Give us a cut of Ace Attorney that clocks in at say, 90 minutes, and it would probably be gold. There's a lot to like about director Takashi Miike's take on the first game in the long-running series. What trips the ultimately enjoyable adaptation up is that it wears out its welcome at 135 minutes, and coupled with structural problems inherent in every courtroom setup requiring Phoenix Wright to delay for time, it feels like the movie overstates its case by the one hour mark.
As such things goes, Ace Attorney (Gyakuten saiban) is very faithful to the source material, the 2001 GBA title. That game, and the movie see awkward but well-coiffed defense attorney Phoenix Wright embroiled in a series of murder cases where he has to piece together contradictions to evidence and testimony from the prosecution, typically embodied by unscrupulous lawyer for the state and former childhood friend of Wright's, Miles Edgeworth.
The setting is some undefined point in the future, where the Japanese criminal justice system has been shifted towards speedy bench trials. Both the prosecution and defense have three days to make their case before a judge and the burden of evidence seems light since the witnesses don't necessarily need corroboration for their testimony. Ace Attorney gives the trials a futuristic sheen, with floating holographic displays being thrown dramatically across the room as the two sides argue and counter-argue their respective cases.
Here, it's Wright unwittingly stumbling into the defense of his friend and mentor Maya Fey's younger sister Mia, after the former is found murdered in her office. It all connects to a case from 15 years before that will bring together Edgworth and Wright, and if you've played that first game you know where most of this is going. For everyone else, it's a whiplash series of twists, turns, and reveals with a villain you'll see coming from a mile off.
In Miike's film, Wright is played by Hiroki Narimiya (who's used to the adaptation thing having had roles in the two Nana films and Sakuran), and he brings the right level of hyper-color exaggeration to the role. Wright isn't a buffoon, but he's not especially confident at his job. Unfortunately, the script doesn't really have an arc for his character—Wright starts off in one place and ultimately just loses the case. We never really get to see that evolution happen onscreen, and that's a shame because Narimiya seems up to the task of giving us insight into the character.
Weirdly, foil Miles Edgworth (Takumi Saito) is the character who's allowed to arc in the movie, confronting secrets from his past while dealing with his own shady prosecutorial methods when he finds himself on the wrong side of the courtroom later in the film. His story isn't unwelcome, it's just baffling that the main antagonist for the first third is the character who gets any kind of development throughout.
Performers Ryo Ishibashi as Manfred Von Karma (you have to love the "Westernized" names in this series) and Mirei Kiritani (Mia) do good work here as well, although the latter could really feels either over or underused. After her trial, she mostly hangs out. I could have done with a little less of Akiyoshi Nakao's Larry Butz, a barely one-joke character who exists solely to mug at the camera and distract when the action slows down.
On the production side, it's up to you whether the inexpensive wigs or the Miike's continue propensity to under light his action, making the production look a little grubbier and more threadbare than it should. Still, the performers are committed, and that goes a long way towards energizing the whole production.
What is hard to dismiss is the final act left turn from a goofy murder comedy into a sincere call for justice and the rule of law. I'm sure some viewers might find it corny, but it's kind of earned by the plot which hinges on several characters using shortcuts to get justice. It's not like you're going to leave the theater pumping your fists for habeas corpus, but it works in the moment.
Still, when the movie works, it really works. That said, there's still just too much of it. It's not killed by its length, but some of the repeated gags (the gallery collapsing in their seats, anything involving Larry) wear out their welcome by sheer repetition. A little tightening could have worked wonders here because given the cast and the work that's gone into making the action of the game believable, Ace Attorney could have been a must watch for series faithful instead of very watchable.
Ace Attorney will screen as part of the New York Asian Film Festival Sunday, July 8th at 2:30 PM. You can find ticketing info on the NYAFF site.
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