It takes a particular sort of videogame film adaptation announcement to invoke any amount of excitement in most circles. No genre is more (justly) vilified than the videogame adaptation; and the consistency of lacklustre adaptations has slighted the reputation of a genre that had little to stand on anyway. Games are not appealing for their narratives; some manage a story competently, but few excel in their writing. The Ace Attorney/Phoenix Wright series however is an unusual example where the writing behind the game takes greater precedence than the gameplay mechanics at the forefront of it. Hence the idea that the series be made into a feature film, a live action one no less, wasn’t entirely off-putting. Hearing that the film would be undertaken by the more than capable hands of Takashi Miike, the ridiculously productive and always interesting cultish Japanese director behind Audition, Ichi the Killer and about seventy-nine other films per year, made it seem an almost appealing prospect. As it stands, Miike’s stab at that much maligned genre might just well be the best effort that has been made. His Ace Attorney film is entertaining and coherent, which is more than can be said for any other game adaptation to date.
Whilst certainly one of the most mainstream-thinking of Miike’s recent undertakings, Ace Attorney may not be the most universal in appeal. The film pretty much assumes from its offset that the viewer is a fan of the series, or at least initiated with it. As a defense lawyer shouts TAKE THAT, and hurls a piece of digitally projected evidence at a witness, viewers unaccustomed to the games’ characters or internal system of logic might be more than a little confused. In Miike’s film, nothing is explained or introduced in any rational, expository fashion, none of the characters are introduced, and no semblance of a plot structure is revealed for about fifteen minutes. For a more broad work, this might be seen as a weakness, but it is not exactly an issue for those who know who Phoenix Wright is. Viewers without prior knowledge are left to work out for themselves that in the Ace Attourney version of the Japanese criminal justice system, a court case plays out more like a Pokemon battle than any kind of bureaucratic affair, and might be a little put off in doing so. Witnesses are dramatically interrogated, evidence is hurled around emphatically, and all discourse is initiated with a ridiculous shout of some kind (TAKE THAT! HOLD IT! OBJECTION!). It’s a much more exciting version of legal proceedings than the real equivalent, and makes for no ordinary courtroom drama, but Miike could have made some effort to engage the uninitiated rather than throwing them in blind.
Miike captures the spirit of the games with impressive vigour, understanding the inherent lightness and campishness of the content and the need to have fun with it. It is consistently entertaining, and funny enough throughout. The look and feel of it all is spot on, Miike showing a real sense of visual panache, without overplaying the surreal elements of the material. The costuming is excellent, and both character and setting look exactly like a live action realisation of the game should. The acting is suitably cartoonish and enthusiastic, and the characters are clearly personified. The only qualm as far as the translation of the film goes is that the series’ trademark music, if anything, is underutilised. Miike’s film then, both visually and narratively, is laudably faithful, even if there is little room to deviate. It is easy when watching the film to think that Miike had an easy task with this adaptation - and it is true that the material really is fit for the screen, but when alternate versions of this film that could have happened are considered, (and there are some hypothetical disasters that could have been) it is evident quite how assured the director’s guiding hand is.
Ace Attorney lifts directly the miniature narratives from the games court cases, shuffling them around and interlinking them to fit a more traditional narrative structure. In more mundane narrative territory, (the case that has protagonist attorney Phoenix Wright defending his rival prosecution attorney against murder charges for instance) the adsurdist elements of the game’s world spice up proceedings, ensuring it is constantly entertaining despite its perhaps unnecessarily long 130 minute running time. The film is best where the weirdness of the story fits the absurd legal system. Following the film’s narrative throughout is not an overwhelmingly rewarding experience, proving itself to be a pretty slight murder mystery dragged out through a series of unwieldy complications. The film’s appeal lies in its handling of this incongruous narrative; the manner in which Wright overcomes his legal challenges; stalls for time; realises the importance of a seemingly innocuous piece of evidence; or pesters a parrot until it reveals the guilt of its owner.
Ace Attorney is not a ground-breaking work, but it was never meant to be. As it stands, it is one of four films pencilled in for 2012 from Takashi Miike; a fact alone that demonstrates the director’s remarkable versatility and ambition. To write it off as a minor work amongst his oeuvre would be an irrelevant dismissal - it achieves everything it needs to as a faithful and satisfying adaptation of a treasured series. Besides, Miike’s work ethic is such that he doesn’t need to bank upon its success, maybe one of the other four films will come through for him instead? It is a film that further proves Miike’s penchant for taking on a variety of projects; his flexibility and his aptitude with almost any form, genre or material. If anybody was going to make a successful Phoenix Wright film, or even a successful videogame film, it was going to be him.