Dragonball Evolution (2009)

Rating: **
Review Date: 4/18/09
Producer: Stephen Chow
Director: James Wong
Music: Brian Tyler
Cast: Justin Chatwin, Chow Yun Fat, Emmy Rossum, Jamie Chung, James Marsters, Eriko Tamura, Joon Park, cameo by Ernie Hudson

Yet another live action adaptation of Akira Toriyama's beloved "Dragon Ball" series, only this one is ten years too late for anyone to care. It's a curious interpretation that throws out almost all of the fantasy elements and tries to put things in a contemporary, although slightly futuristic setting. That, and most of the characters are American. Goku (Justin Chatwin) is a teenage loner learning martial arts from his wise old grandfather. On his 18th birthday, he receives a mystical dragon ball from his grandfather, and is told that there are only seven in existence. Legend has it that bringing the seven balls together can summon the eternal dragon, who will grant that person one wish. Conveniently, as soon as Goku has the dragon ball, evil forces want to snatch it away from him. The evil warlord Piccolo (James Marsters) has broken out of his 2000 year confinement and wishes to lay waste to the Earth, but he needs the dragon balls to do so. Goku ultimately befriends gun-toting techno-geek Bulma (Emmy Rossum doing her best Jennifer Garner impersonation), kung fu cutie Chi-Chi (Jamie Chung), Yamcha the desert bandit (Joon Park), and the eccentric master Roshi (Chow Yun Fat) in his quest to find the dragon balls before Piccolo does.

Yes, it's a silly, stupid, incoherent mess and the source material is barely recognizable, and yet, I found it thoroughly entertaining. It has all of the innocent charm, kinetic energy, and awkward sexuality of the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" (1995), and is just a lot of fun. Sure, it doesn't make any sense, but the characters never question the bizarre world that they live in, which invites the audience to do the same. Thankfully, the characters are played straight and extremely seriously, even though there's never any sense of real physical danger or deep psychological trauma. It's light-hearted mystical kung fu action, and as a result, it perfectly hits the sweet spot of an eleven year old boy's imagination.

I had exceedingly low expectations for the film, and was pleasantly surprised. Justin Chatwin holds his own fairly well and is not nearly as annoying as I thought he would be. The requisite teen angst angle is mercifully brief, allowing him to be more reflective and focus on his training rather than wallow in adolescent isolation. His love interest, Chi Chi (Jamie Chung), is a mixed bag. Half seductive temptress and half kung fu bitch, she's the only one in the film who can throw a convincing punch or kick. Her over-exuberance can be sickeningly sweet and her enormous smile is like a spotlight cutting through a dense fog, but she's also capable of throwing menacing glares and can be fiercely intense when she needs to be. The film's casting is very odd, especially in the case of Hong Kong superstar Chow Yun Fat as Master Roshi and Joon Park as Yamcha. Park is just plain bad, while Chow just seems woefully out of place. The first thing to remember is that not every Chow Yun Fat character is Tequila from "Hard-Boiled" (1992) and that he has a fair share of silly and embarrassing roles on his HK resumé. That said, it becomes easier to accept him in this kind of film, but he's simply not the short, fat, old, bald, bearded, dirty minded pervert from the original manga. The film plays to his lecherous tendencies a couple of times, and then quickly moves on. Like most of the film, they briefly introduce what's familiar and throw the fans a couple of bones, then go in a completely different direction. And then there's Bulma... She's a physicist and tactical weapons expert rather than the air-headed bimbo from the original series, and her look and presentation are completely different. While I don't think Emmy Rossum is very attractive and her delivery is both forced and flat, there's something about her that fascinates me and I couldn't take my eyes off of her. The only thing I can think of is the juxtaposition of her insanely cool hair with her bitchy attitude and a blank expression that only seems to convey disgust and completely detached disinterest. The fact that she handles a gun well and has a plunging neckline probably doesn't hurt.

The production values are decent, and the pretty visual effects create a rich, colorful, and attractive world. On the other hand, the fight choreography is terrible, which is really unfortunate for a film that uses kung fu as its central selling point. While some of the acrobatic stunts are impressive, the gratuitous wirework is some of the worst I've ever seen, and the editing makes a mess of what the combatants are actually doing. Again, Jamie Chung looks like she's the only one in the cast who knows what she's doing, and the camera spends more time on her than the other characters. Fortunately, even though the fighting isn't very good, the characters do strike some pretty cool anime inspired poses to make up for it. The writing is pretty poor, but thankfully avoids goofy humor and banal dialog. One of the brighter highlights of the film is Brian Tyler's dramatic music score, which was also the best thing about "Bangkok Dangerous" (2008). His work continues to impress. Unfortunately, Ayumi Hamasaki's "Rule" is NOT on the soundtrack CD, so you have to track that down from your favorite Japanese import store.

Hearing Ayumi during the end credits was a huge surprise, as well as seeing Hong Kong funnyman Stephen Chow as the producer of the film. Even though the film doesn't do justice to the source material, it's clear that the filmmakers are fans who appreciate Asian cinema and recognize the benefits of cross-cultural cooperation. Ultimately, while "Dragonball Evolution" isn't a particularly good movie, it's hard not to enjoy its youthful energy, uplifting spirit, and imaginative charm.