Wednesday, September 19, 2012


(Canada/Germany - 2012)

Written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson.  Cast:  Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Sienna Guillory, Boris Kodjoe, Li Bingbing, Kevin Durand, Shawn Roberts, Oded Fehr, Johann Urb, Aryana Engineer, Colin Salmon, Mika Nakashima.  (R, 96 mins)

The fifth entry in the RESIDENT EVIL series functions as both a franchise victory lap/class reunion and as an olive branch to die-hard fans of the Capcom video game series who feel the films weren't on the level of the games.  Joining RESIDENT EVIL mainstay Milla Jovovich are numerous veterans from previous entries, including Michelle Rodriguez and Colin Salmon (the 2002 original), Sienna Guillory (2004's RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE and a cameo in 2010's RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE), Boris Kodjoe and Shawn Roberts (AFTERLIFE), and Oded Fehr (APOCALYPSE and 2007's RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION), plus several characters from the video games who haven't made it into the live-action franchise (there's a separate CGI-animated franchise that stays more faithful to Capcom) until now: Ada Wong (Li Bingbing), Barry Burton (Kevin Durand), and Leon S. Kennedy (Johann Urb).  I've seen all of the films leading up to RETRIBUTION, and it's still confusing as hell, but writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson has such a marvelous eye for action sequences and colorful, eye-candy imagery and perhaps a better grasp of RealD 3D than any other working filmmaker, that even though RETRIBUTION pales in comparison to AFTERLIFE (probably my favorite of the series other than the 2002 original), it's still a dazzling triumph of style.  Style over substance, yes, but if you're looking for 90 minutes of brainless entertainment with gun battles, martial arts, chase scenes, monsters, zombies, and other stunning visuals, you've come to the right place.

Picking up right where AFTERLIFE left off, heroine Alice (Jovovich) is on the ship Arcadia when it's attacked by an army led by Raccoon City cop-turned-brainwashed Umbrella Corporation operative Jill Valentine (Guillory).  Alice is put in a high-tech holding cell but escapes during a computer malfunction and finds out she's in an Umbrella research facility deep under the waters of the Arctic.  Former Umbrella head and nemesis Wesker (Roberts) informs her that a team of mercenaries led by Kennedy, Burton, and Luther West (Kodjoe) are attempting to make their way into the facility to rescue her, as well as Ada, another former Umbrella employee.  Wesker's rebel plot is uncovered by the evil computer The Red Queen, which forces Alice and Ada to go through a series of simulations, pursued by Valentine and evil clones of Rain (Rodriguez) and One (Salmon) both killed in the first film.  It's here where the film essentially becomes a feature-length video game, as Alice, Ada, and Becky, a hearing-impaired surrogate daughter to Alice in an alternate reality (played by hearing-impaired Aryana Engineer, last seen in 2009's surprisingly ballsy ORPHAN), make their way through simulated versions of New York City, Tokyo, Moscow, and American suburbia, fleeing hordes of zombies as they try to meet up with the mercenary crew.

Michelle Rodriguez returns as an evil clone of Rain
The varying levels of reality in the film make following the plot all but impossible, and while RETRIBUTION isn't on the level of AFTERLIFE, it functions as an entertaining, if slightly forgettable time-killer.  After helming the first film, Anderson left the directing chores to Alexander Witt for the series nadir APOCALYPSE and HIGHLANDER's Russell Mulcahy for the improved-but-unexceptional EXTINCTION.  Anderson returned for AFTERLIFE, bringing along a keen ability to take advantage of state-of-the-art CGI and 3D technology, and fusing it with the musical contributions of the duo Tomandandy, who provided one of the most memorable genre scores in a long time.  Anderson wisely stuck with what worked, bringing back the 3D and Tomandandy, but a lot of RETRIBUTION feels like warmed-up leftovers from AFTERLIFE.  Still fun, still entertaining on its own terms, but a bit lacking in freshness and pizazz, and Tomandandy's score, while still catchy, doesn't have quite the same creative oomph this time around.  Because most of the film takes place in simulated settings, Anderson and his technical crew can get away with some of the CGI backgrounds not looking quite up to par and having an intentional artificiality to them.

Alice and Ada Wong (Li Bingbing)
in the Suburbia simulation
Despite some issues, I still enjoyed RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION.  It's probably the third-best film in the franchise and Jovovich is as watchably kick-ass as ever.  Anderson just seems to be spinning his wheels here a bit.  This isn't any better or worse than his steampunk revamp of THE THREE MUSKETEERS from last year, with an overabundance of style carrying him through the film.  Anderson is often derided as a hack, which isn't fair.  Yes, he gave us the execrable ALIEN VS. PREDATOR, which managed to be the low point of two storied franchises, but everyone's allowed a bad day.  I generally enjoy his films and even his detractors have to admit that they look great.  RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE seemed to indicate he was moving toward bigger things.  Bigger in the sense that he might be on his way to finding the substance to match his proven style, or at least the ambition present in, say, 1997's EVENT HORIZON.  But THE THREE MUSKETEERS and now RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION find him in a comfort zone.  Yes, it's a comfort zone that entertains and looks fantastic, and that's fine. There's no shame in that.  He's got the director thing down, but I'm afraid he'll never lose the unjust "hack" label until he challenges himself more on the writing end.

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