Why Ace Attorney Succeeds and Hollywood Fails

The virtues of the live-action Ace Attorney movie have been expounded upon in Kotaku's official review. But because it's finally hitting New York screens next week, I figured now might be an excellent opportunity to dig a bit deeper, and explain why it's indeed the best video game movie ever crafted.

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To date, there have been numerous examples of video games being turned into motion pictures. Sadly, very few are any good, if at all. The issue at hand is fairly obvious: games and movies are two fundamentally different things. Transforming one into the other is simply a tall order.

Thus far, we have two basic approaches; first there's the literal route. This is when everything from a game (the plot, characters, set pieces, etc) is simply re-enacted. It's the most obvious path, along with the most desirable. Yet it's also the most problematic.

The most successful example is the 1995 live action Mortal Kombat adaptation. Those who loved the movie also happened to be fans of the game. Much of their enjoyment stemmed from watching their favorite kombatants in the flesh, and relatively unchanged. Mostly due to the abysmal live-action Street Fighter movie from the year prior.

But if you had no real love for the source material, you probably found the entire thing to be an excessively generic martial arts movie. And not even a good one. Which brings up several questions: who are these video game inspired movies for exactly? Just fans of the source material? Can elements that are so endearing in one particular medium be transplanted into another successfully?

Why Ace Attorney Succeeds and Hollywood FailsS

Often, filmmakers find that it's not necessarily the case, so changes are made. Giving certain subject matter broader appeal is one of the primary motivations behind the second route that is often employed, the interpretive approach. This is when the basics of a particular game are re-imagined, and the end result might often be wildly different from the source material.

The Super Mario Bros movie is an excellent example; it reconfigured various staples from the franchise into things that (supposedly) made better sense for normal moviegoers, while also paying tribute to its origins. Or so that was the plan. In the end, the vast majority of Mario fans were turned off by such radical changes, and everyone else was still bored and confused. Yet points should be given for taking the creative risks that it did.

Why Ace Attorney Succeeds and Hollywood Fails

The most financially successful game to movie franchise thus far is Resident Evil, which sits comfortably in the middle of the aforementioned approaches. It has just enough elements from the namesakes to make it recognizable, but also has plenty of non-game elements to help the narrative stand on its own feet.

It works, but not to a satisfying degree. Instead, many have long wished for a serious, more respectable stab at the first approach, often featuring their game of choice. Such fans usually believe game X has a strong enough plot, plus compelling enough characters, for it to be enjoyable to the masses (as a Metal Gear fan, I sometimes wonder about about Snake Eater: The Motion Picture).

Even those who don't feel quite as strongly on the matter are nevertheless curious about the prospect of a game movie being helmed by a household name, one who has an established track record. And the answer is known, courtesy of Ace Attorney by Takashi Miike. Again, it is without question the absolute best video game to film adaptation of all time.

Okay, so maybe Miike is not as famous as Spielberg, but the name does holds much weight. The cult icon of the modern day Japanese cinema is best known for the super stylish and absurdly brutal Ichi The Killer. But any true devotee knows already that his body of work is deep. Which includes comedy (Zebraman is high on that list) and even family friendly fare (like The Great Yokai War).

Basically, the guy knows how to make a movie. Period. So right there, we have reason number one as to why the Ace Attorney movie is so good: it's by a genuinely amazing and accomplished director, one of the very best. But what truly makes his spin Ace Attorney work is how Miike has the utmost confidence in the subject matter.

Why Ace Attorney Succeeds and Hollywood Fails

Some doubt the sincerity of the filmmakers behind the Street Fighter movie, but I'd like to believe that they honestly set out to make something that would make fans happy. Yet it's obvious that they also didn't feel that their topic was worthy enough to base an entire cinematic experience around, which was its ultimate undoing (there's another major reason also, which I'll get to in a bit).

Meanwhile, Miike embraced the entirely of the source material (which is the very first game in the series, for those wondering). Not just the characters and settings, but the various conventions and personality traits that are inherent to video games. And did so unabashedly, without a single once of trepidation.

Granted, some changes were made; a few characters are re-envisioned or entirely omitted, as is one entire portion of the game. But in every instance, it was for the sake of brevity and clarity, and most importantly, the fine-tuning made total sense. They'd even work if they were instituted in the game itself. Ultimately, the essence of Ace Attorney, its sprit, is completely in tact.

A lazy, uncreative director could have simply done a shot for shot recreation and called it a day, but not Miike. Sure he nailed all the locations, costumes, and crazy hairstyles (my God, the hair), but it's the little things that seals the deal. Like that part in the game in which Wright hits a wall and has that "oh shit, I'm totally screwed" look on his face. Which is brilliantly recreated, and accomplishes the same goal of illustrating the severity of the situation, plus accentuating the pathos of our hero. Yet it's even better here, so that's another major accomplishment: taking something awesome in a game and making it even better.

Some might argue that the core elements that comprise Ace Attorney make it an unfair example. True, lawyers have starred in countless movies beforehand, to great effect. Yet I firmly believe, based upon his track record, that if Takashi Miike were asked to direct a WarioWare movie, it would also stick close to the subject matter and still be pretty damn awesome.

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But there's another reason why Ace Attorney succeeds while others fail, and it's not just because the director knows what the hell he's doing. It's simply a matter of where Miike operates. More specifically, how he's not in Hollywood.

A primary reason why the man is held in such high regard is his extremely economic (and seemingly effortless) style of filmmaking. Despite being an established director in his homeland for years now, his movies still feel raw and off the cuff, much like an independent production. He doesn't sweat the small stuff and goes with his gut. Hence his extremely prolific output as well; between 2001 and 2002 alone, the man produced 12 movies and oversaw an entire television series.

Why Ace Attorney Succeeds and Hollywood FailsS

A perfect example, once again, is the Super Mario Bros movie. The curators of the Super Mario Bros Movie Archive have painstakingly detailed every single aspect of that film's creation, including pre-production. And as one can see, there were multiple variations of the script before the cameras rolled. But that's just how it goes in tinsel town, across the board.

While I'm not completely privy with the behind the scenes of the Ace Attorney movie, I will again refer to my knowledge of its helmsman and how movies are made in Japan as a whole, to say that this probably wasn't the case here.

It's also worth noting how Hollywood would never in a million years choose to make a movie based on a video game about lawyering of all things. They're far more comfortable with something in which people are either punching or shooting each other. Which is why Hollywood mostly likes fighting games or first person shooters (or anything with zombies in them); they're concepts that are easily understood and even easier to exploit.

Movies in Hollywood are done by committee.

Movies in Hollywood are done by committee; they have many masters to appease, and many milestones to hit; making a movie is actually low on the list of priorities. Their primary concern is to create a property, with the film being the necessary evil that is the center of a perfect storm that's comprised of action figures, fast food tie-in's, and beach towels.

You also have the previously stated lack of confidence. But in this instance, it's game companies not trusting Hollywood. Granted, the latter's track record is laughable but there has been at least one example of a big screen adaptation of a game that had real potential, the abandoned Halo movie. Which never came to be, due to Microsoft becoming too much of a pain in the ass for even a major movie studio to handle.

It's also the reason why we will perhaps never see a Zelda or Metroid movie; Nintendo doesn't want to risk ruining a precious IP of theirs (especially after the aforementioned Super Mario debacle, which thankfully did no long-standing damage). Meanwhile, it would appear that Capcom was fairly hands-off as it pertained to Ace Attorney, which is fairly interesting.

But I believe it says less about them having confidence in their homeland's motion picture industry and instead is just another sign of them not having their act together. Aside from home video releases, precious little is being done to cash in on the movie. The only other tie-ins that come to mind, the manga and gender bending musical, all existed beforehand. Whether this instance of restraint is a good or bad thing is entirely debatable.

Why Ace Attorney Succeeds and Hollywood Fails

When all is said and done, it's difficult making a successful video game movie. Ace Attorney is the first true, bona fide success story, due to a variety of factors. To recap, you have an accomplished director, one that had the utmost comfort level with the subject matter, and which itself is relatable to a very wide audience. The apparently lack of meddling from outside sources appears to be the final, but in some ways most important final touch.

As stated earlier, a tall order to say the least, but not an impossible one. When popular books are made into movies, the creative process is equally hellish. And while there's more than a few duds, there's also plenty of successes. It's unfortunate that video games are such third class citizens. Hopefully, over time, more qualified directors will step up to the plate, and the system will allow them to do fulfill their visions.

For those interested in seeing Ace Attorney on the big screen, and also live in the NYC area, it's part of the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival, which kicks off tomorrow. There are two showings; first on July 8 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and on July 15 at the Japan Society.

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And for those who cannot attend either screenings, there is an alternative. No only is Miike responsible for the very best game to movie adaptation ever, but he also did the second best as well: Like a Dragon, better known by its Western name, Yakuza. Inspired by Sega's Japanese gangster sim, it too made its New York City debut (and maybe North American as a whole, not 100% certain) at the New York Asian Film Festival, 2008 edition. It can be easily attainable via Amazon and Netflix. Do yourself a favor and track down a copy.