"Ace Attorney," the review: Turnabout perception
It makes sense that the person emotionally closest to a particular subject is both the best and worst person to write about it, whether it be a eulogy or a movie review.
So the argument applies when I leaped at the chance to review the movie Gyakuten Saiban, based on Capcom's video game of the same name that was released in the U.S. as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney for the Nintendo DS. In case the analogy isn't clear, I am a fan of the game, which is why I allowed myself two viewings of the movie -- renamed Ace Attorney for U.S. audiences -- before I was ready to render my verdict.
Sometime in the future, crime is so rampant that a new judicial system has been instituted: Prosecutors and defense attorneys go head-to-head in trials that last a maximum of three days and in which solid, physical evidence is the key to getting a "guilty" or "not guilty" verdict. Enter newbie defense attorney Phoenix Wright, who is under the tutelage of lawyer Mia Fey and whom we meet as he is getting trounced in his first trial, which is being held in a backwater courtroom that is apparently the headquarters of the janitorial staff. With Mia's last-minute help, Phoenix wins the trial and saves his client, childhood friend Larry Butz, who has a knack for getting into trouble.
Phoenix doesn't have time to savor his victory, though: Mia is murdered in their law office not long afterward, and accused of the killing is her younger sister, Maya, who happened to be there that fatal night. Phoenix takes up Maya's defense and discovers that Mia was close to a breakthrough in an old case -- and that something just might have been what got her killed.
When Maya goes to trial, Phoenix has another blast from the past when he ends up facing the young, infamous prosecutor Miles Edgeworth. As pointed out by other defense attorneys and even by Edgeworth's role model Manfred von Karma, the young man will go to any lengths to speed up the trial and get a guilty verdict. Phoenix will need to be on top of his game to defend against the shady tactics that Edgeworth will be certain to throw his way.
The movie's visuals play well to the envisioned crime-ridden future, with a mostly desaturated, slightly off-color look that mingles at times with bright colors, giving it a post-apocalyptic feel despite the outlandish costumes and hairstyles. The use of screens projected in midair to show evidence in court is another nice futuristic touch.
The subtitles use the English names of the characters rather than the original Japanese, so those who haven't played the games before and are listening carefully to the spoken dialogue might be thrown off by hearing, for example, "Haine Koutarou" instead of "Yanni Yogi," "Naruhodou" instead of "Phoenix" and "Chihiro" instead of "Mia." Some errors also make their way into the subtitles in the preview version of the movie -- the word "prosecution" is used at one point when it obviously should be "defense," and typos like "trail" instead of "trial" pop up. Whether the actual movie has these errors remains to be seen.
Those who've played Ace Attorney the game will appreciate the cameos of familiar characters, the re-creation of the courthouse, and the parodies that Phoenix's first trial makes of the game's courtroom antics.
Let me first speak as a fan and previous player of the Ace Attorney game: I was highly disappointed with the movie upon initial viewing. The characters' personalities don't seem to have been captured very well, and in the filmmakers' attempts to do so, they were instead reduced to ridiculous caricatures of their game selves -- as silly as that may sound, considering the game personas were already caricatures themselves. Phoenix is even more of a bumbling incompetent, with his "cornered" expressions making him seem as though he has a bad case of constipation, and it's painful to watch what feels like interminably long periods in which he's in a jam and trying to figure out what to do. His composure is on the meek side, with a slight hunch as he approaches the judge or witnesses or when laying out his deductions.
While I'm sure such acting is meant to portray that Phoenix is indeed green when it comes to courtroom trials, it's his burgeoning confidence and stature as he closes in on the truth of the case that originally made him such a powerful character in the games.
The prosecutors, interestingly enough, go the opposite direction. Von Karma comes off as far, far too much of a father figure, while Edgeworth is simply cold and unfeeling. Both their movie portrayals miss the full extent of the calculating ruthlessness with which they approach their trials and use to crush the opposition into quivering puddles.
Meanwhile, in the movie's worst turnabout, Redd White's flamboyant, blinged-out, purple-and-pink game character is now a long-haired druggie type who looks like he just crawled out of the sewers. And the development of bungling police detective Dick Gumshoe is almost completely overlooked, so the devotion he shows for Edgeworth comes across as odd.
A big part of this disappointment is the fact that the very silliness that made the game so fun and the characters so memorable simply cannot be translated well into live action, partially given the laws of physics and partially because of the unwelcome intrusion of realism. In a game, you KNOW you're in for crazy facial expressions, impossible body movements, over-the-top reactions and such. But when you put the stamp of reality on it, you expect realism -- and that eliminates half the enjoyment of the original game. The characters' signature actions just can't be pulled off with any plausibility, and much of the comic relief is lacking and instead comes in unexpected, scattered bits that seem to have been tossed in randomly.
However, after a second viewing, Ace Attorney played out better, partly because I began appreciating more how the movie managed to squeeze so much background into so little time -- two out of the game's four interconnected cases are focused on while the other two are stripped down to pretty much the announcement of their verdicts -- but also because I tried to rid myself of any preconceptions and see the movie from a non-fan's eyes. I stopped trying to identify who was who and stopped trying to compare them to the game.
But I also have to admit that it was better mainly because familiarity breeds a kind of liking, and so I was no longer surprised by what I originally saw as the movie's flaws.
What will a non-fan notice first? The silliness, that's for certain -- the confetti and the exaggerated audience reactions. Possibly the painfully long times when Phoenix displays his constipated countenance. Some scenes that are a few seconds too long (do we really need to focus on the parrot for such a length of time?) and the lack of much logic to the defense's investigations.
Otherwise, if one can get past the video game absurdity and instead focus on the mystery behind the cases, then this becomes an engrossing court drama. You find yourself sweating bullets as much as if you were in the defendant's chair or in Phoenix's shoes -- after, of course, suspending disbelief enough to allow for some of the more eccentric witnesses and their behaviors. Some aspects of the game's original story are changed for a more dramatic turn, but the revelations behind each crime are still just as tragic.
The one thing I could not get over, no matter what mindset I was in, was the feeling of, "What, you mean there's still MORE to this movie??" about three-fourths of the way through. Ace Attorney weaves in and out of the cases, slowly connects the dots and then finally reaches a climax in court -- or so it seems. Once you realize this isn't the end of things, not by a long shot, there's almost a sinking feeling. Rather than a happy surprise that there's more to discover, the new revelations and yet another trial are rude interlopers that crash in from out of the blue, especially after the particularly heartbreaking scenes that come just before it.
But again, that's speaking from the view of someone who already knows the story, and the impact of that foreknowledge can never be completely eliminated. The main thing that appeased my mind on this point was a growing interest, upon subsequent views, in dissecting exactly how the filmmakers played out this part of the story. (I've watched the film about 3.5 times now. And yes, I'm still going to see it in the theater. I've already bought tickets.)
Overall, as both an adaptation and a stand-alone movie, Ace Attorney isn't bad. It does a good job of recreating in live action a game universe that for the most part just can't really be done in the real world. As much as I loved the game, it's not something I'd want to put myself through again. The finding of evidence, the tension of trying to detect contradictions in testimony, the thrill of discovering how the pieces fit -- that's something that can truly be experienced only once. The Ace Attorney movie, however, is something that the fan in me is thoroughly willing to immerse in time and time again.
Ace Attorney screens as part of the Hawaii International Film Festival Spring Showcase at 7 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday at the Regal Dole Cannery Stadium 18 Theatres. For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.hiff.org.