Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Double Dragon (1994)

I will never forget the day I got a Nintendo Entertainment System.  The actual year escapes me, but it was Christmas day.  I got the bundle that came with the game Super Mario Bros, but my parents also got me the game Trojan to go with it (a game which to this day I have a great fondness for).  Naturally, everything had to stop while I pulled out my tiny black-and-white television and went through not a small amount of hair-pulling to get the thing set-up correctly (it was the first time I would struggle with the heartache of connecting electronics together but would by no means be the last).  If memory serves, I think I beat Trojan within a day or two.  Super Mario Bros took a while longer.  

The thing about my Nintendo (and I think I speak for a great many who owned one at the time) is that it finally gave video game players an actual story and characters (minimal as some were) to play along with and follow.  The only other place you could get that was at your local arcade, but I certainly wasn’t rich enough to sink all my money into those quarter eaters.  Besides, the games I wanted to play most were usually hogged by some jerk who had more coins lined up for future plays than I had patience to wait out (you know these guys, they’re probably CEOs somewhere today).  Plus, the games on early home systems (like, say, the Odyssey2 I had) were little more than time killers.  Games like Alien Invaders - Plus (a Space Invaders ripoff),  KC Munchkin (a Pac-Man ripoff), and Pick-Axe Pete (which my brothers lovingly referred to as Pick-Ass Pete) were primitive and consisted of doing the same action over and over again in settings which varied only slightly.  So, being able to experience a great-looking story, in my own home, any time I wanted was as close to heaven as a kid could get.  Now the only thing I would have to get off my porcine ass for was to go to the bathroom (usually).    It took a lot more effort to beat the game Double Dragon than it did Trojan, and I can’t say the experience itself was markedly different.  But damn if it wasn’t more exciting than Pong.

There is a medallion which was split in half and given to two brothers (so the legend goes).  One half holds the power of the body, the other the power of the soul.  But together, they’re unstoppable and can unite the people (or somesuch garbage).  A group of black riders (why they wear these costumes is anyone’s guess), led by femme fatale Linda Lash (Kristina Wagner), attack some Buddhist monks and retrieve the soul half of the Double Dragon medallion.  They bring it back to Boss villain Koga Shugo (Robert Patrick, looking for all the world like Vanilla Ice with a sculpted goatee), but he needs both halves to take over New Angeles (did I forget to mention the film takes place in the future year 2007 after a massive earthquake decimated California’s coast?  Oops).  Meanwhile, brothers Jimmy and Billy Lee (Mark Dacascos and Scott Wolf, respectively) fight in and are subsequently booted from a martial arts tournament.  Who do you think is in possession of the body half of the medallion?  Three guesses.  No peeking.

James Yukich’s film shares very little with the game which inspired it.  It has some of the same characters, including love interest Marian (Alyssa Milano) and Abobo (Allen Nils Stewart pre-steroids, Henry Kingi post).  But aside from these two and having the brothers fight each other towards the end, that’s about all I can think of as far as the similarities.  The main bad guy has been changed from the Hell’s-Angel-With-A-Chaingun Willy to the slightly dandy-ish Shugo.  Plus, there are two new henchmen, Huey (Jeff Imada) and Lewis (Al Leong).  Get it?  The game is solely about finding the brothers’ mutual love Marian, and there are no medallions or other MacGuffins to be sought.  In the film, the love triangle is slanted toward Marian being with Billy from its very outset.  Marian herself is more of a presence in the movie.  Here, she leads a gang of do-gooders called the Power Corp (and their insistence on not adding an “S” to the end of “Corp” forces me to pronounce the “P” at the end, but that’s just my peccadillo).  She’s not merely a damsel in distress, and her family, in the form of Police Chief Delario (Leon Russom), is more entwined in the goings-on than our main characters’ family is.  

Setting the film in a post-apocalyptic future was definitely a smart move, though its execution is not quite as much.  The gangs and police have a tenuous truce that gives criminals free reign after dark, but the police restore order during daylight hours.  This is probably the most intriguing idea the filmmakers added, but it’s entirely tangential.  The game feels like a version of Walter Hills’s The Warriors, with its bizarre coterie of eccentrically dressed characters attacking the players as they fight their way through various settings.  In this film, we have gangs like the Mohawks and the Clowns to evoke the Baseball Furies and the Turnbull AC’s.  The costumes give the groups a bit of flavor but absolutely no personality.  They could have just as easily all been dressed in sweatsuits for how indistinct they are in their actions.  Another aspect of this future world is the fact that every building in New Angeles needs massive hydraulic jacks to keep them from falling down.  But again, nothing is done with this.  It’s just a bit of set dressing to explain the set designs and provide visual interest but little else.  Of course, practically everything in the future is toxic in some form or another, but aside from some light satire, this also goes nowhere.  This, combined with the “humorous” television news bits (prominently featured on Channel 69; Get it?), don’t add anything to the film.  These are ideas we’ve seen done before and done better.  They fall flat in Double Dragon, and instead of accenting the story, they simply lay there, like a pile of dirty underwear in the corner of a bedroom (not mine but some people’s, I’m sure).

No, the film doesn’t feel like the video game at all (and not that it necessarily should be slavish to its source), but would it have been better if it did?  If Billy and Jimmy had to traverse the deadly streets of New Angeles after dark, searching for a woman they both desire but know only one can have, it certainly would have been a stronger narrative than what we get.  That said, the approach of the film to the material is hamfisted and comes off largely like pandering to their imagined demographic.  The humor is sub-juvenile, and is typically set off by awkwardly shot and edited reaction inserts.  There is more mugging per foot of film than in any ten Bill Cosby concerts.  For a film ostensibly grouped in the Action genre, the action elements barely approach a level of excitement consistent with an episode of The Bugaloos.  The fight choreography is anything but dynamic, though I would suspect that was more in line with trying to do big action on a small budget with a cast not really known for their action chops.  That’s kind of a shame, because it deprives Dacascos, Leong, and Imada of showing off their martial talents to any great extent.  There are a couple of commendable makeup effects when the heroes are down in Shugo’s basement lab, but since the absurdly distended Abobo is given the most screen time, he’s the one that lingers in the viewer’s mind.  Seeing as how the former Mohawks leader is little more than a blockhead with a body made useless and ludicrous, he is ineffectual as either a villain or a heroic sidekick.  And like just about everything else in this movie, it didn’t have to be this poorly actualized.  But it is, and whether we choose to watch Double Dragon through an ironic filter or take it at face value, the fact remains; this film stinks.  Instead of watching it, I’d recommend playing the original video game.  That way, at least the frustration you feel can be overcome when you inevitably beat the final Boss as you’d like to beat this movie (to a pulp, that is).

MVT:  It’s crude and crass, I know, but the best thing about this film is Alyssa Milano and her thought-provoking outfit.  She also has a charm which no amount of filmic poop can squash apparently, and it’s evident throughout the film.  The lady can certainly hold your attention with both her body and her personality.

Make Or Break:  The Break comes in the theater scene.  During another flatly-staged fight, bloated Abobo makes his first appearance.  He is completely nonthreatening with his impractical anatomy, and this scene and the rest of the film bear out just how shoddy everything about him is.  He’s a walking cartoon, but not in the least bit a funny one.

Score:  3/10

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