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Movie Review – Ace Attorney

The biggest film-related event here in the Netherlands is the International Film Festival Rotterdam, held annually in the port city. Hundreds of films from different genres, by known and unknown filmmakers, are shown. One of the films that immediately got my interest this year was Ace Attorney, which had its world premiere at the festival. I managed to attend a screening and I’m very glad I did.

Ace Attorney (original title: Gyakuten Saiban) is the Japanese film adaptation of the immensely popular Phoenix Wright games by Capcom. Since the release of the first game of the series in Japan in 2001, Phoenix Wright has amassed a huge following both in Japan and abroad, with seven games released, a manga adaptation and a musical. It’s safe to say the film has a lot to live up to. Full disclosure: I never played the games, so I went in just hoping for an entertaining movie. A dedicated fan may have different expectations.

I was a bit surprised to learn that the director of the movie was Takashi Miike, known for darker movies like Audition and Ichi the Killer. A lighthearted and comic-y film like this seems an odd pick for Miike, but if there’s anyone that can turn this franchise into a great movie, it’s a veteran Japanese director like him.

Minor Spoilers ahead!

The film is set in the near future where, to cope with increasing crime numbers, Japan has introduced a new legal system in which a verdict is passed after a three-day bench trial. In this short period of time, the defense effectively has to prove the innocence of the accused while fending off attacks from an aggressive prosecutor. In both the game and the film, the protagonist does this by investigating the crime, presenting evidence and examining witnesses. This is presented in a way that resembles arcade fighting games, with the courtroom being the ring.

The story starts with the murder of Phoenix Wright’s mentor Mia Fey and the ensuing trial. As the story progresses and Phoenix digs deeper, a fifteen-year-old conspiracy is revealed. Phoenix ends up facing off against legendary prosecutor Manfred Von Karma (yes, the names are marvelous) as the defense attorney for his old friend and rival Miles Edgeworth.

What I liked most about this movie is how ridiculous it is. The over-the-top settings, the crazy hairdos and the melodramatic acting, it all makes for a hilarious combination. The future setting allows for some very cool sci-fi elements. Evidence is presented using big hologram projectors and the prosecution and defense aggressively hurl their screens at each other. Besides the sci-fi, there are some fantasy elements as well; characters communicate through spirit mediums to help Phoenix during the trials. As the film progresses, it just gets weirder and weirder, all in a good way.

In a lot of ways, this film reminded me of Starship Troopers, although Ace Attorney obviously isn’t as action packed. They have similar futuristic settings, very over-the-top stereotypical characters, and underneath all of that, a layer of social commentary. Starship Troopers, using Nazi uniforms and propaganda reels, conveyed a message about the effects war can have on a society. Ace Attorney, with its radical three-day trials, seems to use a similar technique to satirize the inquisitorial nature of the Japanese legal system.

With a run time of 135 minutes, the film did feel a bit long, and not being familiar with the cases from the game, I found it a little hard to follow as the plot got more complicated. I didn’t really worry myself with that though, and just enjoyed the ride. With all the crazy fun the movie throws at you, it never gets boring. I give it 3 out of 5 Nerdskulls. Ace Attorney opens in Japan on the 11th of February. There are no international release dates yet, but Takashi Miike has announced that the film will see an international release with localized dubbing and subtitles. Keep an eye out for it and go see Ace Attorney when it’s released in your region!