Sitting outside of the fancy uptown Magnolia Theater, eating my gelato and sweating out the Texas nighttime heat with people wearing tucked pastel shirts and judging my lack of a one-hundred-thousand dollar sports car, a woman comes up to me. A friendly woman, for sure, she begins to talk with me. She tells me that she’s here for a Mary Kay convention, but it becomes quickly and readily apparent that she’d rather talk about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. What she first impresses upon me is that she’s a big Judi Dench and Maggie Smith fan as she details the plot of the movie, concerned that at my unripened age, I would not understand the problems of the older generation that the film covers.
But soon she inquires about the youth within me. “What do you do?”
“I write,” I say.
“Oh? What about?”
And this is the moment I always dread. I can just as easily say any number of other things that would be infinitely easier to justify to the other 75% of the earth. I could say I write news or I write about plays. Though lies, they would be more likely to go over smoothly. The truth usually garners strange looks, enduring moments of silence and confusion as the possibility exists somewhere in the world that people can make money writing doing what I do.
What most people wouldn’t notice (as it’s not anywhere on the marquee or on any signage around the theater) is that the Magnolia is hosting the Asian Film Festival of Dallas. This is the last night of the festival and to close it out, they are showing an adaptation of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. It sounds ridiculous at first, even outlandish that someone would bother adapting a fairly niche title (a mobile one at that) into a movie, but you know what? It totally works.
If the name Takashi Miike rings a bell, it’s probably because you’ve seen one of his extremely disturbing pieces of horror, such as the Showtime-banned “Imprint” episode of Master of Horror or Ichi the Killer. He’s also done more tame fare like the samurai epic 13 Assassins and the family action film of a Japanese institution Ultraman Max, but his calling card is horror, so you can imagine the surprise when it was announced that Miike would be doing a film adaptation of a goofy courtroom Game Boy Advance game.
But Miike manages to make it the right amount of goofy. It’s hard to make something self-aware enough so that it’s entertaining but not pandering, but he does it. Similar to how Twisted Pixel managed to purposefully capture the accidental charm and absurdity of Mad Dog McCree with their Gunstringer DLC “Wavy Tube Man Chronicles,” Miike keeps the tone of the movie serious, allowing the insanity of overly stylized, physics-defying hair, inexplicable and seemingly anachronistic technology, and ridiculous courtroom concessions to speak for themselves.
Take, for instance, the base conceit of the Ace Attorney games: bench trials. What they call court trials are more akin to what we’re used to with a jury and interminable deliberation, but bench trials are more like one-on-one duels between prosecution and defense. The prosecution must make a wholly incriminating accusation and the defense must disprove it, otherwise the judge will close the case and make a ruling right then and there. It is, for the most part, inconceivable in reality.
But the fact that Miike takes it seriously, presenting this odd turn of fictitious law as the sanest thing ever conceived, you too buy into this world. Of course Larry Butz has a ticket to the trial because of course tickets would be sold to legal proceedings. Of course anyone can speak at any time with courtroom laws and restrictions following the same path as Step Up dance battles, i.e. anything goes.
Probably the single most representative scene from the movie of the entire experience is when just before the judge slams his gavel to make a final ruling, Blue Badger, an inexplicable mascot for the local police department, slaps his furry blue paw to stop the case from ending. As we see the confused judge, the camera pans out to remind us that the judge’s bench is actually something like 30 feet in the air, showing a bright blue costumed man dangling in the air.
And no one thinks it strange.
And that’s what makes it brilliant. Because Phoenix Wright can awkwardly smile at the camera as a witness gives a heady testimony or that everyone falls over anime-style when he makes an exceptionally insipid remark and no one questions it—that these actions are just a fact of life—the movie succeeds.
It also doesn’t hurt that it tells a fantastic story. The game itself spans over four (or five, depending on your platform) cases, but the movie chops it to the three that cover the DL-6 case and its periphery. It’s such a cohesive package of courtroom drama that you’d think Aaron Sorkin wrote it. Granted, this is much different, but the tale it tells is twisted, surprising, and altogether beautiful.
From investigating the death of Phoenix’s mentor Mia Fey to defending childhood friend and current rival Miles Edgeworth to busting a 15-year-old case involving a legendary prosecutor wide open, the pieces laid before you make a whole picture; you just have to put it together. I mean, as with all courtroom dramas, things are eventually spelled out for you Bond villain-style, but if you can keep up and pick up on both obvious as well as subtle clues, you’ll enjoy keeping pace with Phoenix solving each mystery.
Miike takes certain liberties with the game that thankfully help flesh out the world we’re in. You get extended flashbacks to when Larry, Phoenix, and Miles were just children in school, solving a classroom case of missing lunch money, to drawing out the heartfelt and entirely depressing tale of Yanni Yogi. I mean, wow. It’s one thing to put the puzzle together in the game and in your mind, but seeing it play out in front of you with great directing and great acting, I may have gotten a bit misty-eyed.
The movie does go on a bit long at 135 minutes, but it is so funny and so dramatic and so perfectly Ace Attorney that I didn’t mind it for one second. If this is the way to convince people that video games (and video game movies) aren’t all bad and don’t require a bat-shit crazy director or a $300 million budget, then I hope it gets wide enough release for everyone in the world to see it. Twice.
But truly, watching it in an absolutely full theater of movie fans and, more importantly, Phoenix Wright fans is the way to watch it. They get the in-jokes; they understand what makes this movie great. It is a great movie through and through, but not requiring it to defend itself, having it break down whatever wall of cynicism you’ve built around your sophisticated cinema filter, will make you love it all the more. It’s just hard for some people to understand. It’s hard for some people to understand that video games are a creative medium worth discussing and sharing and devoting time to be understood.
It’s a brief hesitation, but I feel like she noticed it. I mean, I noticed it, so I’m sure it was long enough for her to know that what I was about to say took at least some consideration.
“Video games,” I say to her. “I write about video games.”