Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City

To me, I suspect, the phrase “Resident Evil” will always mean the Milla Jovovich sci-fi-action-horror series that spanned six movies and fourteen years, kicking off at the start of the 21st century zombie movie revival, swerving into mimicry of MAD MAX and THE MATRIX, and ending somewhat disappointingly, but also somewhat admirably, with yet another look and feel. It’s a unique pop culture creation, a pleasingly lowbrow mix of styles, sampling a wide range of gimmicks and trends (zombies, nu metal, wire fu, 3-D, speed-ramping) and teaching me to really like Paul W.S. Anderson after all. But in 2016 they called it quits and moved on to MONSTER HUNTER.

I personally wasn’t looking for a reboot (in the original sense of the word – actually starting over fresh) as a straight horror movie. But it makes sense, since, from what I understand, that’s what the video games that inspired the movies were like. (In fact, George Romero directed a commercial for the video game and was attached to a movie version well before Anderson.) And I’m happy to report that in contrast to the first RESIDENT EVIL (one of the only entries in the series I didn’t much enjoy) this new one called RESIDENT EVIL: WELCOME TO RACCOON CITY is actually a pretty good little horror movie.

It has some of the same elements as that original one, presumably taken from the game: a mansion, secret tunnels, trying to escape on a subway. But it immediately looks and feels like a different sort of thing, opening in an orphanage at night, where some dirty, spindly claws touch the face of a little girl named Claire (Lily Gail Reid, Killjoys) while she sleeps. It’s a really well done sequence where she wakes up and can just barely make out a face across the room in the dark and follows this grunting, crawling person wearing a creepy mask and a hospital bracelet that says her name is Lisa Trevor. I like that little Claire is friendly to Lisa, treating her like a normal person and asking her about herself. She can’t really talk but she writes down in scratchy writing that she lives “BELOW.”

Then we jump to 1998, when little Claire has grown into cool red leather jacket wearing Claire Redfield (Kaya Scodelario, MOON, CLASH OF THE TITANS, CRAWL), heading back to Raccoon City to warn her brother Chris (Robbie Amell, THE BABYSITTER) about an impending catastrophe. Even if she hadn’t been tipped off about dangerous experiments by some guy in a chat room (Josh Cruddas, POLAR) she might’ve figured it out when the sexual harassy truck driver she hitched a ride with (Pat Thornton) ran over a woman in the road and she turned into a zombie and the driver’s doberman licked her blood and became a monster. Raccoon City is not a good place to be right now!

After that prologue and the title, composer Mark Korven (CUBE, THE WITCH, THE LIGHTHOUSE)’s pulsing synths over choir accompany a title card about this place becoming a ghost town as the world’s largest pharmaceutical company, the Umbrella Corporation, relocates to a new headquarters. “All that remains is a skeleton crew of the last few employees…”

(long pause…)

“…and those too poor to leave.”

That theme doesn’t really come out too much in the movie, I’m afraid, but it’s a hell of a badass John Carpentery way to kick off the proceedings. As the story progresses we’ll meet a set of colorful characters like you’d expect in a video game movie, including Jill Valentine (Hannah John-Kamen, TOMB RAIDER, READY PLAYER ONE, “Ghost” from ANT-MAN AND THE WASP) and Albert Wesker (Tom Hopper, TERMINATOR: DARK FATE), Chris’s colleagues in the mostly-unexplained Special Tactics And Rescue Service Alpha Team. Also you got this regular cop named Leon S. Kennedy (Avan Jogia, ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP). I appreciate the middle initial so we know he’s not supposed to be Leon Isaac Kennedy, star of the PENITENTIARY trilogy. He seems sensitive and long-haired for a cop, and the others are dicks to him and constantly refer to him being a rookie. He doesn’t even humor them about it, he just seems miserable. But I guess that makes him more likable.

I was happy to see Donal Logue (BLADE) show up as the yelling asshole police chief Irons. And Neal McDonough (STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN LI) plays William Birkin, a scientist who was a father figure to the Redfields when they grew up in the orphanage but they didn’t know he was doing depraved human experiments for the Umbrella Corporation the whole time. Mostly on the other kids! They came this close to being brought “below” with Lisa Trevor.

This is a cool role for McDonough because first of all, he’s in both the present day and the flashbacks, so he gets to wear a wig with bangs to look younger, and second because (SPOILER) at the end he’s transformed into a hideous monster. I could be mistaken but I believe it was a really effective hybrid of makeup effects and digital enhancements, so you got the familiar McDonough face with nasty spikes and pulsing lumps growing off of him, including huge wet eyeballs on his shoulder. Good stuff. (Creature design by Daniel Carrasco, HELLBOY, MALIGNANT.)

I love that the Milla series has lots of running up walls and flipping and stuff, but this is not that kind of party. You could say it’s a little action-y in the sense that many of the characters are cops or agents doing alot of shooting, but I appreciate that it’s not real glamorous. The gunshots are loud and scary and a well-meaning character trying to stop a legitimate evil plan ends up shooting an innocent civilian woman in front of her daughter, then pointing the gun at the daughter and feeling horrible about it.

Writer/director Johannes Roberts (who did those shark movies 47 METERS DOWN) and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre (who did that alligator movie CRAWL) are good at setting a tone and staging good scares. They seem particularly fond of that gag where we see something in the distance and realize that it’s headed right for us before the characters do. In one case it’s a crashing helicopter, another time it’s a semi truck, once it’s a zombie, and then a second zombie rushes in from the side while we we’re distracted by the first one. Sleight of hand.

I suppose some of that could be described as action too, but much of the runtime is dedicated to building the dark-and-stormy-night atmosphere and the tension of these characters trying to defend themselves as disaster approaches. Lots of scare set pieces mostly set in the dark hallways of the isolated buildings they hole up in. And some very cool monsters. Even a creepy animated crow that writhes around on the ground after crashing into the building. You get used to horror movies where they don’t have the resources to create creatures like that, so you gotta appreciate when they can afford to be excessive. There’s a part where there’s an explosion and they have a cow grazing in the foreground and he gets blown into the air by it – I wondered if it was an homage to the cow in the TWISTER trailer that was such a sensation at the time. I’m leaning yes.

Speaking of “at the time,” the movie doesn’t go overboard with the 1998 period detail, but they mention a new Planet Hollywood and renting at Blockbuster, and there’s a Palm Pilot. Also the soundtrack features The Cardigans and 4 Non Blondes. But I didn’t notice, like, a REPLACEMENT KILLERS poster or anything.

There was a little bit in the middle where I thought maybe I was losing interest, but then it swings back hard with a scene that would justify the whole movie even if the rest of it was bad. The beauty of it is the sudden appearance of chaotic weirdness, so be warned that I’m gonna go ahead and describe/spoil it here as evidence for anyone who’s not sold on the movie yet. Officer Leon Not Isaac Kennedy is alone in a hallway seeing some spooky shit with the lights flickering and swinging as something moves around above them. Then suddenly he comes face-to-face with some SILENT HILL shit – a freaky person-under-the-stairs type whose hands are bound in a piece of wood and who’s wearing a bizarre mask turned crooked with a chunk of hair extruding from one eyehole and her deformed face peeking out through a loose seam on the side. I think it’s some kind of dummy or scarecrow face she’s wearing but it could be a Leatherface situation – it’s unclear. And we know this is Lisa Trevor, from the prologue, but he doesn’t know who that is. Anyway, she gestures for silence, then points up.

Claire and Chief Irons hear Kennedy freaking out and come find him, but somehow Lisa has disappeared. As he fumbles over himself trying to explain what he saw, we learn what Lisa was pointing at because a giant tentacle-like tongue reaches down from the ceiling, grabs Irons from behind and yanks him off screen to be munched to death and dumped unceremoniously to the ground.

Thanks to modern technology this CG monster looks much better than the equivalent ones in the early RESIDENT EVIL movies, but that’s not what makes this scene great. What makes this scene great is that the movie’s best character, “Lethal” Lisa Trevor, savagely attacks the thing, using the board she’s stockaded in to choke him, wrapping her legs around him like a jiujitsu move, eventually creating enough pressure to slice his head off. Beautiful, beautiful stuff.

Lisa mutters “friend” so that Claire knows she remembers her from childhood. When they leave on an elevator, Kennedy looks at Claire and says, “You got some weird friends.”

Unfortunately he says it like he’s mad. If he would’ve said it as a joke it would’ve been a great one, but instead he sounds like an ungrateful bastard who doesn’t appreciate that his life was just saved by that “weird friend.”

And that’s pretty much my only nitpick of WELCOME TO RACCOON CITY. Otherwise it was a fun time, and I appreciate the hospitality. I think this movie got bad reviews, but it did decent for pandemic times and I’m sure more people will catch on by they time they make another one, if they decide to.

Note: I really didn’t plan for this to follow my reviews of BURST CITY, FEAR CITY, ALPHABET CITY and DARK CITY. Unfortunately the rest of this week’s reviews will not have “city” in the title. I apologize for the inconvenience.

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