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'Resident Evil Raccoon City' review: This shockingly entertaining reboot has more scares than sci-fi

'Resident Evil Raccoon City' review: This shockingly entertaining reboot has more scares than sci-fi

Watching a Resident Evil movie without Milla Jovovich or Paul W. S. Anderson requires a certain readjustment of expectations.

No Milla as Alice in a corset and sporting double guns. No seething hordes of zombies over which Alice must leap and twist and turn. No Red Queen artificial intelligence to mock and heckle Alice and her attempts to battle the Umbrella Corporation and their engineered T-virus and G-virus.

The married couple of Jovovich and Anderson has guided this franchise for so long that it is difficult to divorce their influence from it, but with Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, filmmaker Johannes Roberts makes a solidly entertaining attempt. Welcome to Raccoon City nods to horror classics, crafts some genuinely creepy set pieces, and is just kitschy enough to generate some laughs alongside its CGI gore. In fact, the film’s only flaw might be how indebted it is to Resident Evil’s video game origins.

Robbie Amell, Chad Rook, Hannah John-Kamen, and Tom Hopper in Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City.Screen Gems

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City mostly takes place over the night of September 30, 1998, in Raccoon City, which used to be the headquarters of the Umbrella Corporation, a giant pharmaceutical company. Everyone in Raccoon City either works for or is somehow affiliated with Umbrella. When the company decides to move, the town is thrust into bankruptcy, desolation, and widespread sickness. The strange illness seems to be spreading through Raccoon City. It is what brings back the conspiracy-theory-minded Claire Redfield (Kaya Scodelario), who hopes that her police officer brother Chris (Robbie Amell) will finally accept her belief that Umbrella is evil.

Meanwhile, Chris and his RPD coworkers are sent to the Spencer Mansion, owned by the creator of the Umbrella Corporation, to investigate a report of a dead body. That leaves Chris, his crush Jill Valentine (Hannah John-Kamen), Jill’s crush Albert Wesker (Tom Hopper), fellow cop Richard Aiken (Chad Rook), and helicopter pilot Brad Vickers (Nathan Dales) at the isolated mansion.

Meanwhile, Claire teams up with rookie officer Leon S. Kennedy (Avan Jogia) and Chief Brian Irons (Donal Logue) to try and protect themselves from the town’s mutating citizens. All of this is the work of Umbrella scientist William Birkin (Neal McDonough), who has his own agenda for staying in Raccoon City while sharing history with Chris and Claire.

Avan Jogia and Kaya Scodelario in Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City.Screen Gems

Unlike the preceding film franchise, which invented the Alice character and plopped her in the middle of the preexisting Resident Evil video game universe, Welcome to Raccoon City sticks close to Capcom’s initial canon. Nearly every individual here is from 1996’s Resident Evil and 1998’s Resident Evil 2 games. Their storylines are also told in tandem, with half of Welcome to Raccoon City set in a mansion and the other half in a police station. To Roberts’ credit, he pulls off this balance by focusing on the details of each action set piece and emphasizing the horror elements of the narrative.

In the film’s nightmarish opening scene, a gnarled, diseased hand stretches toward a sleeping child’s face in the middle of the night. Agonized groans make up the constant background noise that permeates the film’s first half. Then, sneakily — and spookily — the film replaces them with the squelching sound of decaying flesh and the slurping noise of sucked-up blood.

In a later first-person shooter perspective, a lighter provides the flickering flare that captures the frantic moments of an advancing zombie. Claire pumps a shotgun in a particularly Sigourney Weaver-like move. Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre also mines anxiety out of dark hallways and uses handheld camerawork to great effect while capturing an ultraviolent attack on civilians. And the production design and costume design work together to make the Raccoon City Orphanage a demented carnival, and Lisa Trevor (Marina Mazepa) its most horrifying phantasm.

Lisa Trevor is one of Raccoon City’s most terrifying creatures.Screen Gems

In lavishing Welcome to Raccoon City with tropes and references pulled from Halloween, Aliens, and various other genre classics, Roberts firmly steps away from the sci-fi influence of Anderson’s films. That backward gaze doesn’t make Welcome to Raccoon City particularly creative, but it is often effectively scary.

Because the film is so reactive, its cast is mainly stuck in a “look shocked, ask what’s going on, shoot at enemies” routine, and that’s asking less than what most everyone is capable of here. Still, Scodelario, John-Kamen, Hopper, and Jogia stand out (even with lines like “What the fuck is this?”, “Who the fuck are you?”, and “What’s happening to them?”), and draw the audience along as they move from confusion and shock to grim resignation.

However, the drawback to all this is that Welcome to Raccoon City doesn’t always feel like a movie. It opens strong but then sags a bit in the middle. Although the film is supposed to take place in a compressed eight hours or so, there are certain time gaps as the film maneuvers its characters into certain locations. And because the film sticks so close to the video games, refusing to invent new characters or open up new subplots, it feels like an immersive gaming experience rather than a story that can stand on its own.

Appreciably, the film doesn’t rely on a cliffhanger, and its final moments (barring its mid-credits scene) could serve as a closed-loop. Suppose Welcome to Raccoon City were to lead to other films. In that case, Roberts’ focus on character relationships, intimate action sequences, and fondness for horror elements could make for some intriguing results — but he’ll need to stray a little further for cinematic effect.

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is now playing in theaters.