The Hollywood of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

To the best of my knowledge, the greatest video game movie of all time has never been released in North America. That’s not terribly important right now, but I want to establish that Ace Attorney is amazing, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment.

Yes, there is a Phoenix Wright movie. It’s better than you can imagine.

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In the meantime, video game movies are on my mind thanks to Tomb Raider. Last week Warner Bros. and MGM announced that Evan Daugherty has been hired to write the script for the reboot, and while Daugherty doesn’t have the best track record – Snow White and the Huntsman, Divergent, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – it is a passable resume for summer studio entertainment. He inspires no hope that Tomb Raider will be great, but it probably won’t be a total embarrassment.

I don’t have strong feelings about Tomb Raider or Daugherty, but I do find the choice noteworthy because it guarantees that Tomb Raider will not be a video game movie. It’ll be a movie featuring some famous characters that happen to come from video games, which raises some questions about what a game movie is supposed to be.

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That doesn’t mean that Tomb Raider will be a bad film, or that it’s a wasted endeavor. Leading roles for women in action films are already in pitifully short supply, and Lara Croft is one of the few characters with proven drawing power and a broad fan base. I’m all for it if MGM wants to reboot the franchise. Hollywood needs a new Tomb Raider more than it needed a new Robocop.

I just don’t know what would possibly be unique about the film aside from the branding. Daugherty is the kind of person you hire when you want to shuttle a product to the screen as quickly as possible. He writes movies that occupy a release date, not movies that challenge the audience’s aesthetic sensibilities. His Tomb Raider will be an empty vessel indistinguishable from every other action movie on his resume, with a buxom survivalist instead of a fairy tale or mutant turtles.

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The leveling effect will serve to make Tomb Raider feel less like the source material it’s based on because that’s the nature of conformity. Tomb Raider may lend itself to that kind of treatment – the franchise has always been an Indiana Jones knockoff – so you could make the case that an assembly-line action flick is in keeping with the spirit of the franchise, but that’s hardly an improvement. Gameplay is crucial to the mythos of Lara Croft. A more cinematic interpretation of Tomb Raider makes it more generic, stripping it of the interactive elements that make it matter.

That brings me to Ace Attorney, a movie that I remember far more vividly than either Tomb Raider film despite the fact that I’ve only seen it once, at a special Gamercamp screening a few years back. Improbably directed by Takeshi Miike, Ace Attorney is a hilarious mystery caper involving impossible hairdos and legal battles played out across floating jumbotrons in decorative courtroom arenas. There’s also a scene where one of the characters cross-examines a parrot.

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Somehow, it all makes perfect sense. Ace Attorney isn’t trying to be A Few Good Men or Law & Order. It’s only trying to be Phoenix Wright, and to that end it has a logic all its own.

There’s a lesson to be learned there. Video game movies that attempt to mimic Hollywood – to look more like other movies – tend to be forgettable precisely because they succeed. Prince of Persia resembles a dozen other blockbusters. You can make money selling that familiarity, but nobody will be talking about it two years later.

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The best video game movies feel more like the medium that inspired them. Resident Evil remains the most enduring example, a film franchise that I love for many of the same reasons I appreciate the games. They’re both campy and impossible, and while the films play fast and loose with the established canon, they still represent an authentic tonal adaptation of the franchise. Like the games, the films are so invested in their own sincere absurdity that you can’t help but admire the bravado.

Ace Attorney is a better movie than Resident Evil, but both succeed on their own terms because neither is searching for approval. They’re only trying to entertain, which is easier to do when you’re not hiding core aspects of your personality. The constant drive to be more like film is an apology, as if games are ashamed of being games when its cooler older brother is around.

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Ace Attorney, meanwhile, defies description, using the language of gaming to make a better film. That originality stands in direct contrast to games like The Order: 1886 that posture at artistry by being cinematic. In fact, so many big-budget titles have gone that route that it’s easy to forget that gaming is capable of standing on its own artistic merits, without the need for any validation from cinema.

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Therein lies the problem with Daugherty’s Tomb Raider. The vast majority of video game adaptations have been bad or forgettable because they’re made through a process that inherently invalidates the medium, where everything of worth is imported from film. Ace Attorney is the exception, implicitly acknowledging that cultural influence travels in both directions, and that film can (and will) borrow from games just as easily as games have borrowed from film. In an interactive society, it’s more or less inevitable. Ace Attorney is the best video game film because it’s a great movie, but also because it feels like a video game, and that self-assured confidence makes a far better case for itself than insecure pleas for acceptance.

If directors embrace the stuff that’s truly weird – the stuff that is completely unique to video games – and try to capture that on camera, then we might get something worth watching. Ace Attorney puts Phoenix Wright onscreen to create a cinematic style all its own, and cinema and gaming are better for it. Video game movies that forego that opportunity are doomed to become the forgotten also-rans of indifferent Hollywood machinery.

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