Title: DOA: Dead or Alive
Year of Release: 2006
Date Viewed: November 17th, 2010
MPAA Rating: PG-13
"Princess Kasumi, your brother is dead. Your destiny is to lead your people."
Those are the first lines spoken in the movie. My reaction was laughter. Talk about cutting right to the chase. Since the movie wasted absolutely no time in getting to the point, I was half expecting the next lines to be "I have avenged my brother. My people are safe again." Cue the end credits.
DOA doesn't care much about its story. I wish it had. Movie studios don't seem to notice or care that modern videogames contain rich art, including well thought-out storylines. The DOA games provided every playable character with a backstory; something that could be further expanded upon through sequels or spinoff projects. This live action adaptation was a great opportunity to present these tales on the grandest stage; the big cinematic screen. Instead, the studio decided to go a different route. Amplify the campiness and hire Corey Yuen to direct enough over-the-top fighting scenes to fill the traditional ninety minute running time. Despite the disappointment over my ideals not being met, I didn't really mind too much since I enjoy over-the-top action as much as anyone could. So instead of rich art, I was treated to mild enjoyment of a somewhat lazy effort.
To my surprise, there were actually a lot of things accurately adapted from the game. It's probably the result of seasoned game-to-film director Paul W.S. Anderson serving as a producer. The jury is still out on whether or not this guy is a good filmmaker. But it's clear that he at least respects videogames enough to possess the right amount of general knowledge to give fans plenty of familiarity comfort.
Dead or Alive is the name of an invitational martial arts tournament held on a remote island. A huge cash prize is promised for the winner. Many of the character backstories are unaltered from their original vision. Ayane is chasing Kasumi for assassination. Zack is a cocky athlete with bad hair that overestimates his ability to woo the ladies. Bass and Tina are a father/daughter pro wrestling tag team. Other characters like Gen Fu and Brad Wong are included but dismissed early on; victims of first round elimination never to be heard from again. I was also pleased to see a wise selection of fight arenas. Locations like the beach and the castle balcony are taken straight out of the game with accurate real world dimensions.
Only a few characters and situations are sidetracked from their origins. Helena is not a French opera singer in this story. She is relegated to the one-dimensional ditsy stereotype role that should have already been filled by Tina. There is a non-secret twist in the story that sets up a subplot for the villain. The island's ruler, Donovan (Eric Roberts), is the mastermind behind the tournament. Unbeknownst to the contestants, they have all been injected with an information gathering nanobot that tracks every movement. As the contestants progress through the tournament, data of their fight patterns are recorded into Donovan's new technology that will allow him to emulate and master all the fighting techniques of his subjects. When optimized, his product is planned to be sold to the world black market, allowing other warlords the potential for increased stronghold in their respective areas.
The early fight scenes are unsatisfactory. The style certainly fits the mood. That's not the problem. Flashy exaggerated strikes followed by crowd pleasing finishing moves is the way to go. Gravity laws do not apply here and that's perfectly okay. However, there is no rhythm or flow to the action. Fighting videogames are usually sloppy, but they still show more consistency than what Yuen's choreographers offer here. The technique is reminiscent of an ESPN highlight reel. It tries too hard to please with the cool looking stuff while failing to generate excitement from conflict. For fight scenes to be truly exhilarating, they need to be shown in real time or at least realistic time. Otherwise it's just noisy fireworks without the eye candy. One likely reason for this choice in presentation could be compensation for the lack of athletic talent. Acquiring actors with attractive bodies was higher on the priority list than having experienced martial arts students. It's understandable that the movie needed to stray away from authentic action. But in this case, more time is spent dancing around the action to cover up for the actors' faults. Too much CGI and wires ruin the illusion of battle. The only female actress that seemed tailor made for the challenge was Sarah Carter (Helena), who can proudly claim to have the best fight scene in the movie; a gauntlet sword battle against a few dozen of Donovan's henchmen. By the time the third act rolls around, the action is given room to breathe, somewhat redeeming the earlier mistakes.
The DOA games have only been half serious with the rest firmly tongue-in-cheek. The movie neglects the former and embraces the latter. And I have to admit, the results are smile-inducing for weird folks like myself. There is something oddly amusing about watching an attractive lady ask her foe to snap up her bra just before knocking him unconscious. A standout casting choice is Kevin Nash in the role of the buff wrestler Bass. His natural comedic timing has enough power to make a lame scene work. On his way to battle his daughter Tina in an elimination bracket, he discovers her sleeping in the same bed as Christie, out of context. His reaction is gold.
It's too bad I can't say the same for my own reactions toward this mixed bag. On one hand, there is enough quantity of chop-socky fun to satisfy the part of us that hasn't yet grown out of Saturday morning cartoons. On the other hand, the material suffers from its own shallow approach, surely disappointing the strong wings of the fanbase. The movie isn't meant to be taken seriously, but that doesn't mean the production deserved the same treatment.