Resident Evil: Retribution, no less than that very same fifth film in the unkillable Resident Evil franchise that now celebrates its 10th anniversary, and has managed to be the best of all of them - the second time in two consecutive years that a dodgy franchise has managed to peak five pictures in, after Fast Five. The difference being that Fast Five is some good dumb fun, and Retribution, being a Resident Evil picture and also a directorial effort by the legendarily noisome Paul W.S. Anderson, is still a piece of crap. But the least crappy piece of crap out of five, by my lights; whether this makes it a nice surprise or simply proves that the zombie movie aficionado in the second decade of the 21st Century is obliged to sift through even more shit to get to anything worth watching than connoisseurs of other undernourished strains of cinematic horror.
Though, zombie movie though it is, there's really no point to even pretending that the Resident Evil films are horror anymore: there were just a few wisps of such considerations by the third film, Resident Evil: Extinction, and with Retribution, we've hit the point where even a handful of jump scares or grotesque body horror images are beyond the scope of what Anderson and company are interested in providing. It has become fully an action movie at this point, one that happens to include zombies and other gross figures that could well be scary if they were presented in a different fashion, but are certainly not here (I have heard that the game series the movie is only sort of based on has been following a similar trajectory, but I cannot vouch for that personally). Part of me wonders if that's why Retribution is so much less galling than the other films: badly-executed horror is an irritation and insulting, but badly-executed dumb action is, well, merely dumb, and when it is sufficiently garish and unashamed in its dumbness, it can even be quite restive and relaxing.
As far as big dumb action gestures go, Retribution opens well enough that I was even prepared to call it the first Resident Evil movie I out-and-out liked, for the first quarter of an hour or so. The film's very opening gambit shows the series' designated heroine Alice (Milla Jovovich) floating up through water, in extremely slow motion, and it takes only a second or two to figure out that we're actually watching her in reverse; and from here, as the credits play out and the obnoxious, throbbing score by the obnoxiously named tomandandy, the action continues to move backwards at a steadily glacial speed, slowly permitting us to see the creation of various splotches of carnage and explosions in minute detail, running backwards all the way till we reach the final shot of the last movie, Resident Evil: Afterlife. It is undeniably gaudy, but there's something appealing about its "hey everybody look at me, look, look!" eagerness, especially aided by singularly unsubtle 3-D effects (the 3-D in this movie is not what I'd hoped for, as it is only mainly foregrounded in this and other slow-motion sequences, but we can't have everything, not even from bad zombie action movies), and on the most abstracted possible level in which shapes, color, and movement are all we care about, it's awfully fun to watch.
Then the movie starts, and - this is the part that really surprised me - it takes a while for the film to start being bad. Before that, we get a fairly obvious fake-out sequence in which Alice, with a new hairdo, is suddenly disoriented by finding herself a surburban housewife who finds herself running from zombies in her upscale neighborhood, with her deaf daughter Becky (Aryana Engineer); and however much it's just a "gotcha!" exercise, it has a certain eerie quality that works well, as it should, since the whole thing was stolen outright from the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake. Upon being captured, Alice awakens (actually, it's not quite that straightforward), to find herself naked or the next thing to it in an octagonal white room with walls that stretch out of side, being angrily interrogated by her apparently not dead long-dead friend and ally, Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory, one of several faces from Resident Evils past to put in an appearance). After much psychological torture, the facility where Alice is imprisoned mysteriously goes dark, and she is able to escape into a hall way of endless glowing white panels, and it looks real terrific in 3-D; and the whole thing is unexplained and eerie, and awfully interesting.
Afterwards, the bottom drops out, and the movie becomes exactly like Afterlife with marginally better acting, but the opening, we'll always have that glorious time before we know what's going on. Which is, as Alice is told by the mysterious Ada Wong (Li Bingbing), that they are in a facility located in the Kamchatka Strait at the mouth of the Bering Sea, where the Umbrella Corporation tests its bioweapons in several themed rooms: suburbia, New York, Tokyo, Berlin, but we never get to see Berlin. Ada is on a mission with five others specifically to rescue Alice; there is a ticking clock scenario introduced, and pointlessly convoluted instructions presented by a big face on a digital readout, and the whole thing feels uncannily like an actual video game - continuing the series' trend of drifting slightly more in that direction with every entry.
That certainly explains the big HUD map of the facility, nicely demarcating each of the levels, for that's basically what they are: the New York level, with the two axe-wielding beasts, the Tokyo level, with the giant brain monster, the Suburbs level, where they find the NPC Becky. And boy, is it not fun watching somebody else play Resident Evil: Retribution: having impressively failed to film the action in Afterlife with the customary "everything's moving to fast to see it" aesthetic of modern action, Anderson corrects his mistake by chopping the action all to hell and thereby making it boring, though the final pair of fistfights are a relief from all the CGI-addled nonsense that preceded them for a solid hour.
Still, the CGI is at least decent, something that hasn't been true of the series for a long while, and the plot has more momentum than Afterlife. And Jovovich is in it; that is the one and only consistent saving grace of these pictures. Jovovich, who has just the right attitude to convince us of the absurdities of her character, is hot enough that it's worth watching her move through asinine slow-mo fight scenes, and whose screen presence would be the envy of many an objectively better actress. Anderson seems content to reduce this franchise (or "reduce", anyway) to nothing but an opportunity to appreciate the many facets of his wife as movie star, sex object, and wiry little action icon; and to be frank, that's always been a better reason for watching than their extraordinarily dubious value as thrillers about fighting zombies in generic high-tech surroundings.