Ace Attorney screens on Wednesday, October 31st at 7:00pm at Innis Town Hall, and Sunday, November 4th at 6:00pm at Isabel Bader Theatre. Tickets are available through Gamercamp here.
I know I’m not the video game guy around here, and I won’t pretend to understand 95% of most games on all next generation consoles or whatever the heck you crazy gamer kids with your upcoming camps call them these days. Yeah, whatever, WORDS. If it’s not a Mario Brothers, Street Fighter, or Silent Hill franchise I can complain about, I’m almost entirely lost.
But while I might be a novice in the gaming department, I absolutely adored the almost entirely text based Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney games. Their hyper stylized depictions of courtroom settings combined with a plot that literally rises and falls on every push of a button you make (rather than just walking through and wasting enemies willy-nilly or levelling up, whatever the hell that is) ensured that I played every single one of them after work for about 5 straight days. So when I say that Ace Attorney might be the most slavishly faithful adaptation of a video game to date, that doesn’t really come with any intended hyperbole. It’s almost word for word the second and fourth (and a tiny bit of the first) cases from the first game in the series.
That such a faithful version of the Ace Attorney story would come from a director like Takashi Miike – better known for far edgier fare than this like Audition, 13 Assassins, and Ichi the Killer – does add a bit of shock value. Miike doesn’t really go too far outside the game’s own comfort zone, but he isn’t merely acting like a hired gun, either. He’s handling the material with a reverence most would reserve for forms of high art even though this is a film that hinges major plot points on a parrot testifying in court and a giant blue, indecipherable mascot acting as a deus ex machina.
Still a rookie defence lawyer, the crazy haired Phoenix gets asked to defend his biggest courtroom nemesis, Miles Edgeworth, who has been placed on trial for a murder tied to a case they both tried on different sides of the aisle involving the offing of a psychic medium and Phoenix’s closest advisor.
The film still follows the trail of breadcrumbs styled plotting of the games with the plot doled out on a second by second basis across a lengthy 144 minute running time. It would be easy to complain that the film has too much exposition, but the story of the games was always based around continuous discovery. Porting it directly and almost unwaveringly might not be the most cinematic way of doing things, but Miike oddly enough makes this feel like more of a courtroom comedy/drama than most of his North American counterparts that specialize in this kind of film could have ever made.
The film keeps almost everything intact from the game from the characters (the bearded judge, the hapless cop Dick Gumshoe, veteran prosecutor Von Karma) to even the most basic elements of gameplay. Miike lovingly integrates every single one of the game’s idiosyncrasies almost as if he’s inciting a knowing audience member to engage in a bit of open participation. Every “HOLD IT!,” “OBJECTION!,” and “TAKE THAT!” are exatly where they should be. There are asides that may or may not have a huge impact later. There’s dramatic pauses and exaggerated finger points aplenty.
Since the action rarely leaves the courthouse for any reason, the story starts to drag, and the common video game adaptation question that gets asked does come up: “Does this simply feel like you are watching someone play the game?” On the surface, the answer could be yes, but in the hands of a master filmmaker like Miike, he’s constantly delivering the visual and thematic goods to ensure that fans and the uninitiated always have something to watch.
The sometimes off kilter nature of the case plays to Miike’s strengths, and he seems to be having fun cutting loose and joking about more than he usually gets a chance to. He adds a slightly forward thinking science fiction elements and magic realism to his repertoire by making the viewing of evidence and documents something grand instead of being bland and static. Miike knows the game and he seems to love it so much he only adds his visual stamp onto the material. He knows the story is strong, and he wisely doesn’t mess with it.
It will probably go down as more of a curiosity in Miike’s long, established career (hence why it isn’t due for a wider theatrical release), but for fans of the game or anyone who has just been missing the long dormant subgenre of courtroom farces will get a huge kick out of this one. Whatever the film’s audience is – be it film buffs with a passing knowledge of gaming or gamers with a passing knowledge of cinema – there’s a lot here for both camps to admire without objection.