This year’s Melbourne International Film Festival has a tonne of great movies to check out, both from abroad and home grown. However, there’s one film that myself, along with much of the gaming community in Melbourne were hanging out for – the Japanese film adaptation of Nintendo DS classic, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Simply titled Ace Attorney, the film is directed by Takashi Miike, who’s probably better known in the West for his ultra-violent flicks like Ichi the Killer and 13 Assassins, even though he has been known to genre-hop even to family comedies like Ninja Kids!! However, in Ace Attorney, Miike has made the funniest film I’ve seen all year, and perhaps the best videogame film adaptation out there.
The plot of the film is essentially identical to the first game in the Ace Attorney series. Phoenix Wright (Hiroki Narimiya) is a rookie defense attorney, struggling to prove his clients’ innocence in a near future, where a rise in crime has led to trials with a strict three-day time limit. However, after his mentor Mia Fey (Rei Dan) is murdered and her sister Maya (Mirei Kiritani) is framed for the crime, his defense of the young girl pulls him into a conspiracy spanning 15 years, and sets him on a collision course with his childhood friend Miles Edgeworth (Takumi Saito), now a stern prosecutor with a perfect win record. What follows is a whirlwind of trials, featuring cockatoos, sea monsters, the spirit realm and ridiculous hairstyles.
Fans will be pleased to know that every twist, piece of evidence produced and even many of the jokes are directly (and sensibly) lifted from the original game. Miike has realised that the reason the games are so successful is due to their fun, well-written characters and ridiculous trials filled to the brim with absurd revelations, and he leaves both these elements untouched. When the crowd at MIFF weren’t on the edge of their seats, they were rolling on the floors with laughter thanks to the smart writing and great comic timing of the actors (or sometimes puzzling over the frankly disappointing quality of the projection on show). Narimiya really is a perfect Phoenix Wright – determined, loyal and always slightly hapless. Saito is a great Edgeworth, but many will come away from Ace Attorney remembering Akiyoshi Nakao as Wright’s other childhood friend, Larry Butz, in a performance that could easily have been annoying, yet ends up being lovable.
Some characters get short shrift, most noticeably Dick Gumshoe (Shunsuke Daito) and Maya Fey. The film just doesn’t have enough for either of them to do. Gumshoe is only required to do his job competently (which is more that can be said for his counterpart in the game), although he has one nice silhouetted scene with Wright halfway through the film that feels true to the character. Maya loses her importance to the plot after the second trial, and struggles to find ways to be involved besides delivering hints through the spirit of her departed sister.
There are some departures from the videogame, but these are mainly in the spirit of updating the story for a film audience. The game’s court record, a menu from which evidence could be presented, is now visually represented by a holographic display in the centre of the courtroom. Wright and Edgeworth can hurl these holograms back and forth with dramatic hand-waves, analyse new evidence and even conjure up the classic ‘crime scene overview’ maps often seen in the game. These holograms do initially make the film feel more sci-fi than expected, although you soon adjust to their presence. For hardcore fans, be aware that some cases from the game are glossed over (specifically, the first and third ones), some characters are visually different (like Redd White), while others are just missing (like April May and Wendy Oldbag). However, the end-credits sequence, made up of an extended piece of fan service/possible trailer for a Justice for All adaptation, should be enough to convince you that Miike is on your side, and most changes have been made out of necessity.
Miike’s direction remains very stylistic, although this sometimes presents a fairly jarring departure in tone from the rest of the film. The visions we see of the spirit world through the Feys are often terrifying – spirits of the dead marching in front of burning cities and disturbing corpse-like ghosts. There is also some very strange editing that serves only to muddle the story, rather than enhance it, with the film suddenly cutting away to seemingly completely unrelated events, only to expound upon their importance much later. In a film that generally has a dozen things going on at once in the story, this does tend to be aggravatingly confusing.
That said, Ace Attorney is far and away one of the best videogame film adaptations I’ve seen. It’s encouraging to see it succeeds by staying true to the source material – very little is changed and only what is omitted is really noticeable. If you’ve played the original Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, you’ll already know every surprise the story has to offer, but it still manages to entertain tremendously. Even if you’ve had no exposure to Phoenix Wright before, you’ll find it hard to not be amused or get engrossed in the proceedings, even if the film can get a little muddled at times. Ace Attorney is a strange, stylistic, hilarious and utterly entertaining courtroom drama that’s not to be missed.
(4 stars out of 5)