Resident Evil: Retribution ★½

“Cyborg zombie bullshit.”

That's how a Twitter acquaintance described why he doesn't like the Resident Evil movies and I think it's a pretty succinct way of encapsulating them. The phrase was written in the context of contrasting the movies with the survival horror video game series the films are based on. His issue was that these films are not what Resident Evil is at its core and at its best, and because of that, he has no time for the unending film sequels. I'm assuming the franchise's best is to be found in the games, because there is nothing remotely close to good in the franchise's cinematic outings. At best the Resident Evil movies have been mediocre; at worst, inane, idiotic and incomprehensible. In that regard at least, Paul W.S. Anderson has not only continued on with the level of quality for the series and his directorial career, but has taken it to a whole other, ridiculous level.

And yet, there is usually enough competent, if uninspired, action in these mile-a-minute bullet extravaganzas to justify watching them and/or not hating them. For some, that means checking them out at the theater or renting them. For most though, that usually occurs while channel surfing or keeping it on in the background while you attend to some other matter. They're big and dumb, but there is a lot of ass-kicking in the midst of all that bigness and dumbness, most of which features pretty girls wearing ludicrously tight get-ups and wielding big phallic guns and swords. Basically, they are cinematic relatives to films like Underworld and Sucker Punch and they're perfectly tailored for 12-16 year-olds who – while not technically old enough to see these R-rated films – will find a way to watch them anyway.

The problem, of course, is for those who want their big, ass-kicking zombie action movies to be – you know – actually good. It would be different if Paul W.S. Anderson really went all the way and made Resident Evil: Retribution the movie he obviously wishes he had either the backbone or talent to make: a glossy, action-packed and super-stylized anti-story that casts a weird, satiric eye on movie and genre conventions and eschews regular narrative. Because let's be honest; the series dropped any pretense of horror a while ago and this fifth entry skews even more towards a kind of action film that is so over-the-top in its hostility to normal cinematic conventions – story, character, theme – that you spend much of the non-action parts wondering why Anderson's even feigning to keep up the pretense. But if you're going to try and make that kind of movie, you have to really commit to it. If you waver or only go halfway, it won't work. And that's where Resident Evil: Retribution fails.

It isn't saying much and it knows it, wants you to know it and desires to keep up the cycle unending for years and sequels to come. It taunts you with adjectives in its titles that tease and are meant to be final-sounding – Apocalypse, Extinction, Afterlife, Retribution – but it always pulls the rug out at the end, knowing the tease will work and you'll come back for more. In fact, “Retribution” makes almost no sense at all, since it hints at some sort of revenge subplot that is nowhere to be found in this movie. Trust me, it's not the only element of this movie that doesn't make sense.

Some give credit to Anderson, believing that this is the director's actual artistic intention, to create as aggressive an anti-story as he can within the Hollywood machine. I would argue that that is being generous. Very generous. If that were actually the case, perhaps this movie would hold genuine value and be an interesting counter-point to normal Hollywood genre fare. However, it's not and to believe that would be to give Anderson an extraordinary amount of undeserved credit. Once upon a time, the original Resident Evil was to be directed by George A. Romero. Who knows what that film would have looked like and what direction the franchise would have taken. One would imagine that it would be a lot more raw, a lot more horror-based and would say something. I don't know if it would have been good, but it's not hard to believe it would have been different from what we've gotten. That didn't happen though and the franchise was turned over to Anderson. The result has been a decade of films that aren't artistic or entertaining. They are, to be frank, products.

That's the rub. Anderson is essentially a talentless hack, put in charge of a marketable franchise and charged not with making movies, but with selling products. That's why the script is junk. That's why there's no character development. That's why the plot doesn't make sense. That's why far too many of the effects look cheap. That's why the cast – minus star and Anderson's wife Milla Jovovich – look like they've been kidnapped at gunpoint and forced to participate. That's why the first five minutes after the opening credits are dedicated to recapping the entire franchise. That's why the first thing Alice and we see as she steps onto a sreet in Tokyo (sort of) is a giant Gamestop sign. That's why, when Alice and her posse are escaping from an angry horde of Las Plagas-infected zombies, they're driving away in a Rolls Royce Phantom (with requisite multiple medallion shots). That is why the film picks up where the last one left off and why the next one will pick up where this one “ends.”

You might not mind that and that's okay. These movies aren't all that offensive in their badness unlike recent Happy Madison films or those that spring from the minds of Tom Six or Uwe Boll. However, that doesn't mean this isn't a bad movie. Anderson and Resident Evil: Retribution are much more in line with what we get from Michael Bay, Brett Ratner and Len Wiseman. They are corporate stooges who consistently deliver films that are much more interested in empty stylized action sequences than in anything else. The fact that all their movies have the same sort of nauseating Hollywood sheen laid over-top all that inconsequential action is a by-product of the “product” philosophy that basically expresses that all a movie has to do is look good and look like stuff is actually happening. That nauseating sheen isn't what really got me about this movie though. I suppose I'm getting used to it.

No, the most striking element about Resident Evil: Retribution is the various ways in which Anderson unapologetically and explicitly rips off of other, better movies. And I'm not even talking about the Alice in Wonderland connections strewn throughout the franchise (and yes, the “Red Queen” is back). Hell, he doesn't even limit himself to movies. The most impressive sequence in the whole movie is a ripoff of the famous backwards slow-mo trailer for Dead Island. The very next scene is an even more blatant ripoff of the opening for Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead. It is in that scene that we are introduced to young deaf girl Becky (Aryana Engineer) who is set up as Alice's “daughter.” Their relationship throughout the movie brings to mind Ripley and Newt from James Cameron's Aliens. Speaking of that movie, there is also a bizarre element of that movie towards the end, when Becky is captured by one of the zombie mutant monsters and Alice naturally goes after her (sound familiar?). For reasons known only to Anderson, Becky has been put into some sort of xenomorph-inspired egg/web/gooey-capsule thing. I assume Anderson thought it would be awesome or funny or whatever; instead, it serves to remind everyone, “wait, why am I not watching Aliens right now instead of this garbage?”

If you're looking for a plot description, here it is: take the plot of the first Resident Evil and swap “underground Umbrella base” for “underwater Umbrella base.” In this one, Alice, aided by frenemy Ada Wong and a SWAT team entering from above the base sent by long-time villain-turned-new frenemy Albert Wesker must escape the Umbrella base she's been taken to and interrogated by frenemy Jill Valentine (side note: I desperately wish the the sixth installment to be titled Resident Evil: Frenemies Unite). The film, its plot and setting is even more of a cinematic video game, as they must go through a number of test scenarios housed in miniature versions of Tokyo, New York, Moscow and Suburbia, fending off the hordes that the evil little-girl AI musters up, all the while trying to outrun Valentine and the base's security and get out before the bomb they've planted goes off. It doesn't matter if you've missed a RE movie here or there, since the plots are almost always the same and they usually recap everything that has come before.

Sadly the plot is matched by the writing and acting. Anderson's script is an affront to screenwriters everywhere. Anderson has never done a good job of explaining the big picture in this series and his attempts to tie up loose ends and give himself more freedom – as in the clones – only seem to either create confusion or have no impact at all (there's no emotional resonance on the characters' part since they're clones and generally don't recognize each other). Michelle Rodriguez is brought do nothing. Oded Fehr is brought back to “play” Alice's husband, and then is gone after 10 minutes. Actors playing dual roles is hard enough, but when you give them lines like “What are you waiting for, a written invitation?” and expect them to get a laugh, you're in trouble.

Milla Jovovich is, once again, the strongest thing this franchise has going for it. She consistently keeps Retribution from becoming unwatchable and she's always been able to pass off being the badass zombie assassin, even wearing the skin-tight BDSM outfits which her husband puts her and her female counterparts in. I actually feel bad for her, because in the hands of another director – such as Haywire's Steven Soderbergh – she could not only deliver punches, kicks and exotic trigger-pulling, but deliver a real performance as well. The rest of the cast is nowhere near as good as Jovovich, with both Bingbing Li and Sienna Guillory standing out for all the wrong reasons. Li is known to American audiences for her roles in notable Chinese films such as The Forbidden Kingdom, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, but her performance here – in English – is stilted and not good. I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and believe she's not used to or totally comfortable acting in English. Guillory gets no such benefit – she's flat-out dreadful. Even with Anderson's horrible one-liners, Guillory compounds the problem with delivery that causes unintended laughter.

Bringing back all these characters reeks of desperation, the thing you do when you truly have run out of ideas. An attempt to gut the extraneous stuff (story, characters, dialogue) to get back to the dull CGI monster killing and resurrection of franchise favorites is laziness, plain and simple, and it falls squarely on Anderson as writer-director. The cast might not be very good, but as an actor would tell you, writing comes first and it can make or break a movie. Whatever quality or entertainment the original film held, it's been long since sapped. If there were any justice in this world, Resident Evil: Retribution would mark the end of this franchise, or more specifically Anderson's involvement as the series' creative czar. Probably not the permanent end mind you, but long enough (10-15 years) so that Hollywood could justify rebooting it and make another 5 or 6 of them. Unfortunately, the ending makes it very clear; this is not the end...only the beginning of the end. Which means we are likely to get at least 2 or 3 more of these. My only hope is that they change tack and steer the franchise more towards its darker, horror roots. Meanwhile, the machine keeps running, the product keeps rolling out and Resident Evil continues to act as the face of Hollywood's attempt at adapting video game properties. Hopefully one day, the powers-that-be decide, or have the decision forced upon them by audiences, that the quality of the product should matter.

The 411: If you like Paul W.S. Anderson and the Resident Evil movies, you're probably going to like Resident Evil: Retribution (don't ask what the “retribution” is, I have no idea). If you haven't liked any of them before now, you're not going to like this one. There is little in the way of plot and what there is of it is ripped off from previous films in the series and other science fiction films such as Dawn of the Dead and Aliens. Milla Jovovich – as usual – is the best part of the movie and barely holds it all together to make it even passably watchable. It is what it is, and what it is is a Resident Evil movie. Take that for what it is. Not Recommended.


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