In returning to direct Afterlife, a fourth franchise installment following two mostly thrilling sequels to his Lewis Carroll-inspired “Resident Evil” adaptation (both of which he still had a hand in writing and producing), the commercially controversial Paul W.S. Anderson displayed a love for the characters and stories he’d injected in to the source video game’s lore. For those of us predisposed to liking the director’s work and particularly the stylized escapades of Milla Jovovich’s Alice & co., Afterlife is a revelation in action filmmaking – a redefinition of its series and a soaring high for Anderson that does new 3D the way it’s meant to be seen. The speedy leap back to the Umbrella-controlled world after a pitstop in spectacle-infused Alexandre Dumas territory with The Three Musketeers makes for the briefest gap between Evil outings yet, and perhaps that is to blame for why Retribution feels like a painfully undercooked betrayal.
Anderson, alongside wife Jovovich, stated over one year ago he wanted to make a film for the fans. Well, if you account for the long-awaited and entirely useless implementation of game characters Leon Kennedy (Johann Urb) and Ada Wong (Bingbing Li), or perhaps the confounding reintroductions of previous (dead) characters, one may suppose Anderson has fit his bill. As a storied devotee and stalwart defender of the Resident Evil films, however, this reviewer finds himself surprised and sorrowful in the lack of hesitation required to announce that Retribution is a detrimental cheapening of its brand – a film not for the fans at all, but for the necessity of following up on a towering cliffhanger despite its brazen disinterest in that very loose end.
When Afterlife left us, Alice and her group of survivors and rescued prisoners had been set upon by an apparently insurmountable force of Umbrella vessels, revealing the state of the sinister corporation’s now presumably leader-less reach and spelling certain doom for our heroes. Retribution does indeed pick up from this point, but just as Extinction failed to address several Apocalypse characters’ absences, it offers little concern for the fates of K-Mart or the Redfield siblings. Furthermore, it never bothers to explain, imply or even skirt around a sudden resurrection of Afterlife‘s clearly disposed-of villain nor the events that brought Luther West (Boris Kodjoe) from his vantage point in the distant drain pipe to his new position as member of an incidentally all-male resistance force.
The Resident Evil film banner has always represented style over story (which is not to say the story cannot be intriguing despite its often stilted presentation), and its shamelessly overt style justifies this and then some. Afterlife does it best, casting off many of its predecessors’ mounting plot developments in one gorgeously orchestrated opening sequence of Peter Chung-ian infiltration so it may then focus on going nuts with exponentially astounding compositions, etcetera. As just one aspect of its befuddlement, Retribution opts to reintroduce these deliberately shed angles and embellish them without so much as a coherent line of exposition, causing much confusion and leaving style in the dust. Anderson appears to disappointingly go through the motions for the duration, only demonstrating expected flair when mimicking prior triumphs such as the crowning shower-room battle with the Axe-Man, here sized down to shot-for-shot highlights and reset in a callback of the marginally iconic rain-drenched Tokyo set.
Retribution is not without its minor positives, which include whip-tight fight choreography, Anderson’s signature action punctuations here allowed to live in the wideshot and the series’ ever-fashionable costume work. These positives are, of course, shrouded by ineffectively paced sequencing, abysmal supporting performances and often bafflingly uninspired cinematography that moves in the exact opposite direction from Afterlife‘s extra-dimensionally diorama-esque 3D. Even the returning tomandandy’s score is downright offensive to the ears as it attempts to strike completely deviant tones from the established vigor of the pair’s preexisting work and even goes as far as to neuter that work with spare remixes in attempt to evoke oh-so visceral memories of fawning over Afterlife‘s excellence.
Paul W.S. Anderson, why for ever hath thou forsaken us at what had been the top of thy game? And why do you adore that cliffhanger shot you conjured in Afterlife so much that you have copied it in both your Three Musketeers and – to a somewhat lesser extent – this, particularly if you make no effort to cash in on it? This reviewer will never so much as murmur a less than gushingly enthusiastic syllable about your work on the fourth Evil picture, so it is with pain that this fifth must be found in such a wounded state. Do not drag Alice further through the mud by letting Retribution become the new series standard. Let it be your careless misstep before you take us by storm again – your Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, if you will. We beg of you.
– Tom Stoup