“Live in Raccoon City? No way,” a truck driver grunts in Johannes Roberts’s “Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City,” an inevitable reboot of the long-running, high-grossing franchise based on a video game. And that grouse comes before the trucker catches up to what the bulk of the audience already knows: this crumbling company town, dominated for decades by a pharmaceutical titan called the Umbrella Corporation, has been poisoned by a toxin that will zombify the population in, oh, five minutes or so.
This is familiar lore to fans of the two-dozen-plus first-person shooter games and six previous films. But by leaping back to 1998, Roberts’s origin tale accomplishes two things: it excuses the absence of longtime star Milla Jovovich (whose director and husband Paul W.S. Anderson continues on as an executive producer) and it embraces oh-so-trendy ’90s nostalgia. Out with the future-forward A.I. holograms, in with a kitschy cameo from a beeper.
The characters and dialogue aren’t worth more than a used Discman. (Yes, that also makes an appearance.) The orphan Claire (a stolid Kaya Scodelario) hopes she and her brother, Chris (Robbie Amell), can survive a night of living dead, mutant Dobermans and one bulbous eyeball tumor-riddled nasty to expose the truth about their hometown. The only surprise is that Roberts shuns cheap jump scare surprises in favor of well-crafted suspense scenes that play out like a game of three card monte. There’s delight in cinematographer Maxime Alexandre and editor Dev Singh’s slow-building visual gags, particularly a bit when Avan Jogia’s slacker cop dozes at his desk while a speeding tanker careens outside the station, explodes in a fireball, and ejects a zombie-turned-tiki-torch who finally disrupts his nap. If the movie’s weary plot could have been revived with such confidence, “Welcome to Raccoon City” would be worth sinking teeth into.
Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City
Rated R for cursing and cranium cracking. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. In theaters.