In some alternate reality, critics waited with bated breath for the release of an Oscar-worthy “Resident Evil: Retribution.” On this earth, however, they were sharpening their knives for director Paul W.S. Anderson’s fifth entry in the videogame-based “Resident Evil” series. Considered under standard film criteria, “Retribution” unabashedly meets those expectations. Yet Anderson nonetheless creates visual stimuli and action pizzazz that brings the strong appeal of videogame cut scenes to the movie screen.
In “Retribution” Alice (played by an ever-lither Milla Jovovich), the heroine of prior “Resident Evil” installments and ex-employee of the evil Umbrella Corporation. Previously, Umbrella developed a bio-weapon, which as Hollywood bio-weapons tend to do, wreaked havoc across the world. Alice finds herself trapped in a labyrinthine Umbrella facility and must escape with the help of outside allies. This sounds like a legitimate storyline, but then there are the zombies, monsters, clones, evil AI and characters who resurface from earlier “Resident Evil” movies and crammed-in characters from Resident Evil games. Anderson started with an intelligible concept, escape from behind enemy lines, but then decided that more was better than intelligible.
I think this was a conscientious trade-off, and not one that should lead viewers to immediately write “Retribution” off as Razzies-level material. By eschewing the need to connect the dots, Anderson conjures much of what makes videogames fun. For example, Alice and her friends must cross through various simulation zones in the facility, ranging from New York to Moscow, each with their own idiosyncratic sets of enemies and obstacles. This is the classic game setup of levels, typically ending in battle with a visually impressive boss (think Mario, but more gore and with an anatomically correct heroine). Thus Anderson inserts zombie Ruskie soldiers armed with AK-47s and mutated giants wielding rusty mauls. For fans of the “Resident Evil” franchise Anderson’s action imagery will likely register as intuitive and more faithful to the game than any legitimate cinematic adaptation would have felt.
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But what lies in store for non-fans of the genre? Expect unintentional hilarity, for one. While Ms. Jovovich infuses her role with a believably lethal athleticism that compensates for the dearth of lines spoken, the same cannot be said for others. Ada Wong (Bingbing Li) is a mercenary agent whose depth singularly consists of the cut of her red dress. Leon Kennedy (Johann Urb) will not say anything memorable, but does speak in a husky, manly voice—bonus points. Humor can also be found in how often the script relies on the notion of clones to explain discontinuities—this could have the makings of a dodgy drinking game.
Non-fans should also expect a running pastiche of sci-fi and horror idioms. Anderson co-opts the “Aliens” aesthetic in imagining one of the principal big, bad monsters. “2000” also gets a whirl, with the evil A.I. trying to trap Alice. And the zombies of course belong to a cinematic tradition that has now completely conventionalized the zombie apocalypse, should it ever occur. On the one hand this is an indictment of “Retribution” as being utterly derivative, and yet on the other the movie is better off as a sequence of familiar themes and ideas. Anderson just has to provide the appropriate kinetic impact and loud noises, which he frequently does. The opening scene in particular creatively tinkers with the intro eye-catcher concept by running first in reverse.
As the fifth element of “Resident Evil: Retribution” likely signals the transitioning of the series from perpetual sequelization to a finale. But while the series may end soon, “Retribution” represents what could be the next blockbuster regime once comic book flicks end their dominance. Instead of turning comic books into movies, the fundamental insight of “Retribution” is that movies can be turned into on-screen videogames. They may make for critical fodder, but with B.O. results heading towards the billion dollar mark, the “Resident Evil” series affords Paul W.S. Anderson an ample comeback.
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