When we binged on a small selection of “iconic” video game adaptations for episode #11 of the podcast, I was surprised to see Paul WS Anderson’s name pop up twice in a row as a director of both Mortal Kombat & Resident Evil (2002). Not only is the video game adaptation not a genre you’d typically associate with an auteur’s go-to passion for repeat offerings (outside maybe a stray Uwe Boll-type), but Anderson’s two contributions to our list were actually two of the better films, bested only by 1994’s Super Mario Bros in terms of pure entertainment value. Of his two entries, Resident Evil was the biggest surprise in terms of competency. Mortal Kombat had the narrative upper hand of a ridiculous interdimensional martial arts tournament to boost its camp value (along with a delightfully obnoxious theme song & a scenery-devouring Christopher Lambert). Resident Evil, on the other hand, was a seemingly straightforward zombie picture, so it was downright bizarre that Anderson managed to make it even moderately memorable in the face of a market that’s been overcrowded with similar works for decades. The Milla Jovovich-helmed action vehicle was actually an interesting trifle, however slight, one made novel by a wealth of weird details like A.I. children, genetically mutated beasts, and menacing corporations with dystopian designs on world domination.
What’s even more surprising than Anderson managing to make a watchable film out of the Resident Evil video game franchise is that he did not stop at just one film. The 6th (and supposedly final) entry in the series has just reached theaters over a decade later and both Anderson & Jovovich have shared some level of involvement in the series throughout its entire run, which is a much higher level of consistency than you’d expect for a zombie video game franchise. The second film in the series, Resident Evil: Apocalypse (which obviously didn’t follow through on the finality of its title) wasn’t half bad either. It expands the bunker-confined action of the lower budget first film by bringing its zombie breakout above ground. Its world-building details like the exact nature & temporal location of its Raccoon City setting, its menacing (and hilariously named) villain the Umbrella Corporation, and the exact skills & origins (and even name) of its Ripley stand-in (Jovovich), all remain fuzzy to me after two full-length features. All you need to know to make it through a Resident Evil movie is that zombies & capitalists are bad, while women & guns are good. The rest is all shoot-em-up nonsense and militaristic zombie movie mayhem, a triumph of action horror cinema only in that it should be impossible for Anderson to make something so generic so delightful to watch and, yet, he’s done it at least twice.
I think Resident Evil‘s key to surviving as a notable action horror franchise is its dedication to excess. The film couldn’t logically bring in Jovovich’s hero immediately to deal with the above-ground breakout so it created a second badass with a gun cliché (a cop named Valentine, hilariously) to shoot some undead baddies in her initial absence. There’s some first person POV shooting in a police station and found footage shenanigans with a rogue news broadcaster that helpfully treads plot water until Jovovich can burst onto the scene by flying a motorcycle through a church’s stained glass windows and then turning said motorcycle into a makeshift bomb. Once our two badass ladies join teams everything else is an action-packed blur of knives, grenades, rocket launchers, and the undead bursting out of graves like a cover version of the “Thriller” video. New locations play like video game levels. The film’s Final Boss characer is a new genetic mutant called Genesis (who vaguely resembles the version of Bane in Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin). Everything is all very loud and violent and impossibly dumb, to the point where the monotone excess becomes its own artform and your options are either to play along with the film’s buffoonery or to feel like your better senses are constantly being assaulted.
I don’t care to learn any more about this series’ mythology than the little I can catch between explosions and bullets. Jared Harris (Lane from Mad Men) pops up here as some kind of smart programmer type who’s constantly hacking into the mainframe or some such nonsense and Iian Glen (Jorah from Game of Thrones) swoops in at the last minute for some Wolverine-type experiments & mumblings about clone technology, but outside of those actors’ before they were C-list stars pedigree, their presence signifies nothing. No one really matters here outside Jovovich & Anderson. Even the newly introduced & oddly omnipresent character of Valentine is mostly just a place holder until Jovovich can arrive above-ground, guns & motorcycle blazing (and the less I say about the film’s wisecracking pimp comic relief, the better). I’m sincerely amazed that a single filmmaker & a single performer have stuck with such an explosively inane series for as long as Jovovich & Anderson have. I also wonder if there are wholeheartedly dedicated fans of the series out there who care deeply about its AI, genetic monsters, and walking dead mythology enough to have been counting the days until the series wrapped up in its final installment. I can’t imagine being at all invested in Resident Evil’s narrative throughline & overarching themes, but I will admit that these films are much louder, dumber, and more entertainingly chaotic than I expected them to be and I’m curious about how they can keep up that stamina for four more installments.