At this point, the Resident Evil movie franchise has become a personal playground for husband-and-wife team Paul W.S. Anderson and Milla Jovovich; every few years, they find another excuse to pit Jovovich’s videogame-inspired dark superhero, Alice, against zombies and other gruesome monsters. Like the Underworld movies, the Resident Evil franchise is packed with complicated backstory, some of which Jovovich explains directly to the camera at the beginning of Resident Evil: Retribution, the series’ fifth entry. But also like the Underworld movies, its primary assets are stylish combat, quick pacing, big special-effects spectacles, and a heroine with skin-tight costumes, big guns, and plenty of biggest-badass-on-the-planet attitude. The series’ most serious fans will have plenty to pore over and debate in this installment, but casual drop-ins and even first-timers will have no problem following the “Undead dudes go ‘rawr,’ splosives go ‘boom’” narrative.
2010’s Resident Evil: Afterlife (the first installment Anderson directed himself since the series launch in 2002) ended with Jovovich and a crowd of zombie-apocalypse survivors aboard a tanker ship, facing attack by the Umbrella Corporation, the author of the zombie/monster plague that’s all but wiped out humanity. Retribution puts Jovovich back in Umbrella’s hands, trapping her in a massive underwater facility where viral outbreaks were staged in city mockups populated with clones. As Jovovich attempts to escape across artificial settings resembling New York City, Tokyo, and Moscow, she’s pursued by mind-controlled friend-turned-enemy Sienna Guillory (as videogame mainstay Jill Valentine) and assisted by enemy-turned-friend Li Bingbing (as videogame favorite Ada Wong). Meanwhile, Umbrella’s ability to produce and program clones lets writer-director Anderson bring back previously dead characters, particularly Lost’s Michelle Rodriguez in a variety of roles. And his connection with series fans prompted him to bring in new fan-favorite characters from the videogames, including Leon (Johann Urb) and Barry Burton (Kevin Durand), as well as familiar faces from past films, like Luther (Boris Kodjoe) and One (Colin Salmon). For the die-hards, Resident Evil: Retribution is a sort of class reunion, a gathering of assets for the series finale, which will only be made if Retribution’s box-office take warrants it.
For everyone else, though, Retribution is a standard modern actioner, in which one supremely talented warrior battles her way through a target-rich, CGI-heavy environment against incredible odds, pausing to take in and protect a deaf girl (Aryana Engineer) and to face off against a familiar old foe (Shawn Roberts as Albert Wesker). Both these sidelines up the personal stakes a bit, pushing Retribution toward having a little more texture and humanity than the average dystopic-future shoot-’em-up, though that humanity is heavily borrowed from the like of Aliens and The Matrix. And so is the film’s chilly look, though Anderson’s zippy style (also seen in his other directorial projects, like Alien Vs. Predator and Death Race) has its own admirably clear, intense but comprehensible kinetic language. The acting is sometimes shockingly bad, but generally the script doesn’t ask much of the actors, and the combat is effectively staged and often thrilling. Nothing here is particularly new, apart from the occasional payoff of seeing familiar game characters pop up long enough to get killed by horrific things. But given that the film itself is aimed at little more than being an eyeball-occupier, a weekend-waster, and a chance for Anderson and Jovovich to share their private role-playing game with the rest of the world, it accomplishes what it sets out to do.