[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]
I really like the Ace Attorney game series. I played and really enjoyed all three main Ace Attorney games as well as Apollo Justice. I skipped the game centered around prosecutor Miles Edgeworth, but I am more than familiar with the characters and conceits of the series. With my love of the series intact, I went into Ace Attorney with a fair bit of hesitation. The gamplay-light/narrative-heavy style made a quality adaptation seem more reasonable, and putting Takashi Miike at the helm was definitely a bold move, but nonetheless it's hard to have high hopes for a videogame movie.
So when I say that Ace Attorney is, without a doubt, the best videogame movie ever made, it may not mean much. But I want to make this very clear: Ace Attorney has single-handedly justified the existence of videogame adaptations, and proved that they can be amazing films in their own right.
Ace Attorney (Gyakuten Saiban | 逆転裁判)
In a lot of ways, this review is primarily for people who have played the Ace Attorney games. I will be talking about it within its context as an adaptation because it's important as an adaptation. Fortunately, Hubert has not played the games, so our second opinion (found at the bottom of the review) will not be looking at the film the same way I am. Hopefully the review will give you a sense of what the film is like even if you don't necessarily know what I'm talking about, but I can't really promise that will be the case. I will try though.
Ace Attorney follows the exploits of Phoenix Wright (Hiroki Narimiya), a defense attorney who is immediately thrown in way over his head. He is put up against some of the best prosecutors in the business who use some of the dirtiest tactics. He also stands before a wonderfully ignorant judge, one who allows for all kinds of shenanigans to take place in his courtroom. Sometimes those shenanigans allow for justice to be served, and other times it means that corruption comes out on top. Either way, it's all open to the public, so there's definitely entertainment to be had.
If you've played the first Ace Attorney recently, you will recognize all of the story beats, because they are exactly the same. For those of you who haven't, good! The story goes to some really crazy places, and you are lucky to get to experience it for the first time. I think that seeing the movie would diminish your enjoyment of the game afterwards, but having played the game will only make your experience of the movie better. At times, I felt like I was watching the game being played and waiting for it to relinquish control. Every time Phoenix made some kind of grand realization, I felt like the screen was going to pause so I could be the one to shout "HOLD IT!" or "OBJECTION!" But it went along without me. This time, I was just along for the ride.
Honestly, though, that's not such a bad thing. Although there were times that I wanted to be the one to make the call, I was generally content to sit back and let Hiroki Narimiya do the shouting for me. In fact, the film reminded me about how frustrating the games could be at times, and when he was able to make the conclusions that took me 30 minutes in 15 seconds in order to progress the narrative, I was happy that I was watching a movie.
Seeing Ace Attorney with a crowd was a surprisingly pleasant experience, and if you can, it's probably the best way to see it, especially if you are unfamiliar with the source material. When the film was introduced, the programmer asked who was there because of Takashi Miike. About 20 people raised their hands. When he asked who was there because of Phoenix Wright, at least 3/4 of the people in the fully packed theater raised their hands. I certainly wasn't surprised, though. The person sitting in front of me was wearing a Giant Bomb t-shirt, the theater was packed with young girls, and a general air of "OH MY GOD PHOENIX WRIGHT" hung in the air. I was right there with them, but I was worried that it would turn into a running commentary, as is wont to happen during horror movies.
Fortunately, everyone seemed too gripped by the film to actually talk, and the numerous cheers were expected and not drawn out. Obviously people were going to scream when characters show up onscreen for the first time, or key phrases are first uttered, but it could very easily become too much. But I realized something forunate: with subtitles, I didn't need to actually hear what was being said. Because of this, I never felt like I was missing anything because of the audience. In fact, even I cheered a few times. How couldn't I? It was infectious, and so was the laughter. If you haven't played the games, you won't understand all of the cheers and the loves, but that doesn't mean you won't feel the urge to join in. Even though the film deals with some very serious topics (and they are handled seriously when they need to be), it's still set in a very silly universe. You need only look at Phoenix Wright's hair to know you're in for something ridiculous. And ridiculous is a great word to describe the film. In some ways, I think the film even tops the games at times, and that's saying quite a lot.
If you have not played the games, you need to understand just how strange everything in the Ace Attorney world is. It's really strange. Things don't work like they do in real life. The court system makes absolutely no sense, even discounting the judge and his oddities. Trials are forced to three days at max, lawyers have ridiculous amounts of control over their clients and their speech (speaking for the clients is completely allowed). The evidence system is brilliant, with enormous laser screens that can be "thrown" around the room at will (usually accompanied by some iconic shout). The majority of the back and forth doesn't even involve the clients. It's mostly down to the lawyers arguing at each other. But it's all game logic and it all works. But if you do not understand how bizarre everything will be, you will come out the other side very unhappy.
Part of what makes it so strange is simply due to its live action nature. It's a live action film with the sensibilities of an animated one (which is why the hair is the way it is), and seeing real people do the things that you expect cartoons to do is inherently laughable. There's not really any way to make this not sound offensive, but the fact that the film features Japanese actors was a bit off-putting, at least initially. I am used to Phoenix Wright being even whiter than I am, and the rest of the cast as well. The clothing styles and haircuts were designed around completely pale skin, but that's not what the actors have. Visually, the film stays so true to the games, that something like skin color really does a lot to stick out.
That being said, I'm glad it's a Japanese movie. I can't imagine an American version of Ace Attorney could do the material justice in the way a Japanese one could. It's not that this movie couldn't be made in America (there's nothing offensive or anything like that), it just wouldn't. The kind of wackiness that defines Ace Attorney is far more present in Asian cinema (and Japanese cinema especially), and if I had to choose a Japanese director over white actors, I would absolutely go with the Japanese director. Putting Miike behind the camera was absolutely the right move.
I don't know if I've made it clear or not, but I really loved Ace Attorney. I think pretty much everything about it is absolutely brilliant. In fact, my only real issue with the film is its length, and even that isn't too egregious. It clocks in at 135 minutes, and that's just a bit too long. It's possible that I was (and probably still am) suffering from a bit of festival fatigue, and that if I had seen it outside of NYAFF with no commitment to review it I wouldn't feel that way, but I wish that it had been shorter. Not by much, certainly, and I don't know what I'd want to have cut, but like All About My Wife, eventually I just wanted it to end.
Nonetheless, Ace Attorney is a huge accomplishment. Takashi Miike has done the impossible and made a videogame movie that is worth everybody's time and money. Fans of the videogame will undoubtedly get more out of the film than those who have never heard the name Phoenix Wright, but everyone will have a real chance to enjoy themselves, as long as they give themselves room to do so. I no longer fear the existence of videogame adaptations. I will look to all future projects with hope, knowing for sure that they could be done well. Some franchises lend themselves to films better than others, and Ace Attorney definitely makes more sense as a movie than some, but the bad streak has officially been broken. In its place is a shining beacon of brilliance. And that beacon is called Ace Attorney.
Dear videogame publishers: The bar has officially been set. And it's been set really goddamn high.
Hubert Vigilla: As someone who hasn't played any of the Ace Attorney games (and is mostly familiar with the series as an internet meme), I went into the film Ace Attorney more as a fan of Takashi Miike than anything else. While Ace Attorney isn't Miike's best (for me, probably nothing will dethrone his demented musical comedy The Happiness of the Katakuris), it's an extremely fun excursion into absurdity, goofy hairdos, and litigious zaniness. Watching in a crowd of gamers helped clue me into the in-jokes from the videogame and the delight in seeing all of the characters realized in live-action; and even those in-jokes I found funny without knowing the context. (Maybe it's the persuasive, hypnotic effect of laughter in packed theaters.) This is just sheer madcap oddness, with a story that twists, turns, and goes to strange places, including a moody flashback that wouldn't feel out of place in one of Miike's horror films or dramas. At 135 minutes, Ace Attorney does overstay its welcome, however. You could shave 15 to 20 minutes, losing nothing and gaining lots of narrative momentum. Even when it does drag, it makes up for it with its anarchic sense of humor. 83 - Great
[Ace Attorney will be screening at the Japan Society on Sunday, July 15th at 1:30 PM. If you have a chance to see it and don't, you are dead to me.]