ComicsAlliance Reviews ‘D.O.A.: Dead Or Alive’ (2006), Part One
Chris Sims: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to our series of in-depth reviews focusing on movies based on fighting games. This week, we're starting in on DOA: Dead Or Alive, a movie that truly has everything, if you consider "everything" to be "scantily clad women and Kevin Nash." Which I do.
Matt Wilson: This is the first time I'm going to dispute our use of the word "depth." Generally, it's accurate, but with this movie, I think it's basically impossible.
Chris: I can assure you I am doing a close examination of virtually every frame.
Matt: So here's what's crazy about this movie: It's about as low-rent and Cinemaxy (yet also PG-13) as you could imagine. Of the five or six bits of trivia IMDb has about it, the only interesting one is that "40 bikinis were ruined during the making of this film." Take that however you wish. But it was also directed by f**king Corey Yuen, a seriously awesome fight choreographer who also worked on some of Jet Li's best movies. The cognitive dissonance is astounding.
Chris: I'm actually a pretty big fan of DOA as a game, but I have somehow never actually seen this movie before, and I saw House of the Dead in the theater on opening night. Just watching it right now, though, I do think it has a pretty appealing visual style - beyond the obvious, I mean. As cheap as it looks (and it does look pretty cheap), it's also bright, colorful and poppy in a way I really like.
Matt: Yuen's a good action director -- he helmed the first Transporter movie, too -- and he's got a list of kung-fu movie credits from his acting days that's as long as your arm. Dude knows his stuff. This is also, notably, the last movie he has made in about seven years.
Chris: He obviously didn't want to improve upon perfection. In its original form, DOA is actually one of the more solid fighting games out there, especially in how distinctive each character's fighting style is. That's something a lot of games go for, but DOA does it really well, and the same goes for being able to move around the stage in three dimensions while still playing like a 2D fighter. Soul Calibur does that, too, but, you know, Soul Calibur is also terrible. Its main selling point, however, is... uh... "physics."
Matt: Right. For those unfamiliar with the Dead or Alive series, it's the one that was so well-known for how jiggly its female combatants were that it spawned an extraordinarily cheesecakey volleyball game (that I do understand from my friends who played a ton of it) that also did a reasonable job of replicating volleyball. I've never been a huge fan of the DOA series, mainly because I've just never gotten into any 3D fighting game series. The first Soul Calibur game on the Dreamcast was pretty good. That's about all I've got there.
Chris: The volleyball game is actually surprisingly fun, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't completely rooted in pure exploitation, if an oddly wholesome version. The main games are built around a fighting tournament (sound familiar?), and while it adds in a little bit of plot, the movie does a pretty solid job of projecting it against a fighting tournament involving sexy ladies in very little clothing. It might be the most faithful video game adaptation of all time.
Matt: And yet again, the person we may have to thank for that is Paul W.S. Anderson, the director of Mortal Kombat. He produced this film. Guy knows what he likes.
Chris: This is probably the most background we have ever done for the least amount of plot. Ready to get on with it?
Matt: Let's get to it.
Chris: We kick things off by zooming in on a hidden ninja headquarters on top of a mountain in Japan, and I'm going to go ahead and say it: This is going to turn out to be maybe the best opening sequence of all time.
Matt: Let's also be clear about the level of production value we're getting right off the bat. This ninja headquarters. It's got a certain...unreality about it.
Chris: It's like the opening cutscene of a video game. Right down to the acting.
Matt: I was about to say. The dialogue, the way Devon Aoki (as Princess Kasumi) and Kane Kosugi (as Ninja Gaiden's Ryu Hyabusa himself) deliver that dialogue, the way it's shot, the ample CGI in the establishing shot. "Video game movie" should maybe be transposed to be "movie video game."
Chris: Right away, we have CONFLICT! Kasumi wants to leave, but if she does, she will be declared shinobi (which I believe is just another word for ninja) and so the purple-haired Ayane (Natassia Malthe) will have to kill her.
Matt: And just why is Kasumi so mad, as she and Hyabusa (her brother's best friend, because he says, "As your brother's best friend...") inelegantly state? She doesn't believe her brother is really dead, and wants to see proof for herself. Before she can leave, though, a bunch of guards form a ring so she and Ayane can fight. Kasumi says no thanks, though, and throws her sword at a wall, runs on the backs of a bunch of guards, jumps over the wall and then...maybe you should explain what happens next, Chris.
Chris: It's worth noting that up to this point, the entire thing has been very self-consciously patterned after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with these very formalized statements of emotions, classic-style wire-work running through the air, and big, sweeping music. Then Kasumi bounces off a sword so she can jump over a wall and rips her kimono off to reveal shorts and a tank top, and her backpack turns into a hang glider.
Chris: It. Is. Awesome.
Matt: Then. THEN. There are a bunch of quick cuts reminding the audience of what JUST HAPPENED, almost like in the form of comic panels. Then Kasumi catches a sort of Batarang thing in midair that doubles as an invitation to the DOA tournament. I'll say this for it: It's concise storytelling.
Chris: Everything is so super serious and then suddenly it's sexy mid-air hang-glider backpack time with guitars and batarang invitations flying around at the top of a secret ninja mountain. It really does feel like Yuen is letting us know he's in on the joke.
Matt: Before you know it, we're introduced (and by that I mean, we get a lengthy shot of her emerging out of the ocean in a bikini) to Tina (Jamie Pressley), who, if you couldn't tell by her bikini top, her yacht, and the fact that her dad is trying to talk her into going back to Des Moines to wrestle, is American.
Chris: Tina's motivation is that she wants to be taken seriously as a fighter, which is a lot like Johnny Cage from our last movie, except that her background as a pro wrestler means that actually makes sense. Also adding to the bizarre low-budget surreality of this movie: She's drinking PBRs with the logos covered up in blue tape. It's so weird.
Matt: She can afford a million-dollar yacht, but she has to drink cheap hipster beer. Whatever would the pirates who try to steal her boat from her think if they knew?
Chris: Pressly is essentially playing a slightly more respectable version of her character from My Name Is Earl, but with more martial arts. It's... kind of perfect? She beats up a bunch of pirates who, for some reason, declare that they won't be using their assault rifles even when she's brutally kicking them in the face, and gets her shuriken invitation to the tournament. Then we move on to Christie (Holly Valance), for the most over the top scene yet.
Matt: Gratuitous shower scene? Check. Police interrogation in a towel? Check. The "Can I at least get dressed first?" seduction leading into beating all the cops up using said towel? Check. There's also this crazy moment where the main detective -- an American guy who somehow reached a high rank in the Hong Kong PD because, you know, who cares -- searches Christie's suitcase and it has a hidden compartment that is seriously 90 percent of the suitcase.
Chris: My favorite thing about this scene is that Christie emerges from the shower naked, but in full makeup. The half-naked fight scene comes in at a pretty hilarious second, though. The shot of a gun and a bra flying through the air in slow motion might be the best thing that has ever happened -- or at the very least, the most concise summary of the action movie genre ever.
Matt: It's so silly, but it also gives Yuen a chance to shine a bit as a director, juggling not only a fight scene itself, but making sure the necessary stuff is in the necessary places to make everything stay PG-13.
Chris: At one point, she whips a guy (who is holding a submachine gun) with her towel, and he recoils like he's been shot in the face. It's fantastic.
Matt: Then, Christie follows a guy into the hotel elevator, steals his coat and hat, and stuffs him in a suitcase. It doesn't happen on-screen; it just cuts from then in the elevator to a suitcase moving around and groaning. This is some Daffy Duck s**t right here.
Chris: Equally Daffyesque: She is completely unrecognizable in the guy's trench coat and floppy hat. She gets her shuriken invitation while sexily straddling a motorcycle, and sadly, this is the last "Invitation" scene we're going to get. Much like the various RoboCops 2 in RoboCop 2, these are sequences I could seriously watch all day.
Matt: I could do an entire one of these reviews about that one scene in RoboCop 2.
Chris: We cut briefly back to Ninja HQ to watch Ayane cleaning her sword and getting the order to kill Kasumi, then it's another quick cut to a plane where we're welcomed to "the world's greatest Martial Arts Tournament" from young rollerblading enthusiast Helena (Sarah Carter). This, I think, is the first big departure from the games, where Helena was an opera singer.
Matt: Hyabusa's pretty different, too, given that in the games he is literally Ryu Hyabusa from Ninja Gaiden. Also very different? Zack, who we see flirting with Tina on the plane (right in front of her dad Kevin Nash!). Somehow, some way, Zack is played by Brian J. White and NOT Dennis Rodman. Are you telling me Dennis Rodman was too busy to come play this character that not only was designed directly after him, but that he ACTUALLY VOICED in the beach volleyball game?
Chris: Along the same lines, I'm really surprised that Bass, who was straight up based on Hulk Hogan, is played by Kevin Nash and not Hulk Hogan. I mean, this is 2006. You have to think they probably could've gotten Hogan, but I guess he was busy with his return to WWE at the time. He's even wearing the bandanna with a blonde wig underneath!
Matt: Faulty casting aside (and we do have Eric Roberts to look forward to), the plane ride provides the opportunity to quickly and clunkily establish some relationships: Kasumi is mad Hyabusa is joining the tournament, and Christie's partner in crime Max (Matthew Marsden, no relation to Cyclops, even though he looks a lot like him) is on the receiving end of some threats.
Chris: After we get those quick connections, Helena and her bikini pop back up on the plane's TV to tell everyone that they have to get to "DOA Island" by jumping out of the plane and parachuting down. This seems like a pretty odd requirement for a martial arts tournament, but it is pretty exciting. Everyone grabs a parachute and jumps out, following a brief conversation between Hayabusa and Kasumi at the open door of the plane. Despite a shaking camera and windy sound effects, Yuen apparently forgot to provide a fan that would blow their hair at all.
Matt: It's all very green-screeny, almost kind of charmingly so.
Chris: Everyone lands, but there's an additional challenge: They have to get to the main compound by sundown or else they're disqualified. So, after a brief bit of trash-talking, our three main ladies decide to team up and toss each other around like cheerleaders in order to make the deadline. And now... it's Eric Roberts time.
Matt: The scene where the three leads climb up a big tower goes on basically forever. It kind of reeks of padding this thing out to feature length. But, finally, yeah! Eric Roberts! All coiffed out as Dr. Victor Donovan, the host of the tournament. He doesn't get to do very much here, but it's nice to know he's there.
Chris: Waiting, eager to chew any scenery that may become available to him. He outlines how the tournament's going to work, including some stuff about how it was specified in Helena's father's will, and how she'll be competing because she just turned 21. That's kind of an odd thing to put in your will, right? "Upon her 21st birthday, my beloved daughter shall host and fight in a martial arts tournament called Dead Or Alive." Especially when her interests up to this point seem to be confined to rollerblading.
Matt: And moderate TV hosting. Up next, all the characters go through Comedy Physicals, which reach the level of mildly amusing but also feel a whole lot like padding.
Chris: See, I didn't think it was padding at all. I thought it was just another chance to show everybody in their underpants, which seems to be the actual stated purpose of the movie.
Matt: Fair point. One happy viewer, particularly of Helena's physical, is Donovan's henchman Weatherby (Steve Howey). Donovan comes in to see him and they both skeeve out while the doctors inject the combatants with tracking devices. Seems legit.
Chris: Weatherby's breathy "they look... really good" followed by Eric Roberts grinning his way through "I was impressed by her... musculature" pretty much drops these dudes straight into the 100% Super Creep Category. I like how this movie went over the top with that, too, in order to distinguish it from, you know, the regular, baseline level creeping that the people watching the movie were doing.
Matt: It's this close to being a Funny Games thing, where they both look directly into the camera and say, "Hey, guess what? We're you."
Chris: After some shots of the competitors doing some training (which includes Helena just rollerblading around in a bikini, because this movie is dedicated to its purpose), the tournament finally begins. There's an interesting gimmick here where the fights happen at any time and the fighters are tasked to find their opponents, and we get some straight-from-the-video-game fight scenes. They even have the same announcer!
Chris: There are even life bars.
Matt: Eric Roberts and the movie's explanation for all this being in here is basically, "you know, computers."
Chris: Weatherby is pretty stoked about Helena's performance, although it's not really made clear whether that's because she's doing well in the tournament, or because she's wearing a miniskirt and doing the splits a lot.
Matt: All the characters the movie took any trouble to introduce (and a couple other guys) win their first-round matches. Then Kasumi takes a minute to remember a time she was kidnapped and her brother killed a bunch of guys just before HE got invited to the tournament. I guess it's lucky she got an invitation or she'd be SOL when it came to the whole finding her brother thing, huh?
Chris: She has a conversation with Eric Roberts about how Leon kicked her brother off a cliff (a fight you can actually replicate on your very own XBox), and then takes a bath.
Chris: This movie, you guys.
Matt: Eric Roberts says brother Hayate "fell from this very balcony" like it was an unpredictable accident and he and his goons didn't set up a fight ring right next to a huge cliffside. Also, that bath? It's not just a bath. It's a bath full of rose petals. Sad Kasumi isn't so sad she can't enjoy luxury.
Chris: Kasumi tells Hayabusa that Eric Roberts is lying, but she provides no reason or evidence for this beyond "He said Leon killed him." Are we to assume that she just has a very dim view of Leon's fighting skills?
Matt: To be fair, Leon does not look like the most agile guy. Hyabusa also warns Kasumi that Ayane is there to kill her, and asks her to go back and be the leader of her people again, even though I thought it was pretty well established from the very first line of dialogue that she can't go back.
Chris: Along the same lines, Christie and Max hook up and totally start making out, even though the last time we saw these two interacting, Christie had a death grip on his testicles and was very upset about being left to have a naked fight with the Hong Kong PD. After that, Tina rebukes Zack's advances in the hot tub, until we finally go back to Eric Roberts and his Computer Voyeur Lair.
Matt: Christie and Max, by the way, hatch a plan to rob Eric Roberts of $100 million. Be careful, guys. He don't shiv. These scenes have a "porno with the sex cut out" air to them, and I say that in the most complimentary way.
Chris: Eric Roberts decides to match Kasumi up with Leon to "see how she compares to her brother," but before that fight can start, Ayane busts through Kasumi's mirror. Because... symbolism?
Matt: A symbol of... CGI mirrors? That Kasumi and Ayane are similar because they fight people? We're probably overthinking this. Anyway, Leon comes lumbering to tear up the furniture in and Ayane ducks out. The fight intrudes on Christie and Max's pillow talk, then ends Zack and Tina's one-sided flirting. Tina takes off Zack's swimming trunks, tells him to close his eyes, then leaves as Kasumi kicks Leon into the hot tub. How exactly did Tina know that was gonna happen? Has this been pre-determined? Did she really go back to wrestling after all?
Chris: The absolute best part of this fight is the moment when Leon flexes his arms, and they add in the sound of guns being cocked. Matt, I think I love this movie.
Matt: As a collection of little, amusing moments, it's a delight. As a movie...well, the next scene is Kevin Nash (who has been matched up with Tina for a fight) bursting in on his daughter sleeping in a bed with Christie and assuming they're lesbians. As amusing as the "Christie? Tina's full name is CHRIS-Tina!" line is, there is some TGIF-level sitcom misunderstanding comedy going on.
Chris: Bass is very supportive! It's heartwarming!
Matt: There's also a line about how Christie sleeps in the nude, then Tina kicks her out of bed and she's got underwear on. I understand why she had to, but it makes that line really confusing. This movie's kind of the definition of "fun, but really, don't think about it."
Chris: I'm pretty sure the line about sleeping in the nude is just to further embarrass Tina, but it does make it weird that Christie keeps the bedspread pulled up to her chin the whole time. Anyway, our next scene features Weatherby complaining about how Max isn't really a "DOA fighter" (which I think is like being an "Impact Wrestler") and sending Bayman to go beat him up for flirting with Helena. Max, who isn't in the games, wins handily.
Matt: He wins by America's Funniest Home Videosing Bayman. That is the only way I can describe it.
Chris: In the next scene, we finally get our promised Kevin Nash/Jamie Pressly fight, but first, it's another wacky misunderstanding as he shows up to find Kasumi giving Tina some acupuncture.
Matt: You have to admire how almost innocently dumb the humor in this movie is, but it's kind of getting to the point of half-endearing, half-annoying. Tina makes a rule that whoever falls in the lake where they're hanging out loses. Some generic, royalty-free dance country starts up, and Tina eventually wins. Bass encourages her with a thumbs-up. In its way, it is kind of sweet.
Chris: There's also a great bit where Bass jumps on the raft and catapults Kasumi up to the top of a nearby waterwheel, where she just casually lands and starts walking, because ninja.
Matt: But like, comedy ninja? Maybe part of the humor in this seeming so almost kids-show-like is that that's kind of the way Hong Kong comedies are. A lot of the gags remind me of a diluted Stephen Chow. Not anywhere near that level, but the same tone.
Chris: From there, we move - and I am not kidding about this at all - to bikini beach volleyball. Like, a full-on volleyball scene, intercut with Hayabusa running around Ninja Gaiden-ing people. I seriously think this might replace Surviving Edged Weapons as my favorite film.
Matt: They've got scorecards and stuff all made up for this spontaneous game of beach volleyball? Zack has a PA system!
Chris: I guess it's rec day on DOA Island? Which also has a large population of people who either live or vacation there? But still, they go out of their way to justify it by having Hayabusa ask Kasumi to distract Eric Roberts with sexy volleyball while he goes and looks around his office. Which, incidentally, is insane because Christie and Helena celebrating their spikes are intercut with Hayabusa straight up snapping dudes' necks!
Matt: I am glad Hayabusa got to do some Ninja Gaidening, even if he wasn't in South America fighting a demon cult. Or wearing a mask, even. One weird detail: The volleyball is almost entirely CGI. So these actresses clearly did some fight training, but practicing volleyball? A bridge too far.
Chris: I'm pretty sure they could've just shot these four ladies playing volleyball for a while and gotten some usable footage, but maybe they were pressed for time. Right as Kasumi is about to serve the match point, a shuriken comes through the air and pops the volleyball, which made me laugh so hard there were tears in my eyes. Kasumi's reaction, a startled "I MUST GO." is the cherry on top.
Matt: "THIS VOLLEYBALL... IS MY BROTHER"
Chris: I feel like every kung fu movie I've watched that didn't have sexy beach volleyball before an emotional revelation is now revealed for the bulls**t that it is.
Matt: If only the volleyball really did have the soul of her brother in it. THEN I'd be with you on the favorite movie thing. The actual reveal is that Ayane threw that shuriken all the way from a bamboo forest, where she and Kasumi fight it out for a bit and talk about how they both care for Hayate before Kasumi disarms her with this crazy sliced-up bamboo move and Ayane runs away.
Chris: The only real casualty of the fight is the silk robe Kasumi was wearing over her bikini. With that, we have reached the halfway point of the movie, and I honestly have no idea what more we can expect. I mean, we've gotten sexy volleyball, two separate gags about Tina maybe being a lesbian, and Kevin Nash has been eliminated from the tournament.
Matt: The only other thing we could use is a plot.
Chris: It would just get in the way, my friend. Join us next week as we see how it all works out!