I told myself and my fiance that I wasn’t planning on reviewing this, having now seen it twice within the past year or two. But given that I’ve finally been able to play through “Ace Attorney Investigations 2: Prosecutor’s Path” thanks to the wonders of emulation, I’ve been in a huge “Ace Attorney” mood. I plan to review that game in the coming week or so, but I’m not sure when I’ll be finished with it. So, with that said, I’m gonna look at the Japanese-only, live-action “Ace Attorney” film.
For the uninitiated, the “Ace Attorney” series got its start as Game Boy Advance text-based games in Japan before being released to the DS worldwide. You play as Phoenix Wright, a defense attorney who must gather evidence to use in a courtroom setting to get that elusive “Not Guilty” verdict for his clients. I fell in love with the games from the first one, which I bought with my very first DS. The series has continued to be developed, sparking spin-off games (and a crossover with the “Professor Layton” series), various manga, Japanese stage shows and this film.
The film was released in 2012 and loosely follows the murder cases from the first game, “Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.” The first and third cases are very briefly shown to introduce Phoenix and his rival, Prosecutor Miles Edgeworth, before using the basic ideas from the second and fourth cases to act as the main plot (sorry, fans of the DS version, no fifth case representation here). It boils down to this: Phoenix is forced to go up against Edgeworth when his mentor, Mia Fey, is killed for unknown reasons and her sister, Maya, is suspected of the crime. Phoenix must defend Maya, and he later must do the same for an unlikely person in a separate case. But are the cases truly separate, or could there be a dark secret behind both?
I find it hard to say for sure if someone who doesn’t know the source material would enjoy this film. Taken at its core as a courtroom drama, however, I think it makes for a fun romp. The story is slightly disjointed due to the case set-up, but I liked how close both featured cases were to the game (barring some changes that didn’t bug me other than one from Case 4 involving an elevator – don’t ask). The movie also tries to tie some things together that wasn’t present in the games, and for the format I thought it worked well. I also liked how they approached the courtroom setting. The movie combines a modern-ish setting with a futuristic courtroom set-up. Evidence is presented through scans and holograms, yet witnesses are still called to testify. It makes the film both visually interesting and also feel fresh in concept. In my case, I can’t help but judge it based on its inspiration, and I can say that while it has some problems, it’s easily one of the best video game adaptations I’ve ever seen (yes, I know that’s not saying much considering other films, but this one truly is).
Acting-wise, it’s very over the top, much like in the games. The actors all do a pretty admirable job trying to capture their characters. I especially like the ones for Phoenix and Edgeworth, who to this day are two of my favorite characters from the series. They play polar opposites well here, both in acting styles and personality, with Edgeworth being calm and seemingly unfeeling and Phoenix being very frantic and a little goofy. The only gripes I really had involved the characterizations of Maya, the Judge, Detective Dick Gumshoe, and Prosecutor Manfred von Karma. Maya is much more serious in this, and while it’s understandable given the tone and her involvement in the story, it would’ve been nice to see her more bubbly, fun-loving side here. The Judge is similar, in that he’s deadpan serious here, rather than having some “confused old man” moments that made him endearing (and sometimes irritating) in the games. And Gumshoe is much younger, more attractive and not remotely bumbling like his game counterpart. However, I DID like that they kept his professional bond with Edgeworth (though not fully explored) and his determination to get things done. As for Manfred von Karma, well… I’ll just say that he’s more likable in this and leave it at that. Needless to say, anyone who’s played the games are in for a surprise with him.
One thing that caught me off-guard was how fast-paced the editing was. Maybe it’s a regular thing in Japanese cinema, but I found it took some getting used to, mainly thanks to the jump cuts from one location to the next. For an over 2 hour movie, it flew by for the most part. There were times I wished they’d included a few extra details from the games, mainly to add to the story or at the very least the characters. You don’t get much time to make a connection with them if you aren’t already vaguely familiar with them. However, credit where credit is due: These guys did their research. What stuff from the games writing-wise is utilized well, there are a few orchestrated tracks from the game, and the film just looks AMAZING. They did their best to capture the locations, character appearances (well, almost, as some costumes have discrepancies), and overall feel from the games. They even made me feel sorry for a witness that, while written well in-game, majorly invoked sympathy in me here through some visual flashbacks. Ultimately, even though the colors were a bit muted at times and the tone was more realistic and gritty than the games, I like what they were going for.
Overall, if you like the video games or even just courtroom dramas, this isn’t a bad way to spend 2 hours of your time. While those who have played the games will find a few things to gripe about, what IS represented accurately is done with lots of attention to detail and makes this a pretty faithful adaption in that respect. Those who are going in blind may find it takes getting used to, and the pacing can sometimes leave a lot to be desired. But if you want an interesting take on the genre, I would still recommend at least giving it a watch.
I give “Gyakuten Saiban” aka “Ace Attorney” a solid 8/10.