‘Resident Evil: Retribution’ Review
Here's the problem with the 'Resident Evil' movies: they feel more like video games than the video games they're based on. Capcom's 'Resident Evil' is dark, sinister, disturbing, and cinematic. Paul W.S. Anderson's 'Resident Evil: Retribution' is loud, violent, hectic, and dumb. It's like taking the world's greatest wagyu beef steak and grinding it to make a greasy hamburger.
This fifth installment in 'Resident Evil' series -- three after the earth's 'Apocalypse' and two since mankind's 'Extinction,' for those keeping score at home -- follows the indefatigable killing machine Alice (Milla Jovovich) as she once again wages war on the evil Umbrella Corporation, which has destroyed the planet by turning everyone in the cast that isn't a marginally famous actor into a zombie. The opening credits are the most interesting scene: an assault on a boat by Umbrella forces carried out entirely in slow-motion reverse: Alice begins floating to the ocean floor, then rises to the surface, the falls upwards onto the deck where she evades a helicopter a moment before she shoots it out of the sky with a shotgun. It's a beautiful, bizarre and dreamlike.
And then things get really regressive. Alice appears on a video screen to explain the events of the four previous films. She speaks directly to the audience. She talks for what feels like five minutes straight. "This happened and then this happened and this happened." Exposition doesn't get more expository than this. Finally the history lesson is over and the opening credits sequence plays again, this time in the proper chronology. When it's over, Alice suddenly wakes, as if from a dream, in a peaceful suburban house with her husband (Oded Fehr) and daughter. But just as Anderson pulls one rug out from under us, he starts lining up a whole warehouse of carpet to yank: zombies storm Alice's home, kill her husband, and chase her into the streets, where a full-scale flesh-eater invasion appears to be underway. Then she wakes up again in some kind of Umbrella laboratory. So what the hell is going on?
Honestly? It doesn't really matter. 'Retribution' appears to have been created by Anderson using the Wouldntthatbecool! Formula of screenwriting. The narrative was almost certainly built from the set pieces out; Anderson imagining what would be cool, and then stringing up the flimsiest of clotheslines to hang all those set pieces on. "Oh man, what if there were Nazi Stormtrooper zombies, and they were invading the Kremlin? Wouldntthatbecool? And what if there were, like, two crazy giant dudes with bloody axes and weird bags over their heads and like nails sticking out of the bags and they were rampaging through Times Square only Times Square was like totally empty? Wouldntthatbecool?!?"
Well, kind of. You can't help but wonder, though, just what the hell Umbrella is doing with these weird Nazi stormstrooper zombies and oversized bagheaded butchers. Apparently -- according to yet another video screen lecture -- Umbrella built phony but incredibly realistic doomsday scenarios to sell WMDs. They created a fake zombie outbreak in a recreation of Tokyo and then sold virus that sparked it to the Chinese, and vice versa. Fine. That makes some kind of sense. But if Umbrella is motivated by greed, and they're in the business of making deadly viruses, how do they wind up with the crazy giant dudes with bloody axes and weird bags over their heads and like nails sticking out of the bags? Are those guys in high demand? And what do they eat? Do you have to feed them regularly or do they just feast on the flesh of their victims?
Obviously no one involved with 'Retribution' considered any of that for even a second, and we in the audience aren't supposed to either. Anderson, as his reputation amongst his small but vocal group of critical supporters insists, is a craftsman of action, plain and simple. And while 'Resident Evil' the fifth does lean heavily on bland, generic gun violence, Anderson does flex his directorial muscles in a few impressively dynamic sequences, like the aforementioned opening credits and one lean, perfectly shot and cut fight scene in which Alice takes on an entire hallway of zombies with nothing but a bike chain and a handgun. Every bit of spinning, swinging, kicking, shooting, and reloading a weapon as only a badass action hero can is perfectly clear and easy to follow.
The plot, of course, is not, although one could argue Anderson is deliberately playing with layers of reality and false worlds to disorient the audience even as he dazzles them with action-horror spectacle. That one, however, will not be me. Anderson's action chops are undeniable -- but 'Resident Evil: Retribution' might be one of the dumbest things ever crafted by human hands. Characters switch sides for no apparent reason, people are introduced as if they matter and don't, and anytime information needs to be conveyed to the audience someone onscreen just says it, often looking right into the camera just to make sure we're all paying attention. On some level, I admire the balls it takes a movie this brazenly incoherent -- to stand up and say "Yes, I will show characters running away from a giant wall of water, and then a few minutes later show them appearing out of nowhere in a submarine that they would have had no way and no time to board, much less pilot to safety."
But if Anderson is such a talented visual stylist, why doesn't he focus on that and let someone else write him a screenplay that's halfway interesting? Why do we have to be satisfied with movies this brainless? I like a hamburger as much as the next guy. But at some point, I want the wagyu steak.
‘Resident Evil: Retribution’ is in theaters now.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’