November 23, 2016
Resident Evil (2002)
It is a widely perceived wisdom that Hollywood can't adapt videogames into movies. It's an opinion that has been proven by a long string of films that are either outright disasters - see Super Mario Bros or Street Fighter - or fairly middling under-performers - see Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat, Prince of Persia and others.
20th Century Fox are about to launch a film adaptation of Assassin's Creed, which might be the long-awaited breakthrough in the genre, but for now I really think the best attempt made so far within American cinema is Paul W.S. Anderson's Resident Evil franchise.
For one thing they're clearly much more profitable hits than their rivals, with a sixth and purportedly final instalment coming in early 2017. To a large degree I think that success stems from a fairly restricted ambition. Films such as Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia used large budgets and extensive marketing to present themselves as summer tent-poles for a mass audience. By contrast, Resident Evil has consistently marketed itself as a comparatively small scale series of B-movies. They are aimed specifically at an audience that actively enjoys schlock-horror with action beats, shambling zombies, weird grotesque monsters, and attractive female performers. I think it's important to recognise the pulp horror oeuvre into which the Resident Evil films attempt to place themselves, and judge each film based on that oeuvre.
As a form of relatively cheap, generic entertainment, the original Resident Evil film is pretty successful. It has a fast pace and keeps moving throughout. It keeps its content varied. The cast are generally entertaining, even if they are working with very stereotypical characters. You could criticise a lot of elements in the film, and absolutely you can easily find much better films out there in the horror, action and science fiction genres - Resident Evil straddles all three - but to claim there's no enjoyment to be had in watching Milla Jovovich kick zombie dogs in the head would be to lie.
Jovovich has a particular talent for this kind of superficial genre film. She was great in The Fifth Element and she was great in the particularly deranged Ultraviolet, and as zombie-killing action heroine Alice she is perhaps at her all-time best. She's clearly game for whatever the film needs as well, given some of the more ridiculous costuming choices that get inflicted upon her. (In an epilogue sequence her costume essentially consists of two sheets of paper and some string.)
The supporting cast follows the Jerry Bruckheimer school of casting: you can paper over multiple shortfalls in a screenplay by hiring properly decent actors. Here the likes of Michelle Rodriguez, Colin Salmon, Jason Isaacs and James Purefoy help an awful lot. To be honest among the lead cast it is only Eric Mabius who feels a little substandard, and even then it's not by enough degrees to ruin his scenes.
The action beats are solid but derivative; one scene in particular shamelessly steals from Vincenzo Natali's Cube. Paul W.S. Anderson is a solid working director, and while few of his films stand out as properly brilliant plenty of them work on a simple level of breezy entertainment. That includes the likes of Soldier, Event Horizon, Alien vs Predator and arguably even the ridiculous Mortal Kombat or Pompeii. Resident Evil is a solid addition to that kind of resume. It's far from the best film of its kind, but for what it's actually attempting to do it is still pretty enjoyable stuff.