The first time this is uttered early in Takashi Miike’s Ace Attorney feels like a shot of pure adrenaline for fans of the video game series on which the movie is based. Rookie defense attorney Phoenix Wright (Hiroki Narimiya), looking to gain an early foothold in what’s only his second-ever case, immediately goes on the offensive, convinced the evidence he’s about to present will expose a glaring, crucial contradiction in a piece of witness testimony.
It’s the sheer brio with which the phrase is delivered that makes it so exhilarating: the sudden upsurge in volume that jolts even Wright’s own client; the unapologetic extra-ness of the iconic finger point; the volcanic aggression with which Wright then slams his desk and hurls a holographic screen at the unsuspecting police detective on the witness stand.
It’s all so delightfully unnecessary, so wonderfully extraneous — so Phoenix Wright, if you will. And in being those things, it’s the ultimate statement of intent, announcing the movie’s willingness to launch itself headfirst into the unbridled theatrics of the video games. What makes the moment feel even truer to the source material is that we barely even have time to register this apparently triumphant peak before we’re plummeting deep into a valley. Wright goes from believing he’s struck a devastating blow to the prosecution’s case to being on the back foot and on the brink of crushing defeat in what feels like the space of a millisecond. Soon he’s crumpled helplessly over his desk, desperately scrambling for something — anything — that might somehow save him and his client.
That sense of emotional whiplash is exactly what fans of the Ace Attorney games would expect and demand from a movie adaptation — these are, after all, games all about impossible turnabouts, the violent swings in fortune that see you careening from euphoric highs to depressing lows, certain victory to certain defeat and back again, with the snap of a finger or the banging of a gavel. The movie oscillates at a relentless pace that might feel totally destabilizing to Ace Attorney newcomers, but feels warmly familiar to those who’ve ever set foot in the game’s courtroom, with its ever-escalating sense of urgency that comes with constantly being on the precipice of humiliation.
On a tonal level, Ace Attorney nails the brief, leaning into the anarchic entropy of the games rather than tempering it, unafraid of alienating entire demographics who might be put off by the stylistic excess or topsy-turvy narratives. Miike parades the chaos front and center: The world of his movie is, like the world of the games, one in which people pull megaphones out of thin air, pet parrots are put on the witness stand, ghosts of dead attorneys outshine their living counterparts, and everyone boasts a hairdo beamed from another galaxy. There’s a perfect balance here between the source material and the creative impulses of the director that very few adaptations manage to strike. Miike rises to meet the energy of the games, punctuating the movie’s aesthetic with sparkling stylistic flourishes: split screens, dolly zooms, and a hell sequence straight out of Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku.
The issue with a feature-length adaptation of the games becomes less about tone, then, and more about the sheer scope of the beast, the overwhelming volume of the visual novel narrative. That mass of pure story is crucial to the gaming experience, in that it allows the player to decompress after straining to the point of an aneurysm through the brutal duels and cross-examinations in the courtroom. There’s a substantial amount of leisurely investigation time in the games that makes for a nice change of pace as you gather evidence and dig deeper into the inner lives of the characters, perhaps more suitable for a longer televisual format than for the big screen (although the anime series based on the games was far from well received).
By necessity, then, Miike’s movie aggressively whittles down the sprawl of the first game in the series, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, picking the best bits from three of its five episodes and condensing them into something much leaner, more wieldy, and more focused in its endeavor to bludgeon you into submission with absurdism. There are casualties in this process: Bereft of its original connective tissue, the plotting can feel a little perfunctory at times, the structure a little slipshod. There are character details, too, that are sacrificed, most notably in the case of Maya Fey (Mirei Kiritani), Wright’s spirit medium assistant: A nuclear bundle of endearing tics and quirks in the games, her brimming personality is practically nonexistent in the movie, reduced to a mere shell with psychic abilities. Miles Edgeworth (Takumi Saitoh), Wright’s childhood friend and courtroom rival, also feels tragically divested of many of the shades and wrinkles that make him such a compelling figure in the games, flatter and less morally complex.
Still, the broad strokes are drawn well enough to make the drama feel personal, and it’s a testament to just how perfectly Miike captures the essence of the game’s courtroom sequences that these omissions feel more like nitpicks rather than deal-breakers. What the movie understands intimately is that one of the great pleasures of the games is simply playing as a guy who’s kind of terrible at his job. There’s something uniquely delightful about stepping into the shoes of Phoenix Wright — a novice who never really gets any better at what he does as time goes on — as he helplessly flails around, presenting random objects from his pockets to the judge and jury in search of some moment of idiotic epiphany that somehow always ends up coming to him.
Never fully in control of any situation, Wright perpetually straddles the line between accidental genius and criminal incompetence, unfailingly reliant on some sort of minor miracle to bail him out of seemingly impossible situations — whether it’s salvation in the form of a psychic message from his dead mentor, his bonehead detective friend arriving at the eleventh hour with game-changing evidence, or someone yelling for the trial to be prolonged for some ludicrous reason or another. He’s a spectator to fate, a kite in a storm, and Miike depicts this passivity by having his camera swirl around Wright in claustrophobic close-ups as he claws at the piles of court documents in front of him, perfectly replicating the gameplay experience of trawling through a labyrinth of opaque information during a cross-examination. Just look as well at how Wright constantly shifts in and out of focus as he spasms with discomfort, while his opponents, paragons of prosecutorial composure, occupy stable, sturdy compositions.
Prominent in those compositions is the anticipating audience in the courtroom, an amusing feature of the games that Miike takes palpable delight in amplifying with his typical hyperbolic streak. The world of Miike’s Ace Attorney is a world in which a trial is less about whittling down information to excavate truth and justice than it is about the gladiatorial spectacle of watching two competitors pummeling the life out of each other. To be a lawyer in this world is to participate in a bloodsport for the public to whoop and holler at, baying for more action with every twist and turn. The movie’s reaction shots are huge to the point of hilarity, replete with visual comedy as the entire crowd responds in unison to events unfolding: leaning in to hear crucial information, staring in befuddlement at increasingly bizarre witnesses, and keeling over in seismic disbelief at an asinine statement.
There’s a wonderful physicality to the movie that feels very much true to the world of the games, in which characters exist perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown, trembling with latent anxiety before erupting in spectacular paroxysms. It’s a world that can only be embodied with intense commitment, and Miike’s performers are more than up to the task, throwing themselves with reckless abandon into the madness of the script. Watching Narimiya as Wright and Akiyoshi Nakao as Wright’s friend Larry Butz in particular, as they contort their faces and fling their bodies around in Chaplinesque fashion and relishing every movement as they wage all-out warfare on the very concept of subtlety, feels like exactly the sort of thing for which movies were invented in the first place.
The visual choice to have the characters catapulting giant holographic screens at each other is a magical touch, too, evoking the practically visceral sensation of triumph you get from the game when the evidence you present lands a devastating blow to the prosecution’s argument. If anything, Miike’s movie feels less like a legal drama and more like a hybrid between a Howard Hawks screwball comedy, with its ricocheting mayhem and frisson, and a boxing movie, with its savage athleticism — less A Few Good Men and more His Girl Friday meets Rocky.
The joy oozing from Miike’s actors as they furiously shout and gesticulate their way through scene after scene of attritional courtroom combat is palpable, and it’s matched by the joy that radiates from Miike himself as he puts it all together. It’s that spirit, the unapologetic glee of it all, that makes Miike’s Ace Attorney feel so singular. It’s a rare and precious thing to be watching a movie and feeling as if its makers were having just as much fun as you are. To be riotously entertaining from first frame to last would be enough, but Ace Attorney fills us with an even more profound sensation of collective ecstasy that only a special movie, the gold standard for movies of its kind, could possibly achieve.
Ace Attorney is available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, and YouTube.