[While the movie will be referred to by its Japanese title, localized names from the games will be used for all the characters in the film throughout this review]
Film adaptations of video games always seem to miss the mark. Either they try too hard to be like their source material or they don't try hard enough. The problem with the former is that depending on your source material, the end result might not actually work on film. Audiences have seen this time and time again as directors step up, insisting that they understand the original game and were big fans, despite this obviously being the case. A lot of people out there seem to think that Japan is significantly more capable than America in terms of adaptations; this is really not the case. There are just as many duds here as there are out west. The biggest difference is that the crap films here are even crappier due to non-existant budgets.
Gyakuten Saiban (Ace Attorney in English territories) was directed by insane Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike (Audition, Crows Zero). Having worked on multiple manga adaptations already, some very good and some not, he's at least proven that he's more than used to building a film from pre-existing source material. The question is what direction would he take the popular lawyer series? A Capcom franchise very near and dear to my heart, the Gyakuten Saiban games are ridiculously over the top, funny, exciting and at times even genuinely touching. Filled to the brim with wacky characters who have outlandish personalities and looks, Gyakuten Saiban is the sort of game that simply cannot exist in film in any kind of realistic capacity. To do so would be to betray a crucial element of why these games are so loved.
Would Miike, a master of horror and dark humor, take the film adaptation in the right direction or would it crash and burn like so many before it?
Find out after the break.
Director: Takashi Miike
Release Date: February 11, 2012
Gyakuten Saiban is quite possibly one of the most insane movie experiences I've had since I've moved to Japan. For the entirety of the 135 minute runtime, the film rarely lets up, throwing one ridiculous situation after another at its audience, paying no mind to what makes sense and what doesn't. You're not allowed to question why the hero, Phoenix Wright, is allowed to question a bird in the middle of a trial. If you don't think that's realistic, this really isn't the movie for you.
The film follows rookie defense attorney Phoenix Wright as he works his way up from being a no name failure, to taking on one of the biggest murder cases in the past twenty years. After a series of events that change his life forever, Phoenix is partnered with Maya Fey, a shrine maiden and younger sister to his mentor, Mia Fey. Together, they attempt to prove a close friend's innocence and discover the true mastermind behind the infamous DL6 case.
If any of the above sounds familiar to you, it's probably because you played the original Ace Attorney game. Gyakuten Saiban is as complete an adaptation of its source material as humanly possible. The first three cases are all tackled in some form (cut down and changed a little bit), while the climactic Turnabout Goodbyes is featured in its entirety. Every single day of the trial is given time onscreen in surprisingly accurate fashion. To give you an idea of how closely the film plays off its source material, there wasn't a single plot point that I didn't already know. It's just that close. Your favorite characters are all represented onscreen as well; in particular Larry Butz and Detective Gumshoe had me laughing up a storm in the theater.
Gyakuten Saiban is a very funny movie. Miike understood that the source material was often times goofy and over the top, and rather than move away from that he chose to embrace it. It's never so insane that it feels childish, but it also doesn't shy from having a grown man pull off his wig and start foaming from the mouth. The cast plays this off well, going for a more cartoon-like style of melodrama instead of attempting to be serious in an absurd situation. If Phoenix is going to question a bird, we know it's ridiculous. At the same time, we also take it at face value because a man's life is on the line. It's this thin line that Gyakuten Saiban walks on when it's at its best.
Stylistically, the film makes no qualms about taking the characters from the game and throwing them onscreen. It shouldn't take devoted fans more than a second to immediately recognize everyone. I can see some critics arguing that directly adapting character designs from the game doesn't work, and while I'd agree with them normally, the tone of Gyakuten Saiban matches its content well. Visually, Miike shoots a dark film that serve to better bring out the colorful costumes of the cast, while at the same time keeping all the flourishes that the game series is known for. I remember reading that there were people who were concerned about the use of CG screens in the courtroom, but fear not. It's presented well and the movie never degenerates into lawyers tossing screens of evidence at one another as the trailer might have had you believe.
Japanese composer Koji Endo (Audition, 13 Assassins) handles musical duties, putting together a surprisingly subdued soundtrack for the film. I was concerned that the whole thing was a little bit too low key, but was pleased to find that Endo incorporated a lot of game music into the film in ways that felt appropriate. In particular, there's a piece of music that plays at the very end of the DL6 trial that got me to pump my fist.
The film is not without its problems. I had issues with the pacing in a few spots and despite the long runtime, I felt the movie needed some more space to spread its wings. Edgeworth in particular, while very faithful to his in-game representation, needed a bit more time in the courtroom. The film is extremely well shot, but at times felt a little low budget due to primarily taking place in the courtroom. This point might be completely moot however, considering the game is similar in that respect. The humor occasionally misses the mark, which for me was made worse because I was in a theater with Japanese people, who are notorious for not making a single noise during a film. I also question how accessible Gyakuten Saiban is to someone who has never played the games. By the end of the film all the major plot threads were completely tied up, but I can see the average movie goer being put off by the weirdness of something like the Blue Badger.
But at the end of the day those are all nitpicks. It might seem like I'm gushing, and to some extent I am. I was hopeful that Miike would hit a homerun, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned. Gyakuten Saiban is probably the last game I expected to see an adaptation of, but maybe the one I wanted the most. Despite its flaws, Gyakuten Saiban is a fun and exciting film from beginning to end. If you're a fan of the franchise, do yourself a favor and catch this when it eventually makes its way out west. I promise you you won't regret it. I walked into the theater not sure what to expect and came out with a stupid grin on my face. If that's not telling, I don't know what is.
One last thing; don't miss the credits!
8.0 - Great. A perfectly executed film that defines its genre without resorting to cliches.
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