Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Friday, May 17, 2019

VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: DOA: Dead or Alive (2006)

At best, I'm a mediocre player but most of my favorite video games are still fighting games. So I actually have quite a lot of experience with the “Dead or Alive” series. There are many technical reasons why the series has its merit but its main appeal, the thing that truly differentiates it from other fighting games, is its gratuitous T&A. “Dead or Alive” is most famous for, and largely defined by, its many female characters and their large and bouncy physical features. (To the point where there's a spin-off series that plays like the softest of softcore porn.) The games have a plot, the characters have back stories, but they are very convoluted and totally unimportant. So “Dead or Alive” was a weird choice for a film adaptation. Yet something about “DOA: Dead or Alive” attracted legendary Hong Kong action choreographer/director Corey Yuen. The result was one of the few video game adaptations that both gets the appeal of the original games while functioning as its own thing.

As I said, the plot of the “Dead Or Alive” series is both too complicated and too insignificant to cover here. The movie abbreviates things nicely: There's a fighting tournament called Dead or Alive, run by a shady corporation with evil genetic experiments in mind. A bunch of talented martial artists from all over the world are invited to participate. Such as runaway ninja Kasumi, who is pursuing her missing brother Hayate; Ayane, a rival ninja who is chasing Kasumi; pro-wrestler Tina Armstrong, who is seeking independence from her overprotective pro-wrestler dad; internationally wanted thief Christie; and Helena, peppy daughter of one of the corporation's founder. There's many other fighters in the film – including “Ninja Gaiden's” Ryu Hayabusa – and quite a lot of deviations from established game lore. But, seriously, who cares?

“DOA: Dead or Alive” is essentially a live action cartoon and I'm not even talking about its over-the-top action scenes. This is – and I'm being one hundred percent serious here – a movie that has cartoon hearts floating around a guy's head to indicate he's love struck. Within the opening minutes, a high-tech hang glider is deployed out of nowhere. All the fights around the island are cinematically observed. In a further attempt to replicate its video game roots, life bars are displayed overhead during these fights. When simpler options are available to the characters, they choose to do things like ascend bamboo shoots, walk along spinning water wheels, or acrobatically climb an elevator shaft. Someone is defeated via thrown shoe. Yes, there's even a volleyball scene, as dramatically orchestrated as any of the fights, because “DOA: Dead or Alive” perfectly understand the gleefully brain-dead appeal of its source material.

These delightful excesses are simply another manifestation of the cartoon world all of “DOA” inhabits. Of course, the biggest indicator of this is the fight scenes. “Dead or Alive” is almost non-stop action, the film squeezing in much punching, kicking, and sword fights as possible. The characters are not bound by the laws of physics. Kasumi cartwheels weightlessly through the air, kicking opponents on the way down. Tina defends her yacht with high-wire kicks and punches. One especially ridiculous moment has Christie slipping on her underwear while fighting off attackers. If the film's women are never less than graceful while fighting, its men are supernaturally strong. The likes of Bass and Bayman punch through doors and walls without any effort at all. The film's interior logic is such that we hardly notice when the bad guy knocks someone sideways with a simple punch near the end.

The fight scenes are very dumb but they are not assembled in a dumb way. Corey Yuen has been making martial arts movie, either as an actor, director, or choreographer since the early seventies. He knows his shit. As artificial as the flipping and tossing looks, it's all very intentionally in line with the movie's ridiculous world. “DOA” is an absurd ballet of violence. This is most clear during two key fight scenes. The first occurs when Hayabusha fights his way into one of the island's secret laboratories. He gracefully cracks, bashes, and dispatches a line of dudes with dancer's like speed. A later, even more impressive scene has Helena fighting off a horde of ninjas with a sword, alongside a scenic temple backdrop. It's a moment that just becomes more over-the-top as it goes on, the audience's smile getting wider as it goes on.

I have no idea if Yuen or the film's trio of screenwriters were fans of the “Dead or Alive” video games. However, somebody must've been because the movie shoves in as many of the game characters as possible. Granted, some of them – drunken boxer Brad Wong, wise old kung-fu guy Gen Fu, dragon lady Lei-Fong, Bruce Lee knock-off Jann Lee – don't amount to much more than cameos. Yes, there are some odd adaptational changes. Rather than the emotionless assassin she is in the game, Holly Valance plays Christie as a fun and carefree jewel thief. The character called “Helena” is actually a hybrid of the game's Helena and another femme fatale named Hitomi, more-so resembling the latter. This Ryu Hayabusa is much more child-like and bubbly than the stern and unwavering video game version. Victor Donovan, played by a fabulously sleazy Eric Roberts, graduates from background character in the games to full-blown final boss here. Again, not that any of this matters.

Yet some of the other characters are pitch perfect adaptations. Brian J. White hits the right notes as Zack, an oddball hustler based on Dennis Rodman. Jamie Pressly and Kevin Nash could not be better cast as the bickering father/daughter pro-wrestlers. Granted, none of the leading ladies have the famous proportions of their video game counterparts. This is especially noticeable with the very modest Devon Aoki, playing the famously busty Kasumi. Aoki's performance is also pretty flat. Natassia Malthe – who also appeared in several Uwe Boll related video game movies – gives a similarly broad and wooden performance. Not that acting and emoting matters much in a movie like this and all the performers are excellent fighters. Kane Kosugi and Collin Chou are especially well equipped in that regard.

Here in the U.S., “DOA: Dead or Alive” had the misfortune of being distributed by Dimension Films during one of the Weinsteins' many financially difficult moments. It was barely released in American theaters, grossed less than a million dollars at the box office, before being dumped onto the Dimension Extreme DVD label. Intentionally, the movie was released a full year earlier and did much better business. I don't know if “Dead or Alive” would've done better here if it had actually gotten a decent release – intentional audiences tend to be a little more open to bullshit like this – but I suspect it might've. Because “Dead or Alive” is a lot of very silly fun, full of fantastic action and tonally faithful to the games that inspired it. [7/10]

No comments: