Released: 24 November 2021
Director: Johannes Roberts
Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing
Budget: $25 million
Stars: Kaya Scodelario, Avan Jogia, Donal Logue, Robbie Amell, Hannah John-Kamen, Tom Hopper, and Neal McDonough
In the year 1998, the grim post-industrial town of Raccoon City has just lost its biggest employer, the Umbrella Corporation. While college student Claire Redfield (Scodelario) believes Umbrella has polluted the town’s water, her estranged brother Chris (Amell) and his team investigate a nearby mansion and find the area swarming with flesh-eating zombies! Claire is forced to team up with rookie cop Leon S. Kennedy (Jogia) to survive and unravel the mystery behind the outbreak and of her traumatic childhood.
Resident Evil (Capcom, 1996) began life as a seminal “survival-horror” title for Sony’s burgeoning PlayStation that emphasised atmospheric horror and conserving resources. Although the original title suffered a bit from the PlayStation’s blocky and clunky graphics and mechanics and dodgy, B-movie voice acting, the game was a best-seller for the PlayStation and bolstered by a number of sequels. Resident Evil 2 (ibid, 1998) improved on many of these mechanics and, alongside, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis (ibid, 1999), established much of the lore and groundwork before the fourth game forever changed up the formula for a new generation of gamers. The franchise’s success inevitably led to discussions of a live-action adaptation, which initially had legendary zombie horror maestro George A. Romero attached to direct before Constantin Film placed Paul W. S. Anderson in charge of the film series, which eventually included six live-action films. The movies, which were more of an action/horror genre, starred Anderson’s wife, Mila Jovovich and, despite earning a mostly negative reception, became the most successful and profitable live-action adaptation of a videogame series, though I can safely say that I was left disappointed by their lack of fidelity to the source material.
After Anderson’s series concluded, Constantin Films began developing a much-needed reboot, and director James Wan initially expressed interest in the project before dropping out to direct Mortal Kombat (Wan, 2021) and being replaced by Johannes Roberts. Roberts aimed to return to the same dark, foreboding, and fun horror of the original videogames and the capture the traditional spirit of the source material by returning to the original locations, time period, and heavily featuring the popular videogame characters. Initial reactions, however, we less than encouraging, with many criticising the film’s B-movie feel; this was only exacerbated when Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City released and criticised for its lack of substance and character development. The film was praised for its fidelity to the source material and references for long-time fans, however, and has currently grossed $24.8 million worldwide; additionally, both the director and star Robbie Amell have expressed interest in returning for a sequel and tackling some of the later games in the long-running franchise.
I feel like I need to preface this review with the revelation that, while I am a big fan of the Resident Evil videogames, I am not a fan of Paul W. S. Anderson’s live-action franchise. I spent a year of my PhD researching the history of zombie cinema, watching and studying and delving into Anderson’s movies, and I came out the other end absolutely loathing them. The only one I even remotely enjoy is Resident Evil: Apocalypse (Witt, 2004), and that’s purely because it’s the closest adaptation of my favourite games in the series (Resident Evil 2 and 3: Nemesis). I absolutely despise Alice (Jovovich), hated how Anderson ignored, cherry-picked, or diluted the source material and its iconic characters, and was actually a little insulted by how continuity was continuously thrown out of the window with the next movie purely for the same of slapping together a new plot. To me, Anderson’s films, while successful, are not Resident Evil; they do a decent job of adapting a different elements of the source material and zombie troupes but the result is this incomprehensible mish-mash of ideas that have been done much better elsewhere and with the Resident Evil title slapped on it purely to make money. And, make no mistake, they did make money and were popular enough to become their own independent franchise from the source material, but I longed for something a bit more faithful to the games I grew up with so I was excited at the prospect of a new Resident Evil adaptation that not only featured the iconic characters in starring roles but also revisited the events of the videogames…even if it was lumbered with a ridiculous title.
Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City opens with Chris and Claire as young children (Daxton Grey Gujral and Lauren Bill) at the Raccoon City Orphanage; there they, and many other children, are cared for by the Umbrella Corporation and scientist Doctor William Birkin (McDonough). While this scene does go on a little longer than you might expect, it establishes a few key elements that crop up throughout the film; first and foremost, that Chris and Claire’s relationship is an important part of the story, the mystery surrounding what Birkin and Umbrella are doing with these children, and the existence of the malformed Lisa Trevor (Marina Mazepa). Lisa watches and visits Claire, scaring her but also arousing her suspicions, but Chris never sees the young Trevor and despairs of Claire’s stories. The story then jumps ahead a few years to 1998 to find Claire all grown up and journeying to the veritable ghost town of Raccoon City to reunite with her brother, who has joined the Raccoon City Police Department’s (RPD) special operations team, Special Tactics And Rescue Service (S.T.A.R.S.) and all but given up on her younger sister. Their relationship is strained, to say the least, since Claire ran away from the orphanage and left Chris alone; with no one else to turn to, he came to see Birkin as a father-figure and grew up a loyal representative of Umbrella and dedicated law enforcement officer, so he’s less than thrilled when Claire breaks into his house spouting conspiracy theories about Umbrella poisoning Raccoon City’s water supply.
Raccoon City has declined over the years after the Umbrella Corporation randomly pulled themselves out of the area, leave only a handful of staff and those too poor to leave behind to fend for themselves. As a result, the RPD is a bit under-staffed and has little choice but to accept the unlikeliest of recruits, such as rookie Leon. A young, fresh-faced, inexperienced cop, Leon is a recent transfer to the RPD thanks to the grace of his father, who ensured that he continued on with his law enforcement career after an embarrassing mishap where he shot his partner in the ass. Consequently, Leon is constantly berated, talked down to, and the butt (no pun intended) of other character’s jokes and frustrations…and he certainly deserves this treatment. A lackadaisical kid who’s in way over his head just manning the front desk, Leon fumbles with police protocol almost as much as with his firearm; he has no idea how to handle a shotgun, is easily disarmed by desperate conspiracy theorist Ben Bertolucci (Josh Cruddas), and is constantly just getting in people’s way and asking questions rather than actually being a pro-active and resourceful character. He’s kind of here as the film’s comic relief, though he doesn’t actually make any jokes, and his character arc is a very slow burn from being an awkward and unreliable rookie to building his confidence towards being more useful and capable, but it’s not handled too well.
RPD police chief Brain Irons (Logue) has little time for Leon’s antics, and is frustrated by a spate of mysterious attacks and killing across town. Reports of a chewed-up body at the old Spenser Mansion raise his ire further and, when Bravo team fails to report in from their investigation, he sends in Chris and the S.T.A.R.S. Alpha team to find out what happened. Alpha team is also made up of jock commander Albert Wesker (Hopper), trigger happy bad-ass Jill Valentine (John-Kamen), expendable nobody Richard Aiken (Chad Rook), and pilot Brad Vickers (Nathan Dales); they are an overconfident, militant bunch who have a friendly camaraderie that include splaying pranks on hapless colleagues like Leon and some sexual chemistry between Jill and Wesker. They travel to the mansion for a side story that is basically a condensed adaptation of the original Resident Evil and involves them exploring the dark, elaborate mansion with only their torches and a whole mess of submachine gun ammo on hand. Upon being dispatched, however, Wesker receives a mysterious page and is led to a PalmPilot that contains a map of the mansion, which is all part of a pre-arranged agreement with an unknown third party to led him to Birkin’s research and score him a big payday at the cost of betraying his teammates.
With Chris busying fending off the recently reanimated dead at the Spenser Mansion, Claire is forced to team up with Irons and Leon inside the police station for the Resident Evil 2 aspect of the film; the RPD is as beautifully true to the source material as the mansion, but it quickly becomes apparent that they can’t hold out against the increasing zombie horde. Irons leads them to the orphanage, which contains a secret passage to the mansion, and Claire is forced to face a traumatic experience from her childhood where Birkin tried to ship her off the mansion for experimentation with the mysterious T-Virus. Claire managed to escape, and has been trying to uncover the truth about Umbrella ever since; although a Licker shreds up Irons, Leon and Claire are aided by the grown-up Lisa Trevor and meet up with Chris right as he’s in the middle of being overwhelmed by zombies. Thanks to Wesker’s knowledge, the survivors are led to a secret passage in the mansion, which leads to a confrontation between Wesker and Birkin. A creepy, clinical scientist, Birkin is given layers of humanity through his devoted (and naïve) wife, Annette Birkin (Janet Porter), and innocent young daughter, Sherry (Holly De Barros); unlike his paranoid, self-absorbed, and malevolent videogame counterpart, Birkin is a loving father and equally concerned with getting his family to safety as he is preserving his research into the G-Virus. His desire to protect both leads him to pulling a gun on Wesker and getting riddled with bullets, and his desperate plea to Annette to inject him with the G-Virus so he can survive his wounds.
Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City owes a lot to the Resident Evil 2 and 3 remakes in terms of its visual presentation; the cinematography is dark, gritty, rain-swept and gory just like in those games and the representations of familiar areas like the mansion and RPD are ripped right out of the high definition remakes of Capcom’s classics. The fidelity to the source material is so strong here; the orphanage and S.T.A.R.S. office is exactly like in Resident Evil 2, Chris, Leon, and Claire are all decked out in game-accurate outfits, even the Arklay mountains match up with the videogames. A surprising amount of time is spent with the trucker (Pat Thornton), who has only a brief role in Resident Evil 2 but, here, plays a pivotal role in bringing Claire to Raccoon City and expositing some background on the city, and the film is punctuated by both eighties horror tropes such as constantly onscreen reminders of what time it is (since the city is on a countdown to destruction) and onscreen text that recalls the opening of the original Resident Evil. The film’s title font is event exactly the same as the classic titles, and many of the shots and events are pulled right from the videogames; Vickers crashes his helicopter into the mansion, similar to a chopper smashing into the RPD, Chris’s first encounter with a zombie is almost exactly like in Resident Evil, and stormtrooper-like members of Umbrella Security Service even appear in a cameo role.
Unlike Paul W. S. Anderson’s films, the focus of Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is squarely on adaptations of the videogame characters, however long-term fans of the videogames may be a little disappointed with how some characters are represented. He clear standout is Claire; she’s a little more capable and has a bit of a chip on her shoulder compared to her videogame counterpart, but is a strong, bad-ass central character here and more than able to wield a shotgun, pick locks, and beat zombie dogs to death with melee weapons. Chris also fares pretty well; he’s much more the unprepared cop rather than a boulder-punching bad-ass and, while he doesn’t have as much nuance as Claire, he’s got just enough personality to not just be some meathead or stoic military brat. Unfortunately, my favourite character in the franchise, Leon, gets well and truly shafted here; never have I ever seen the character portrayed as such a bumbling klutz and it’s truly baffling that the film can be so true to the videogames in so many ways and bungle one of the most capable and popular characters so completely. It seems the writer/director decided to really overemphasise Leon’s rookie status and portray him as an incompetent fool who as no idea what’s happening, trips over his own feet, and constantly needs his ass pulling out of the fire. He does grow as the film progresses, but sadly not completely; thanks to Claire giving him a kick up the ass, he becomes more useful and even gets to deliver the coup de grâce to the film’s big-bad with a rocket launcher, but he definitely survives more due to the assistance of others and in spite of his incompetent nature.
Another character who suffers quite a bit is Wesker; this isn’t the cold, calculating, manipulative puppet master you know from the videogames and is, instead, a bit of a cock-sure douche who Jill fawns over with doe eyes, banters with his teammates, and betrays his team for money rather than because he’s working for (or directly against) Umbrella. For much of the film, Wesker is actually surprisingly likeable; he leads his team efficiently, clearly cares for them, and even when he reveals his true intentions, he is remorseful. When he confronts Birkin, he repeatedly gives the doctor the chance to hand over the G-Virus samples peacefully and is distraught when he is forced to gun down Birkin and Annette. The implication is that his mysterious benefactors have some kind of sway over him and are forcing him to go down a dark path, or that the money is too good to turn down, and he expresses his regret and even apologises to Jill and Chris and directs them to the exit after being shot to death by Jill. Jill is also a little different to her videogame counterpart, and previous live-action portrayals; as mentioned, she’s quick to pull her gun and has eyes for Wesker, ignoring Chris’s clear attraction to her in favour of her commander, but luckily this aspect isn’t dwelled on too much (there’s no actual romance between her and Wesker, no kiss or anything, but she is clearly hurt by his betrayal as more than just a teammate). Birkin is noticeably altered as well in a way that makes him a touch more sympathetic, but not completely absolved of all evil as Claire stumbles across evidence that he has been experimenting on children as part of what he calls “God’s work” and developed the virus that is responsible for the city’s horrific events.
While Anderson’s previous efforts did include their fair share of zombie action, zombies were pretty much relegated to cannon fodder and annoyances to move his characters along and insert an action scene here and there. In Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, zombies are actually few and far between; thanks to Raccoon City being all-but deserted, we don’t really get any sweeping, dramatic shots of an army of the living dead. The zombies we do get are quite different to the usual depiction as well; they’re fast, as is to be expected, and much more vocal and animalistic than the traditional Resident Evil shambling hordes. They do attack in a ravenous fury, however, and relentlessly pursue fresh meat; they overwhelm Richard, chewing him up in an instant, though Chris is somehow able to fend a whole gaggle of them off with only a lighter as a light source. In the orphanage, Irons, Claire, and Leon are attacked by a Resident Evil movie staple, the Licker. As in Anderson’s films, the Licker is merely a more ferocious inconvenience; it reduces Irons to bloody ribbons but is easily subdued by Lisa Trevor, who is recast from a tortured monstrosity to a sympathetic tragedy of Birkin’s experiments. Also included are the infected crows and zombified dogs, but the depiction of the T-Virus is also a little different; according to Ben, the entire town was slowly exposed to the virus over a long period of time, and Umbrella even issued shots to its staff and the RPD officers to stave off their infection (though it’s not really clear as to why they would do this), and the focus is less on depicting the motivations behind developing the virus and more on the impact it has on the survivors.
After Wesker and Birkin kill each other, Chris, Claire, Leon, and Jill follow Wesker’s directions to an underground train to will take them (and Sherry) to safety. However, exposure to the G-Virus causes Birkin to undergo a horrific mutation; his right arm becomes a monstrous claw-like appendage and disgusting tumour-like eyes glisten out from his skin. Driven by an animalistic urge, he hunts the survivors, attacking Chris and taunting him (an addition I can get behind as it retains McDonough’s visage and deliver), and reunited the estranged siblings as Claire comes to his aid. Wounds only exacerbate the G-Virus, however, mutating Birkin into a grotesque monstrosity that franchise fans will recognise as “G”; it attacks the train, sporting Birkin’s wailing, agonised face on its torso, and threatens to eviscerate all of the survivors. They are saved by the unlikeliest of heroes as Leon blasts the monstrous Birkin in the face with a rocket launcher (dangerously close to Claire and Chris, but they survive thanks to Plot Armour) and the survivors manage to escape Raccoon City right as it collapses in on itself and is erased from the face of the Earth. In the aftermath, Umbrella believes that they have contained the outbreak and eliminated any witnesses, unaware of the five survivors, and Wesker suddenly wakes up in a body bag in a mysterious facility. There, the mysterious Ada Wong (Lily Gao), provides him with sunglasses to ease his newfound sensitivity to light and forcibly drafted into an unknown fate. I applaud the confidence in the film’s ability to get a sequel, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it does get on in some way, shape, or form but I do think it might have been better to have this scene take place after the credits rather than mid-way through them.
I went into Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City with pretty low expectations; I was excited by how faithful to the first two games it seemed from the trailers and images, but wasn’t impressed with the odd title and heard that it wasn’t that great. Specifically, I heard all about the assassination of Leon’s character and Wesker’s odd characterisation, and criticisms about it being little more than a dumb B-level monster movie. While I was displeased with Leon’s characterisation, and surprised at the take on Wesker, I would still say that Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is better than every single one of Paul W. S. Anderson’s previous live-action adaptations put together. It’s so true to the games (which were B-level monster movies at heart) that I’m genuinely surprised to see Anderson listed as a producer since he seemed determined to ignore everything but the most popular aspects of the source material. While the film still has a focus more on action rather than survival, the characters, locations, and atmosphere are so perfectly in-tune with the classic Resident Evil videogames that it easily compensates for any misgivings I may have about some of the characterisations. If the film does get a sequel, I’d like to see these issues addressed as part of a larger story and character arc, but I was very entertained by Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City’s back-to-basics approach. For me, Resident Evil works best when it’s a gory, horrifying battle for survival against zombies and other monsters and Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City definitely meets these criteria. I’d even go as far as to say that, despite some missteps with Leon and Wesker, this is the live-action Resident Evil movie fans have been waited for since Capcom first considered producing an adaptation and that there’s enough here fans of the videogames, and of gory action/horror films, to really sink their teeth into.
Have you seen Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City? How do you think it compares to the previous live-action films and the videogames it is based on? Which character was your favourite, and what did you think to Leon and Wesker’s characterisation? Did you enjoy the B-movie trappings of the film or did you prefer Paul W. S. Anderson’s more bombastic approach? Would you like to see a sequel to the film or were you disappointed by it? Which Resident Evil videogame is your favourite? I’d love to hear your thoughts on Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, so sign up to leave a comment below or leave a comment on my social media.