Ace Attorney Movie review
"So, is it the best video game movie ever?"
That was the question a friend posed after I returned from a screening of Ace Attorney, a film adaptation of Capcom's first Phoenix Wright game. It occurred to me that I hadn't even thought of Ace Attorney in that sense. Takeshi Miike's take on the quirky courtroom drama may be brimming with fan service nods to the source material, but at the heart it's a truly unique, well-made film that anyone can enjoy. Mentioning it in the same sentence as Mortal Kombat, Doom, and Resident Evil just seems unfair.
Ace Attorney turns the legal system on its head with a mandate that all cases reach a verdict in three days or less. This is fictional court at its finest, with a simple battle of wits between prosecution and defense, an audience cheering them on, and a grumpy judge to lay out a verdict. The court battles are silly and over-dramatic, with hologram overlays to present evidence, a colorful cast of characters, and raining confetti for a "Not Guilty" verdict.
The film follows the first game in the series, specifically the second and fourth cases of rookie attorney Phoenix Wright. The cases weave together two murders and a questionable verdict from a 15-year old trial into a complex mystery. Along the way Wright faces off against Miles Edgeworth and Manfred von Karma, two flowery prosecutors with perfect records and questionable techniques.
What's so amazing about the film is how it captures the quirky charm of the game in live action form without missing a beat. The mix of absurd characters, comedic moments, and a dark, gritty mystery totally works. When the police department's mascot, the Blue Badger, delivers evidence to the court, you'd almost think you were watching Japan's version of Twin Peaks.
The plot follows the game quite closely, picking and choosing just the right plot points to condense a dozen hours of gameplay into a feature film. For die-hard fans, that means some characters get more screen time than others. Maya and von Karma aren't as well-developed as they are in the game, but other characters like Phoenix and Edgeworth are portrayed perfectly.
While the film captures the light-hearted tone of the game, it layers it with an extra dark edge that gives Ace Attorney a different feel. Perhaps that's horror master Takeshi Miike's influence, but the mixture of a bleak and rainy setting; bloody murder; and an assortment of ridiculously colorful costumes, impossible hair styles, and charming comedy is a potent formula that's undeniably unique.
The nods to the game series are handled tastefully. The references play out as just another layer of quirk for the uninitiated, though I can see the film wearing thin for those that aren't already buying into the concept. At a somewhat bloated 135 minutes, Ace Attorney does drag its feet in the final act, and even as a fan I kind of wanted them to pick up the pace. Still, most of the film is so fun that it was impossible to leave the theater without a smile on my face.
The Ace Attorney game series may be several games deep, but there's still nothing like it. As a film, that kind of originality gets a new audience. In fact, this could be one of the next great cult classics—I'm already impatiently awaiting a DVD release so I can show it to all of my friends.