I adore the Ace Attorney video games. Ever since they saw their western release on the Nintendo DS in 2005, they've swept me and countless other fans along with the adventures of rookie defense attorney Phoenix Wright, out to prove the innocence of his hapless clients. Might it not be dull to follow an interactive, procedural courtroom drama, you wonder? Far from it. The genius move developer Capcom made was to recontextualize the proceedings of a trial as epic bouts of fighting between the lawyers – clawing their way back from the abyss of defeat, throwing around evidence in fury and engaging in explosive questioning.
This works exceedingly well as a series of visual novels cum adventure games. One moment you're gathering evidence and talking to a host of bizarre characters, the next you must collect your wits to find the right clue to entrap the bad guy in court. Does it work equally well as a film, though? Takashi Miike is no stranger to genre pulp, and he uses his knowledge to translate the world of Ace Attorney to the silver screen. The result is a balancing act between heartfelt crime drama and outrageous comedy.
In lieu of the dozens of hours the game has to elaborate on its characters and develop a plot, the movie thrusts us into the life of Phoenix Wright with breakneck speed. When his mentor, Mia Fey, is murdered and her sister Maya suspected of the deed, Phoenix is called into action. Going up against the frigid prosecutor Miles Edgeworth turns out to be only the prelude to a larger story. Soon, Edgeworth himself is implicated in a murder case stretching back decades. Phoenix goes out to unravel the mystery.
This plot closely follows the structure of the first game, bouncing back and forth between the investigation and the trial. There are plenty of (highly Japanese) gags, nods to the franchise and crazy twists. But somewhere along the way, it all falls very flat. The big problem with the movie is also the most obvious to point out: what works in a game doesn't necessarily work in a passive film. Putting the screws on eyewitnesses like Lotta Hart and Larry Butz is fun to do, but not particularly interesting to watch someone else do. Since this is hardly an Agatha Christie novel, the mystery is too outlandish to figure out for yourself, so there goes the sleuthing aspect. What remains is a plot offering precious few vicarious thrills.
It doesn't help that the cast seems ill at ease with the material. There's a lot of mugging and cheap looking costumes and hairdo's that would make a decent cosplayer turn their head in contempt. Worse, the plot's focus on the technical aspects of the case (clue A leads to conclusion B, thus action C will result in effect D) undercuts any attempt at empathy. There's little room to feel anything for the characters; they're far too cartoonish and unconvincing to work in live action.
As much as I love the games and appreciate much of Miike's other work, Ace Attorney is a diversion, an amusing curiosity at best. The concept would work much better as an anime show. Or, even better, as an interactive series of video games. If only we lived in that best of worlds!