Alice's deadly conflicts place her in no wonderland

March 15, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Making a great film based on a computer game may well be impossible. Computer games don't care a whit about character. They don't care if their thrills make sense, only that they never stop. They don't need a plot, just an idea. In fact, all they really need are the players' willingness to pull a trigger and relentless fascination with seeing what's on the other side of the door.

Resident Evil, which presents itself as a prequel to the popular computer game, is about as good as the genre gets. Surprises always are popping up, and bullets fly as though they are molecules of the very air the movie breathes. The only thing separating it from your video console is the joystick, and if you really need one, the arm of your theater chair should work fine.

Here's the setup: The Hive is a giant underground research facility operated by a shadowy, monopolistic conglomerate known as The Umbrella Corp. (Neither the video game nor this movie is subtle.) Although outwardly legit, the corporation is engaged in some decidedly unwholesome genetic experiments. When something goes awry, the master computer, known as the Red Queen, takes drastic steps to minimize the potential damage by sealing off the Hive and killing everyone inside.

Here things get purposely hazy: A squad of gun-toting commandos shows up, finds a pair of unconscious guards and sets out to discover what went wrong and whether there are any survivors. Where the commandos came from never is established, but without them, there wouldn't be much of an adventure, so let's not dwell on it.

A lot of nasty goings-on are going on below ground involving scores of zombified undead, a computer that speaks with a charming British accent and a mutated beast known as the Licker.

Resident Evil is all about the visuals, a point made clear by its choice of hero: Alice, one of the two unconscious guards, is first seen lying naked on the floor of her shower. Grabbed by the commandos and forced to accompany them, she's soon clothed in a hot red miniskirt that allows her long, muscular legs to do most of the acting.

As Alice, Milla Jovovich certainly has the leg muscles for the role, and they get to kick serious butt, snapping people's necks, leaping over all sorts of incoming danger. Jovovich doesn't really have to act much, only look alternately steely and perplexed. But her legs are up to the challenge.

Others in the cast include Eric Mabius as Matt, who insists that he's a good guy; Colin Salmon as the head of the rescue commandos; and Michelle Rodriguez as one of his charges, a surly, steel-willed, gun-toting bundle of attitude with a scowl that could penetrate steel. Rodriguez is good, recalling her role as the female boxer in Girlfight (her first film), but with guns.

Borrowing from earlier, better films (especially Aliens and Night of the Living Dead), writer-director Paul W.S. Anderson (who earlier cribbed from Terminator 2: Judgment Day in making his Soldier) knows how to goose an audience, and keeps having his undead minions pop up at the most unexpected times. There are spectacular visual set pieces. And by giving his combatants amnesia, he tries to overcome the lack of characterization; if these guys don't know who they are, why should we?

Still, the implausibilities in the script keep threatening to overwhelm its kinetic energy. Why does Red Queen turn cryptic when warning of potential danger, but won't shut up the rest of the time? If one zombie bite is enough to turn someone instantly into a brainless member of the undead, why does one rescuer remain alive and thinking for much of the film, with blood dripping steadily from her numerous wounds?

With its constant adrenaline rush, Resident Evil wears its audience down by flick's end. And that may explain the biggest advantage computer games have over their movie counterparts: You can stop playing the game any time you want. With movies, you're stuck until the final credits roll.

Resident Evil

Starring Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Eric Mabius

Written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

Rated R (violence, adult language, brief sexuality)

Released by Screen Gems

Running time 100 minutes

SUN SCORE: ** 1/2

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