DOA: Dead or Alive
While some video games really do have a rich enough mythology or back story to serve as a decent foundation for a movie (Resident Evil, Silent Hill — even if you don’t think the movies were good, the games at least provided enough meat for the framework), many others do not. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from being made into movies anyway. Such is the case with DOA. As best I can gather, DOA started life as a fighting video game, with the hook that most of the characters were hot cartoon chicks with tiny outfits and huge breasts, and you could somehow set the jiggle rate on their boobs. Then somehow the DOA games became beach volleyball games, with the attraction being the same. Someone thought this was about all you needed for a movie plot, and so thousands of years of intellectual evolution and technological innovation has finally resulted in our ability to watch a movie with the plot, “bikini models play volleyball and fight.”
DOA the movie was directed by Hong Kong action director Cory Yuen, who has a track record that boasts more high points than low and who specializes in turning otherwise non-athletic women into believable on-screen kungfu bad-asses. Under his tutelage, Cynthia Rothrock, Joyce Godenzi, Michelle Yeoh, and Shannon Lee were all transformed into believable martial arts powerhouses (OK, Rothrock was already a kungfu powerhouse; he just figured out how best to choreograph her). And while Hsu Chi, Karen Mok, and Vicky Zhao may not have been 100% believable as ass-kicking superwomen, that doesn’t change the fact that Yuen’s So Close was completely awesome. Yuen is also one of the few Hong Kong directors to have a big hit as a director in the United States, that hit being the Luc Besson-produced The Transporter starring Jason Statham, who has never fought in a bikini but is never the less appreciated around these parts for his inability to keep his shirt on.
When news that there was going to be a DOA movie produced first hit cult film fandom, there was a lot of eye-rolling and “yeah, whatever, man” reaction. But when it was further revealed that Cory Yuen would be director, ears (among other things) pricked up and a lot of action film fans were suddenly a lot more willing to give the film a try, even if the inevitable PG-13 rating meant it would be all tease. If anyone was going to be able to direct a dumb fun “bikini models play volleyball and fight” movie, it would be Cory Yuen. So people waited. Trailers played, and the reaction was tentatively positive after the initial negative reaction. Sure, the movie looked colossally goofy, but it also looked like it would sport high energy and be sort of fun. And then the release date came and went, and there was no movie. DOA vanished, bumped from the release schedule and shelved for any number of reasons, the most likely of which was probably, “Wow, this movie is awful.” Which is a shame. I mean, how bad could the film possibly be? They released Pluto Nash, for crying out loud, and Epic Movie. And those had to be worse than DOA . Right?
DOA eventually began to trickle out to theaters in other countries, though it still remained absent from American theaters, and fans of Cory Yuen, action movies, video games, and bikinis started looking to foreign DVD releases to see the movie. Was it worth the wait? Or the trouble to see it? Yes and no. DOA is pretty much exactly what you would expect it to be from the elements listed above. It is dumb. Extremely dumb. It is full of cheap titillation and gratuitous bikini ass shots. The script is paper thin, and what little story there is makes no sense anyway. Most of the cast doesn’t even seem to realize they are supposed to be acting in a movie. The fight choreography, involving almost no trained martial artists, is heavy on editing, camera trickery, and computer manipulation.
But Eric Roberts wears magic kungfu sunglasses. So…
The plot revolves around a group of women invited to compete in a semi-secret martial arts tournament where, of course, shady shenanigans are being engaged in behind the scenes. Enter the Dragon‘s plot has proved useful so many times, the writers of this film decided there was no reason not to dust it off once more. First we meet Katsumi, head of a ninja clan with a massive temple complex you would think someone in modern-day Japan would notice. Katsumi’s brother disappeared during the last tournament, presumed dead, and she is determined to uncover the truth behind his disappearance, even if it means violating the laws of her clan. She leaves for the tournament with two more ninjas in hot pursuit: the noble Hayabusa, who has a thing for Katsumi, and the vengeful Ayane, herself the former lover of Katsumi’s brother. Katsumi is played by the indescribable Devon Aoki, whose continued presence in the world of cinema is one of the great mysteries of the entertainment world. She’s a horrible actress, completely incapable of anything beyond a single blank expression and a single, monotone style of dialog delivery. OK, credit where credit is due. She’s actually much more animated than usual in Fast & Furious 2, but beyond that she handles herself with the seeming belief that to have any expression on her face would cause it to shatter. And yet, I don’t know. Over the years, I’ve sort of grown to appreciate her.
Accompanying her, Hayabusa is played by none other than Kane Kosugi, son of the legendary (to me, anyway) Sho Kosugi and a performer who makes Devon Aoki seem positively histrionic. Sho, of course, starred in many of the best ninja exploitation films of the 1980s and then went on to host Ninja Theater and release a ninja exercise video in which he was accompanied by scantily-clad Ninjettes. One gets the feeling that Sho probably appreciates DOA. Kane started his acting career alongside his dad, always playing the son of whatever ninja guy Sho was playing at the time. Kane never developed much in the way of an American acting career, but he clicked in Japan and managed to forge a pretty consistent string of jobs, including a role in a Japanese sentai television series (those superhero shows that get turned into the Power Rangers in the United states), a role in one of those crappy new Ultraman shows, and more recently one of the leads in Godzilla: Final Wars (even though the lead role should have gone to Godzilla). He does handle action scenes well, which is generally all he’s expected to do. As he gets older, he is looking a lot like his father, so much so that I’m beginning to wonder if Kane isn’t Sho Kosugi, his revitalized youth the result of some esoteric ninja ritual. Oh sure, you say, but what about all those times Sho and Kane appeared alongside one another? Well, yeah. Maybe — or maybe they just told us that was Kane Kosugi. Honestly, they could have hired any kid.
Anyway, Hayabusa is along for the ride, trying to convince Katsumi that she should return home while also helping her out with her investigation. Ayane is a little more hostile. Despite her love for Katsumi’s missing brother, Ayane holds clan law more important, and clan law dictates that when Katsumi abandoned her post as leader, she was marked for death. Ayane is played by Natassia Malthe, who has a string of cult film credits to her name but is probably most recognizable, to people who might recognize such an actress, for her role as Typhoid in Elektra or for her turn in the title role in the sequel to video game based movie Bloodrayne. I may be one of the few people in the world who would think, “Elektra and Bloodrayne II? Sounds good to me!”
Second on the list of DOA combatants is Tina Armstrong, played by Jamie Pressly of My Name is Earl fame. Pressly is pretty much the only person who showed up to this film with the intention of acting, and she steals the movie (no impressive feat, mind you) as a pro wrestler looking for the opportunity to prove she’s a genuine fighter. The film introduces us to her as she reclines aboard her yacht while wearing an American flag motif bikini, stirred out of her sunbathing just long enough to beat the snot out of a bunch of pirates (lead by none other than Robin Shou, former star of such movies as Mortal Kombat, and, umm, well, just that and Mortal Kombat II, really). When our founding fathers first set forth the basic premise of this great land of ours, I’m sure that they could conjure up no greater symbol of American awesomeness than a woman in an American flag motif bikini beating up pirates. OK, maybe Thomas Jefferson would disagree. But whatever. Fuckin’ Jefferson. Ask Ben Franklin. He’d be on board.
Tina’s pro-wrestling dad is also in the tournament, play by real-life pro wrestler (there’s something…ironic? about the phrase “real-life pro wrestler”) Kevin “Big Daddy Cool Diesel” Nash, who is dressed up more or less like Hulk Hogan in a somewhat lame gag I’m sure Nash found amusing. Since Kevin Nash’s job in this movie is to drink beer and go, “That’s my little girl!” he turns in the second best acting job after Pressly.
Finally there’s Holly Valance as Christie Allen, a posh thief who shows up to the tournament while on the run from the Hong Kong police. Or someone like that. Valance is definitely no actress. I think she was some sort of mid-level Aussie pop star before this movie, and it’s unlikely much will change after this movie. She’s attractive though, and just bad enough an actress to still be somewhat acceptable in a movie of this nature. And she does the thing where she throws a gun and a bra up into the air, then sticks her arm up so that her bra goes magically on just as she catches the gun, then whups the butt of the world’s most incompetent bunch of cops. I mean really, when a kungfu dame asks you to hand her a bra, do you really offer it to her as it dangles from the barrel of your gun? And I don’t mean that figurative gun. I mean the actual gun, the one she can now kick out of your hands. Everyone knows the flying bra technique is like the first thing they teach you at Shaolin Temple. Or if not at Shaolin Temple, it’s definitely the first thing you learn when you join the Black Fragon Fighting Society.
Along with a bunch of other fighters you will never care about (and most of whom just disappear at random throughout the movie with no explanation presented anywhere other than deleted scenes), the three ladies head to the island fortress lorded over by brilliant mastermind and DOA tournament manager Eric Roberts. Yes, folks, Eric Roberts, looking like a dude who would hang around the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame a lot, telling young kids about what a genius Jimmy Page was. In a feat of casting not rivaled since the days when Black Belt Jones cast Scatman Crothers as a karate master, crummy movie mainstay Eric Roberts is the lord of DOA, and with the help of his nerdy assistant Weatherby, Roberts aims to use the DOA tournament as a way to inject the world’s best fighters with nanotech robots that will harvest their genetic information and make it downloadable to a pair of sunglasses which will then instill the wearer with nigh invincible kungfu prowess.
Seriously, man, that’s the plot. All Eric Roberts needs to do for his nefarious scheme to work is, 1) capture each of the best fighters in the DOA tournament, 2) strap them into his gigantic info downloading machine, and 3) manage to keep a clunky pair of sunglasses on his face while fighting. And the end result of all that effort is that you will be a slightly better fighter than most other people. On the grand scale of nefarious schemes, this one ranks pretty close to the “moronic” end of the bell curve. I mean, how is being a marginally better kungfu guy than most other kungfu guys going prove profitable to anyone other than, say, a guy in the Ultimate Fighting Championship? And then, you have to get the ref to allow you to wear sunglasses while you’re fighting. And it’s not like Eric Roberts put a sports band or anything on those glasses, so they will eventually just fall off. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because we’re a few centuries away from the era when being good at kungfu guaranteed global supremacy. You remember when the world was ruled by kungfu guys, right?
Complicating Roberts’ already goofy plan is the fact that the original DOA founder’s daughter, Helena, is an aspiring DOA combatant herself and is beginning to suspect Roberts is up to something her father wouldn’t have approved of. Oh, and there’s Katsumi’s missing brother. In between that nonsense and all the awful dialog are a whole bunch of choppy fights of varying quality, a game of volleyball, and well, that’s pretty much it. DOA has absolutely no surprises to offer even the most easily surprised viewer. But does that mean this movie is as awful as it sounds? Not actually.
The script, such as it is, comes to us courtesy of a trio of writers who actually have, if not a respectable track record writing good action films, then at least a modest record writing halfways decent action films. J.F. Lawton scripted two of the better Steven Seagal films (as odd as that statement may seem to some), Under Seige and Under Seige II, as well as the cult film spoof Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death. His big gig, however (besides writing Pretty Woman, but what does that have to do with us?), was as a regular writer for the goofy television series VIP, in which a group of models (I really liked Natalie Raitano) run a private investigation service. And when you realize that was one of Lawton’s former jobs, the entire look and feel of DOA makes perfect, predictable sense. With a few tweaks here and there, this really could pass as a VIP movie, right down to the three-letter title. Lawton worked on more serious action films like The Hunted starring Joan Chen and Christopher Lambert fighting ninjas, and he worked on goofier action movies, like the Damon Wayans superhero spoof misfire Blankman. So you can pretty much see where the script for DOA came from.
Script contributors Seth and Adam Gross were writers for Bill Nye, the Science Guy. I guess they came up with Eric Roberts’ crazy science scheme, although I think the sheer goofiness of it all makes it more of a Beakman thing, really.
I’m also guessing that producer Paul W.S. Anderson — who I like to mix up all the time with Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson — had a pretty heavy hand when it came to both the script and the direction. Anderson is divisive writer, producer, and director whose sole purpose in life is to make as many Resident Evil movies as possible. I actually like more of his stuff than I don’t, though when I hate his movies (both Aliens vs. Predators), I really hate his movies. Still, I enjoyed a lot of his movies: Event Horizon, the first Mortal Kombat (but definitely not the second), those Death Race remakes, even the Resident Evil movies. I think he had the idea for this movie when he was rewatching Mortal Kombat 2 (making him the only person in the world who ever rewatched Mortal Kombat 2) and got to the clumsy mud fight between two women in the rain and thought to himself, “This should be an entire movie.”
Cory Yuen’s direction is a little uninspired compared to other efforts, though he puts his craft to good use in filming the ladies (Yuen has previous experience with cheesecake kungfu thanks to his turn in the director’s seat of Women on the Run, which features some rather interesting, um, kung-nude). DOA lacks the slick polish of So Close, though Yuen is still adept at making cheap films look flashy. Even though the cinematography may be lacking, he misses no opportunity to randomly cut to a shot of someone’s ass or cleavage, so he’s not totally off his game here. And while Yuen is used to making non-martial artists look like martial artists, he really has his work cut out for him in this movie. Aoki and Valance seem to possess almost no athletic ability whatsoever, and so to pass them off as fighters, Yuen relies on gravity-defying wirework and jumpy editing, as well as a dollop of CGI. He does the most he can with what little he has, but no one is going to be mistaking these gals for legitimate fighters.
Jamie Pressly fares better largely because she has a pretty athletic build and looks like she really could deliver some punches and kicks and make you feel them. There’s a reason why she’s the one out of all these women who went on to have the biggest acting career (well, if you consider a cameo on Entourage to be a big career). She’s adept at both the job of acting and the job of looking believable in the fight scenes. Kane Kosugi gets to have one fight scene all to himself, which ends up being the only fight scene that looks anything like vintage Cory Yuen, since this is a guy who knows martial arts fighting a bunch of stuntmen. But even though this fight is pretty good, the award for best fight scene has to go to the one between Valance and Sarah Carter, who plays Helena. And that’s because that fight is between two fighters in bikinis. On the beach. In the rain. In slow motion. Cory Yuen knows how to keep it classy, though to be fair, he did also give us the “Jason Statham topless in oil” fight scene in The Transporter, so there is something to be said for his equal opportunity nature. A shame Kane Kosugi wasn’t game for a similar scene. Did you see him climbing Mount Midoriyama in the rain on Ninja Warrior? Surely they could have worked something like that into here.
I can’t speak to the sexism of the games, because I have never played them. Given that they have breast jiggle settings however, I could make an educated guess that most of the fans are not the same gender as the one whose D-cup physics are being tweaked. As for the sexism in this movie — eh, I would not argue in its defense. It is, after all, a movie about bikini models in a fighting tournament. That in itself is not particularly controversial. You know we here at Teleport City avidly promote the unclothing of all people who are willing. But Yuen’s camera has a Jess Franco-like tendency to dwell on rear ends and pelvic areas, although unlike Franco’s, Yuen’s are at least partially clothed. There’s a creepy dissecting vibe to shots like this that could have been defused if he’d been as willing to leer at the men. I know he’s willing to do this. Like I said, this is the guy who could not wait to get Jason Statham out of a shirt. He’s also the man that gave the world Billy Chow fighting in his tighty-whities, and I feel like he’s probably given us a bare-assed Sammo Hung or Yuen Biao at least once in his career. I’m not going to claim that I found the PG-13 sleaziness of this movie offensive; Lord knows I’ve rolled with infinitely worse, and this at the end of the day is really little more than a Frankie and Annette beach party movie with a fight-to-the-death tournament in it.
Yuen manages to wring a few other choice action sequences from a game but largely incapable cast. He also manages to film someone’s crotch framed by someone else’s crotch, which has to be some sort of first. His skill alone is what elevates this film above the level of, say, an Andy Sidaris action film. Aoki and purple-wig wearing Malthe have a decent wirefu match-up in a bamboo forest, which many people have pegged as a cheap knock-off of the bamboo forest fight in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, even though it has more in common with the same type of scene as presented in Andrew Lau’s Stormriders. The finale against a super-powered Eric Roberts (who’s acting suggests that if you asked him today, he might not even be aware of the fact that he ever even appeared in this film) isn’t exactly solid fight choreography, but it’s still funny and exciting because, well hell, it’s Eric Roberts. What the hell is even going on? And by this point, Yuen has resorted to his trademark jettisoning of any and all semblances of logic or reality, and believe me when I say that semblances of logic and reality are the last thing a movie like this needs.
Release Year: 2006 | Country: United States | Starring: Jaime Pressly, Holly Valance, Sarah Carter, Devon Aoki, Natassia Malthe, Eric Roberts, Matthew Marsden, Kevin Nash, Collin Chou, Kane Kosugi, Steve Howey | Screenplay: J.F. Lawton, Adam Gross, Seth Gross | Director: Corey Yuen Kwai | Producer: Paul W.S. Anderson and about 20 other guys | Music: Junkie XL