203Resident Evil - not unlike Die Hard - is one of those film franchises that just won't die. For good or for bad, and recently it's mostly been bad, they just keep releasing new films. It doesn't matter how tired the lead actors are; how poor the supporting ones are; how clunky or cliched the dialogue is, or how anorexic the story is. It doesn't matter if the CG blood effects are just laughable, or if the end result amounts to little more than a string of generic and somewhat monotonous action sequences that barely distinguish one instalment from the last. It doesn't matter if the critical acclaim is non-existent and the audience rating is shockingly low, why should the production companies learn from their 'mistakes'? - so long as these films keep raking in hundreds of millions of dollars at the Box Office, they're not going to change a damn thing. As far as they are concerned, the results speak for themselves.
And so we come to the fifth instalment in the Resident Evil franchise. The second-highest grossing film in the series (bested only by the last chapter, Afterlife), its success has meant that, rather than just do one more sixth film to close out this series, the producers are now considering a seventh chapter or, alternatively, an immediate reboot. No, this series will probably never die.
Unfortunately, despite the promising start with 1997’s original Resident Evil film – which is generally regarded as one of the best videogame adaptations ever made – the sequels have all been almost universally panned, with many arguing that they have only gotten worse with each successive chapter. 1997’s tight, reasonably claustrophobic and effective Resident Evil became overblown with the first sequel, 2004’s city-based Apocalypse, and failed to do much new in 2007’s desert-based Extinction. 2010’s Afterlife was the first chapter to be released in 3D, which, whilst it literally added a new dimension to the proceedings, did not lead to any particular evolution in terms of character or plot. Still, there was enjoyment to be had, and clearly enough of a franchise name to draw punters in to watch the thing during its theatrical run.
Honestly, it would be best not to come to this fifth chapter, Resident Evil: Retribution, as a starting point in the series. Whilst nobody is going to praise the plot for the last four films, there are a fair few characters and developments along the way over the last 15 years which are arguably required background information for full enjoyment of this fifth film. Cleverly, the filmmakers introduce the film with a quick recap, although it’s still probably not enough to fill you in on what exactly is going on, merely working as a refresher for those who’ve watched the last four films but may not remember them all that well. If you want to start here then I would recommend that you at least see the original Resident Evil movie, and perhaps check out our reviews of that and the sequels just to get an idea of where we’re at. If you want to jump on this train so far down the tracks without any such background knowledge then you do so at your own peril.
The story still follows the franchise’s core character, Alice, one of the survivors of the original outbreak, who since developed super-powers as a result of a genetic mutation which caused her cells to bond with the very same virus that turned everybody else around her into flesh-eating zombies. In the last film, Afterlife, Alice was stripped of her powers by a super-powerful Albert Wesker, the Chairman of the Umbrella Corporation. Still, she continued to fight against the Umbrella Corporation; to fight against the hordes of undead, and to protect the remaining survivors in the ever-spreading apocalypse.
Retribution sees Alice caught by the Umbrella Corporation and imprisoned in their top secret headquarters buried deep below the ice in the Arctic Circle. Not everything is as it seems, however, and Alice soon finds that friends – and enemies – long thought dead are still alive and kicking within this giant complex, which happens to be home to Umbrella’s biggest clone testing facility. It’s in this place that Umbrella conducted the original trials of their virus so that they could pitch it as a super-weapon to various nations around the world, and Alice has to fight her way through various staged realms in order to try and find an escape route.
If you want to find something to praise the filmmakers for, then it’s probably going to be: finding a way in which they can bring back all the various cast members whose characters have died over the last four instalments. Resident Evil: Retribution at least does that right, coming up with the best alternative to just an outright reboot. Michelle Rodriguez (currently blasting her way back into the Fast & Furious series) and Colin Salmon (from the Brosnan Bonds) return from the first film; Oded Fehr from the second and third; and both Sienna Guillory (who briefly popped up as an ‘evil’ Jill Valentine in the last film, following her main contribution to the first sequel, Apocalypse) and Shawn Roberts, continue their characters from Afterlife.
Indeed there has clearly been a little bit of thought put into bringing these characters back, and long-term fans of the franchise will probably get a kick out of the various different good and bad incarnations that Retribution offers up.
Unfortunately, these returns are largely inconsequential, with only Michelle Rodriguez and Sienna Guillory making any kind of lasting impression as the new main villains of the piece. Worse still, not only does the film barely have time to inject these old characters back into the mix, but it also further dilutes the proceedings by introducing a new bunch of characters – ones which videogame fans will probably recognise, but which otherwise come across as pointless additions.
Leon S. Kennedy and Ada Wong have been core protagonists in the more recent Resident Evil videogame releases, as well as the enjoyable but frustratingly disconnected CG animations, Resident Evil: Regeneration and its own sequel Resident Evil: Damnation, but this is their first appearance in the live-action movies and it’s a shocking disappointment. Basically largely unknown bit-part actors Johann Urb and Li Bingbing (Bodyguards & Assassins) were clearly only hired because they look like their respective characters of Kennedy and Wong, and, through both a fault of the script and their own limitations as actors, fail utterly to become anything other than token videogame tributes in this ever-burgeoning character set. Indeed, if you weren’t aware of their pre-existence in the games, you’d just write Kennedy off as ‘generic mercenary’ and Wong off as ‘generic female protagonist’, the latter distinguishable from the other female leads only because she’s wearing a (trademark) Asian dress with waist-high leg slit. Beyond that, these characters might as well have been left out of the film, and indeed the performances of the actors are so wooden that they only diminish the already lacking quality of the piece.
Really, however, this is – and has always been – Milla Jovovich’s baby. Ever since her starring role in Resident Evil, which introduced the world to the character of Alice – a new character created specifically for the film franchise – the sequels have tried and tried again to introduce the core videogame characters into the mix, but have failed resoundingly with each successive attempt. Sienna Guillory’s Jill Valentine started the trend back in Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and there aren’t really any exceptions to the rule. The only person who really ever stands out amidst the crowd is Milla. Indeed she’d probably fare a lot better if they didn’t try so damn hard to introduce a multitude of old and new characters into the mix in a desperate bid to please fans, and instead focussed on purely her journey. Because Milla is still a pretty good lead actress for this franchise.
She may well be little more than the Resident Evil equivalent of Underworld’s Kate Beckinsale – in other words an actress who looks damn fine in tight PVC, wielding dual weapons, but who can’t really act worth a damn – but she’s a charismatic enough actress for these films; certainly a cut above almost everybody else involved, and she’s become the woman associated with these films. She is the Resident Evil heroine, and I’m glad they didn’t try and have somebody else take over because, at the very least, she’s proven more capable than any potential successors.
She can only do so much though. You’d think that being married to the long-term producer of the series, and writer/director of the first and last two chapters, Paul W. S. Anderson would have made a difference beyond just her screentime and dress choices (the latter equating to largely – not very much and/or tight black PVC), but that doesn’t appear to be the case, unless she made a deal whereby he promised never to cast a decent actor or actress in any of the film sequels – something that he has certainly kept to. Unfortunately that wouldn’t really make any sense, as Milla suffers too: as much as you still follow her character through this rabbit’s maze of Umbrella conspiracy nonsense, the points at which you, as a viewer, generally get off, are largely the points at which she tries interacting with anybody else in the film. Check out the brief bit of dialogue between her and Leon Kennedy. It’s so painful; so stilted – it would probably make wooden puppets look like a viable and positively superior alternative.
In terms of pure action, this is where Anderson and, to a certain extent Jovovich, hedge their bets. They assume that a succession of innovative and well-staged action sequences will be enough for franchise fans. They assume that, since you know the characters and you have a basic idea of the original plot set up, anything halfway coherent in terms of continuing story developments will suffice, so long as the action is up to scratch. Well, I suppose the Box Office figures would support this theory, although you have to wonder why this latest chapter did worse at the Box Office than the last one – could viewers be slowly learning, much like the zombie cannon-fodder they mimic from the movies? Could the followers of the most successful videogame adaptation franchise on the planet be finally fed up with the lack of depth to these pieces; frustrated by the throwaway frivolity that barely keeps you entertained for the duration and is almost indistinguishable from the past instalment?
Well, the answer is still: probably not enough to see these films get any better before they eventually die out and/or Jovovich finally ages (she’s barely changed in the last 15 years, and, if anything, her PVC-clad derriere is now even more shapely than before). They still regularly make over $200 Million at the Box Office and cost less than $100 Million to make (including advertising), which makes them indisputable hits.
The action certainly is seldom less than watchable. The settings both draw parallels with the first two movies whilst also providing some unusual location-based twists along the way. The fights are perhaps more imaginatively staged, and certainly seem to be more punishing, with several of the characters getting unexpectedly killed, and others receiving damage beyond that which this series generally dishes out. Some might even regard the fights as having more of an emotional context, although the performances themselves do this argument no favours. At the end of the day, though, I’m not sure you feel particularly satisfied by where you end up.
Originally penned to be the first part of shot-back-to-back double-bill sequels to finish off the franchise, writer/director/producer Anderson changed his mind at the last minute – perhaps he’s not quite ready to kill off the golden-egg-laying goose – but unfortunately that leaves you with a film which very much feels like it’s just the start of the end, and doesn’t really go anywhere in its own right. And you get to the end feeling very little closer to closure.
Still, however tired this franchise has become, audiences don’t appear to be tired of getting their zombie fix wherever they can find it, and there are far worse places than in the PVC-clad arms of Milla Jovovich’s seemingly indestructible heroine Alice. At least for as long as she’s leading the way, these things are going to remain startlingly popular – I certainly still watch them, even if I always wait for home release and am never tempted by the theatrical run – and there is a certain curiosity as to what will happen next.
Although the film should barely score half-marks – with as many negatives as there are positives to its name – there is one saving grace: the 3D presentation. Much like the last chapter, Afterlife, the 3D element of Resident Evil: Retribution is such a big element that it has become an important part of the enjoyment factor. You may well be nonplussed by the 2D movie, but the 3D version could still end up drawing you in; the presentation so involving that you can’t help but be swept up in the whole experience. Sure it’s a distinct case of style over substance – and it doesn’t exactly make this film a masterpiece – but a push up from 5 to 6/10 is certainly warranted when you consider what the 3D presentation brings to the table.
Right from the unusual played-backwards-in-slo-mo opening action sequence through to a kick-ass extended corridor fight that may well be Milla’s most impressive ass-kicking escapade in the entire franchise, and then on to the more monster-based end flourishes, the rest of the feature may not excite you but these 3D setpieces ignite the screen. Resident Evil may well be a tired franchise, but it remains one of the few regular sources of good adult-orientated live-action 3D thrills. I can see this alone being something of a clincher for some viewers, giving the series the breath of fresh air that fans would have probably preferred to have come from the script, but who will probably take it wherever they can get it.
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