Whoever first proclaimed that the court room is akin to a battlefield must have had Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney in mind at the time. Based on the wildly popular series of Capcom video games, Ace Attorney is the perfect example of an adaptation done right, capturing the frenetic and confusing storylines while remaining fresh and engaging enough for newcomers.
Few directors could have captured the Ace Attorney craziness better than the prolific Takashi Miike, who has probably completed two more movies during the time it took to write the last paragraph. He is the quintessential jack of all trades film maker, as comfortable with the uber-violent Ichi the Killer as with a classical samurai epic like 13 Assassins. Film adaptations of video games, especially Japanese ones, are almost never successful when brought into the Hollywood system. The styles don't translate, as directors get too comfortable presenting them the way they would any other film. Lots of dialogue and explanation isn't going to work for Ace Attorney, which is essentially set in a courtroom for the bulk of its 130 minute run time. Miike wisely uses a number of brilliant camera tricks and sight gags, like having the entire court room trussed up to look like an episode of Let's Make A Deal.
The world of Ace Attorney is what sets it apart from others, and it's not far fetched to think it could exist alongside the restrictive, totalitarian future of Battle Royale where truants fight to the death as entertainment. In this version of future Japan, crime has escalated to the point where the court system has become too crowded to function. So the government has instituted a "bench trial" system, where every case, no matter how serious, must be completed as fast as possible, with three days the maximum. Cases can last as little as a few seconds, an incredible thing when a person's life is at stake. Trials have basically taken on a pro wrestling level of competitive aggression and showmanship, with the primary goal to attack the other side with as much evidence as possible, or defend against an oncoming barrage of evidence. The winner is usually the side that can prove just one piece of evidence as indisputable, no matter how inconsequential it may be. The prosecution and defense literally hurl giant holographic images of crucial evidence at their opponent, an example of Miike's clever visual quirks designed to keep the proceedings fresh. When a particularly harsh piece of evidence lands(or in Phoenix's case he makes a bluntly obvious point), the audience literally tumbles over in shock like the crew of the Enterprise. It's just ridiculous enough to work.
Phoenix Wright(Hiroki Narimaya), a rookie defense attorney with a Dragon Ball haircut and a dorky disposition, has barely eked out a win in his first case, defending his hapless buddy, Larry Butz(their names say it all) in a pointless and barely noticed trial. However he soon finds himself thrust into the spotlight after his colleague, Mia, is found murdered in their office. Phoenix discovers that the clues all tie into a 15 year old murder case involving the father of an old friend and deep levels of legal corruption. While that may sound like it was ripped from an episode of Law & Order, when you start throwing in things like the emergence of the Loch Ness monster, talking parrots as witnesses, and ghostly apparitions invading the court room, obviously this is a case unlike any seen before. Testimony is given almost entirely in flashback, so as to keep the film's energy from stagnating and allowing us a chance to see the witnesses as full-fledged characters and not just minor pieces of the puzzle.
Miike perfectly recreates the circus atmosphere of the games, and devoted fans will recognize many of its signatures right away. The ridiculous hairdos are one thing, but you'll also find many of the best catchphrases, like Phoenix Wright's infamous "OBJECTION!!!" are used frequently. Based on the first five cases in the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney series, there are practically dozens of silly and memorable characters. Most of these are done faithfully, although some will balk at the changes made to an important supporting character like clueless veteran cop, Dick Gumshoe. He's far too brave and young here. Having the story cover such a large number of cases does prove to be an issue, as the run time is way too long and the motivations of some characters gets muddled. Sometimes the incoherence works, while other times it can be a distraction.
So who does a movie like Ace Attorney appeal to? Well, I'd like to say "everybody" but that's simply not true. It'll be too wildly over-the-top for some, and that's understandable. Some of the in-jokes are distinctly Japanese and don't quite land for an American audience, but that's an issue for any foreign import. On the other hand, fans of the games will feel right at home with the zaniness, while those looking for a unique comedy experience will get all that and more. Video game movie adaptations don't have to stink, after all. Ace Attorney proves some of them can even achieve a certain level of greatness.