead of giving us a character moment, to explore what’s going on in her head, she’s just meeting danger head on either through gunfire or hand to hand combat. I could say it feels as soulless as a video game, but in recent years, even video games have begun to introduce dimensional characters and compelling stories.
There’s no denying Jovovich is easy on the eyes and in a genre dominated by males, she has a handle on the one-liners, quirks and attitude that make for a likable action hero. It almost doesn’t even matter what the MacGuffin of these films are or what she’s up against, because it’s actually somewhat entertaining to watch her engage in an orgy of violence that usually involves blood splattering or acrobatic martial arts moves, in 3D no less. Anderson is definitely going to make his wife look good and a handful of frames from a number of sequences and action set-pieces in this film might make good art you might find in a comic book panel. The 3D is as superbly executed as it was in the last film, and the visuals are supported by yet another sonically stimulating musical score by “tomandandy”. It’s just that if Anderson and Jovovich want to hold onto their fans, they better stop repeating themselves and actually sit down to work on the story a bit.
There are a number of decent ideas tossed around in Retribution that fail to stick and might have given the story some heft had they been explored further. The idea of clones were introduced in the third film where Umbrella made copies of Alice in an attempt to replicate how the T-virus successfully bonded with her DNA. Here, clones of various Umbrella employees are used for a variety of purposes that range from soldiers, to test subjects in simulations of domestic simulations. In addition to playing soldiers ordered to track and kill Alice, Rodriguez and Fehr, get to play “normal” civilians, unaware they are part of a simulation. Not only is it short-lived, but so are the appearances of the actors in general, which feel more like cameos. Guillory, who was one of the few bright spots in the second film, has the makings of a good nemesis for Jovovich, yet essentially takes the easy way out, by playing evil Jill in cold, “Terminator” mode. The entire supporting cast feel like window dressing with the exception of Aryana Engineer as “Becky”, the young, deaf “daughter” of Alice who is unaware she’s just a pawn in another simulation. When Alice decides to take the kid under her wing, the lengths she goes to protect this little girl, feel more like the Ripley and Newt relationship in Aliens, and make for a rather weak device to bring some humanity to the lead heroine.
Like the previous outings, Retribution concludes with another cliffhanger, yet this time, it makes the previous ninety minutes feel like nothing more than the first act of something bigger or just a set-up for a finale. That wouldn’t be so bad if the supposedly final film in this series were already “in the can” or only a few months away. But Retribution feels more like an unsatisfying tease and whose to say there will be another film if this current release doesn’t fare well at the box-office? Though its parts are better than its whole, Retribution doesn’t really advance the Resident Evil story by much and by the conclusion, you feel like you’re in pretty much the same place you were when it began. I still look forward to a sixth movie, only with the hope that it will wrap things up and bring the saga to a close. But after this one, that final film better be damn good.