Sunday, July 15, 2012
The Ace Attorney series of video games is one of those things that, like The Simpsons or Homestar Runner, is so bizarre that it's difficult to describe and even a mere description does not do its bizareness justice. On its surface, the series is basically an interactive mystery novel which follows a basic pattern of collecting evidence and then being asked to use said evidence to find increasingly more difficult contradictions in the testimony of a character to prove your client innocent. However, it's the setup and the personality of these characters that really set the series apart: courtroom battles are usually literally such, with the lawyers screaming "OBJECTION!" at the top of their lungs and anime-esque triumpant visuals and music when things get really intense; basically every person who isn't allied with the hero Phoenix Wright is either corrupt or possibly evil (with a few exceptions, most prominently the judge, who is an oblivious idiot), every single person always seems to be against Phoenix and the odds are never in his favor (which makes things all the more triumphant when he manages to save the day by turning things around at the last minute- the Japanese title for the series is "Turnabout Trial"), and dialogue is filled with bad puns and running gags such as the apparently important difference between a ladder and a stepladder.
I'm not familiar with the work of famous and prolific Japanese film director Takashi Miike (pronounced "mee-kay"), but his adaptation of Ace Attorney was introduced at New York City's Japan Society as being more of an Ace Attorney film than a Miike film. As an Ace Attorney fan, I can tell you that indeed seemed to be the case.
As the film begins, we see the juxtaposition between the two attorneys who play a role in the story: Phoenix Wright, a rookie defense attorney, fumbles around in a dinky court while the veteran prosecutor Miles Edgeworth is a press sensation. (The subtitles shown during this screening used the usually signifcant and/or punny English-language names of the characters). The audience- including myself- laughed out loud at the action on screen, in part because of the familiar details that are taken from the games during this introduction, including certain characters and actions.
The story of the film is taken from two interconnected cases from the first game in the series: Phoenix must solve the murder of his former boss, which is pinned on her younger sister (who becomes Phoenix's assistant, more or less). Soon afterwards, Edgeworth himself is accused of murder, and Phoenix soon discovers that not only the lives of most of the people he knows or meets in court, but all of the cases he's taken on, find root in an incident that occured 15 years ago. It's up to Phoenix to not only find his new friend and rival/frenemy innocent, but untangle the mystery of this mysterious case that lies at the center of all the recent events.
This is a difficult film for me to review, since I'm not sure how someone who isn't a fan of the series would react to it. I assume, however, they would enjoy it- it's a very goofy film (much as the series it's based on is). The characters are over-the-top both in visual appearance and behavior (one of Phoenix's old classmates in particular serves as comic relief multiple times), and the exaggerated courtroom antics are amusing enough- the audience seemed to be laughing not just in recognition of the familiar characters and events of the game, but how humorous the situations were in themselves. The film runs a little bit over two hours, but it doesn't feel that long. I've seen complaints in some reviews about the running time, and I will admit that the film does lull somewhere in the middle of the storyline in between the two cases. But that's a fault that lies in the source material as well- the evidence searching is nowhere near as fun as the courtroom situations. I was on the fence myself as to whether or not the film was worth recommending until a situation that I believe a number of players have said is the point they "got" the game itself as well: In desperation and with nowhere left to turn, Phoenix decides to interrogate a parrot. And somehow, it actually works. If you've never played the games before and those last two sentences and/or imagining what events led to such a situation and how it might play out brought a smile to your face, you'll probably enjoy this movie.
Despite the few OBJECTIONs I had, the film as a whole is entertaining enough to recommend. After all, you can't go wrong with a universe where a not-guilty verdict results in confetti flying out of nowhere, part of solving a case involves debunking the local equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster, and a policeman is inexplicably followed around by a costumed mascot called the Blue Badger. The film is quite faithful to the game (with the exception of one character being changed from a corrupt business executive to a tabloid reporter, a change which doesn't really hurt the narrative and in some ways may actually help the story that's being told in the film), and there are some intriguing additions that help flesh out some of the oddities of the supporting characters as well as some self-aware jokes regarding the odder parts of the game universe which only add to the overall feeling of cartoonish ludicrousness.
Ace Attorney seems to be the sort of film that cries to be seen with a group- I could easily imagine it becoming some sort of geeky midnight movie staple, a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show or, perhaps more appropriately given the video game theme, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (which this film rivals for my personal "Most Fun I've Had Being In a Film Audience" award). I don't have enough evidence to deliver a verdict as to whether or not Ace Attorney can be enjoyed in a smaller setting and/or without those in the know, but it seems entertaining enough that, despite its flaws, I can declare it not guilty. Review adjourned.
Viewed at the Japan Society, New York City, on July 15, 2012 as part of Japan Cuts/New York Asian Film Festival.
ACE ATTORNEY motion picture ©2012 CAPCOM/"Ace Attorney" Film Partners. PHOENIX WRIGHT, ACE ATTORNEY, and related marks are registered trademarks of Capcom Co., Ltd. No ownership intended or implied.