There are balls of lint smarter than Dragonball Evolution, which opened today. But at the same time, it's an awesomely goofy slapstick action-comedy with acrobatic fight scenes, laser pistols and scenery-chewing. Here's our spoilery review.
How dumb is Dragonball? It's the kind of movie where the good guy and the bad guy are fighting, and the good guy pauses to look serious and say slowly, "I must believe... in... who.. I am." And the bad guy doesn't kick the good guy in the face while he's monologuing. It's the kind of movie where the good guy makes constipated faces over and over again, while he's trying to summon his ki energy. It's the kind of movie that makes absolutely no sense, if you pause to think about it for two seconds.
And yet, I enjoyed it a lot. Maybe I just succeeded in lowering expectations to a nadir this movie could soar over. Or maybe I just have a soft spot for a dumb action comedy. Either way, I found myself giggling a lot at this film, both during the funny parts and the serious parts.
In Dragonball Evolution, Goku (Justin Chatwin) is your pretty standard movie youngster, who doesn't fit in at school and gets bullied by the rich jocks. His grandpa has forbidden him to fight them - even though he could beat them with one hand tied behind his back, thanks to his super-awesome martial arts training. (I kept being reminded of the classic Motown martial-arts epic The Last Dragon, and hoping someone would say "Kiss my Converse.") But Goku is special, and meant for a greater destiny than high-school bullying. He soon falls afoul of the evil Piccolo (James Marsters), a nasty from outer space who's been imprisoned for 2,000 years after he nearly destroyed the world. Now Goku is racing to find the Dragonballs before Piccolo does, or Piccolo will destroy the world for sure this time.
The movie pretty much announces what sort of film it's going to be in the first few minutes. We see an obscene closeup of the sweat on Goku's face, and then an even tighter closeup of his nose as the sweat rolls off, and then Goku is play-fighting with his grandpa Gohan, on top of a pair of tightropes. Goku almost wins by knocking a fly into Gohan's mouth, so he swallows it, distracting him. But then Gohan wins with his ki power. The whole thing is seriously slapsticky and ridiculous and demented.
And it pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Chow Yun-Fat plays Master Roshi, the teacher who takes Goku under his wing, and apparently decides that there's no piece of dialogue he can't improve with eye-rolling and crazy cackling. Chow knows what kind of movie he's in, and his enjoyment is actually sort of contagious. He almost single-handedly turns the whole thing into a zany pantomime, punctuated with whizzy acrobatic fight scenes.
At times, it reminded me of a somewhat more coherent version of Dragon-Wars - another terrible movie that I loved - maybe just because of the attempt to cram tons of overly dense backstory and random characters into a short movie. And because of the way everybody just runs with all the nonsense. The main difference is, this is a martial-arts epic, so there are regular kick-boxing sequences.
So Goku has to learn to believe in himself and trust his feelings and so on, and meanwhile every time he touches the Dragonballs he gets apocalyptic visions of everything being destroyed. Just in case those visions aren't clear enough, the movie includes about a dozen scenes in which Gohan, Roshi and various other people repeat the same pieces of information over and over again, which isn't a bad thing if you're bringing small children to this film.
The other thing I really liked about this film was the two female heroes, Chi Chi and Bulma. They're just as one-dimensional as everyone else in the film, but they're at least vaguely empowered. Chi Chi is another martial-arts expert, and she actually gets to be one of the people who teaches important lessons to Goku once or twice. Meanwhile, Bulma may look like a club kid, but she's actually a PhD in awesome pseudoscience, who invents cool gadgets and totes a laser gun. (And she has the motorcycle that somehow collapses itself down to the size of a pebble, in a sequence cribbed from Transformers.)
The biggest problem with the film is the villain, Piccolo. I've read a hundred interviews lately where James Marsters explains all of the rich depth he put into playing this character... and none of it shows up on screen. Marsters, covered with makeup that would have been laughed off Star Trek: The Next Generation, struts around reciting ludicrous villain dialogue while Not Getting The Job Done. We don't even see that much of him, and he seems to be a bit of a pushover in the end.
The last twenty minutes or so of the film dissolves into mediocre CGI, but there's still enough slapsticky fighting and Chow Yun-Fat clowning to keep you awake. And by this point in the film, Justin Chatwin's dough-faced earnestness had started to win me over.
If you're going to see one mindless Joseph Campbell wank-chalice of a film about the Hero's Journey this month, you could do a lot worse than Dragonball. For one thing, the movie doesn't feel the need to put down its female characters to make the male hero look good. For another, it's pretty fun in parts, and you can tell Chow Yun-Fat was enjoying goofing off. And you'll enjoy making fun of its many flaws afterwards.