Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, May 2, 2019

VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: Double Dragon (1994)

For a long time, a perfectly acceptable video game plot was a guy rescuing his kidnapped girlfriend, wife, or daughter from some bad guys. Mario, forever saving Princess Peach from Bowser's turtle-y clutches, is only the most famous example. Another early pioneer of this mildly sexist plot was “Double Dragon.” “Double Dragon” is widely responsible for popularizing the beat-em-up, a genre were players march through stages and beat an endless horde of enemies to death. This quarter-eating set-up was hugely popular during the heydays of arcades, resulting in countless variations on the theme. (Konami's trilogy of licensed beat-em-ups and Capcom's “Battle Circuit” are among my favorites.) As the original, “Double Dragon” would spawn a number of multi-media spin-offs. Aside from eight video game sequels – including a crossover with “Battletoads” – “Double Dragon” would also be adapted into a comic book, a Saturday cartoon and, in 1994, a live-action movie. The film would not replicate the source material's popularity but is notable for being the second widely released video game movie, beating “Street Fighter” to theater screens by about a month.

Set in the far off future year of 2007, “Double Dragon” takes place in a post-apocalyptic version of Los Angeles that has been ravaged by earthquakes and flooding. Colorful street gangs control the city, the cops powerless to stop them, the regular citizens living in fear. The most powerful gang is led by Koga Shuko, a white man obsessed with Asian culture. Shuko seeks the Double Dragon, a magical pendent that gives its wearer special abilities. Shuko has one half of the pendent. The second half belongs to the guardian of Jimmy and Billy Lee, two orphan martial artists living in the slums of Old Angeles. After Shuko kills their protector, the Lee brothers have to team up with radicals on the street to make sure the bad guy doesn't gain the power of the Double Dragon.

Here, we have another example of a video game with a simple premise being transformed into a bizarre movie with a more complex plot and a post-apocalyptic setting. The digital “Double Dragon” rarely got more complicated than Jimmy Lee (the red one) and Billy Lee (the blue one) battling the Shadow Warrior gang. The movie takes two of the game's henchmen. The musclebound Abobo becomes a hideously mutated steroid freak here while Linda Lash, the game's token dominatrix enemy, becomes the main villain's sidekick. The movie's Marian might as well be a different character from her video game counterpart. The Saturday morning cartoon – which I mostly remember because of its catchy theme song – added a lot more to the lore, including the post-apocalyptic setting. The villain Shuko is totally unique to the film, though his ability to turn into a possessive shadow seems like a likely homage to the shadow themeing of the various “Double Dragon” baddies. A moment where he possess Jimmy was probably inspired by the original game's twist ending. Aside from all that and its color-coded protagonists,  the cinematic “Double Dragon” draws pretty much nothing from the video games.

Director James Yukich, a music video specialist who made his feature debut here, has basically created an extremely goofy kids movie here. The various street gangs are so silly, they probably would've been rejected from “The Warriors.” Among them are mime and postman themed fighters. Abobo is an illiterate nincompoop who drives a high-tech death wagon that apparently doesn't have wipers, as a piece of paper being tossed into its windshield stymies him. Later on, Marian converts him to the side of good by force-feeding him spinach and making him fart a whole bunch. The fight scenes are frequently comedic, with weaponized gumballs and repeated blows to the crotch. During a chase scene, the Lee brothers' so-called Dragon Wagon – a souped up station wagon – gets a boost from a can of cheese whiz. Vanna White and Andy Dick have cameos, among many other goofy pop culture references, all of which immediately date the film.

The film's breed of silliness is aggressively kid-friendly and this extends to the action scenes. A speedboat chase climaxes in a massive explosion, that the two heroes somehow survive without a scratch. Shuko frequently turns into a paper-thin CGI shadow, which probably blew away the 11-year-olds in 1994 but looks dumb as shit now. The main thing I noticed about the action scenes is how the leading men respond to them. Mark Dascascos, a genuinely talented martial artist with a long history in the action genre, performs flips, double jump-kicks, spinning round house kicks, and spins a staff in a talented fashion. Scott Wolf, as Billy, performs blunt punches and awkwardly kicks. It's pretty obvious which one of these guys actually knows how to fight. Otherwise, both men give equally silly performances. They play the Lee brothers as perpetually upbeat kids.

Robert Patrick is top-billed in “Double Dragon,” giving you a good idea of the wattage of its general star power. He looks ridiculous as Shuko, sporting an platinum blonde fade haircut. However, Patrick does seem to be having a good time hamming it up as a cartoonish villain. Alyssa Milano plays Marian. Yes, there is a thuddingly obvious “Who's the Boss?” reference. Milano looks stunning, with her short hair and strategically ripped jeans, and seems to be on the film's ridiculous wave length. Michael Berryman has an amusing cameo as a soon-to-be-dead leader of one of the street gangs. Otherwise, the cast is terrible, full of unknown actors hamming it up in the ugliest ways possible.

“Double Dragon's” reputation is largely negative, it frequently cropping up on lists of the worst video game adaptations. It's definitely an extremely dumb movie, with a childish sense of humor and forgettable action scenes. Yet the production design, with its very tacky early nineties aesthetic, is nice to look at. A box office failure, Yurkich would largely go back to directing music videos afterwards. It's not like “Double Dragon” was exactly crying out for a cinematic adaptation, so the film's negative attributes are no great loss. If I saw this as a kid, it would probably be a nostalgic favorite of some sort. [5/10]

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