Friday, July 19, 2024

Whatever Wednesdays: ‘ DOA: Dead or Alive’

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DOA: Dead or Alive is unfiltered cinematic nonsense. The film isn’t brain-dead so much as it is a zombie in search of brains to feast on. It is filled from stem to stern with preposterous fluff

As video game adaptations go, Cory Yuen’s DOA is both one of the worst adaptations while also being one of the best. I won’t lie, it’s in no way a good movie. Yet, a part of me wishes more bad movies were as gloriously absurd and nonsensical as DOA.

I could attempt to describe the plot to you but that would imply that anything that happens in DOA matters. It doesn’t, not even a little bit. Blissfully and miraculously Yuen never lets that stop him. DOA often feels like some kind of runaway train heading towards a bridge that’s been washed out.

Adam Gross, Seth Gross, and J.F. Lawton haven’t written a script so much as copy and pasted thoughts of an idea for scenes together. DOA is a pure spectacle of bronzed bodacious babes in bikinis doing high kicks and absurd wire fighting along with groan-inducing one-liners. In a way, if the trio had tried to make it all make sense DOA would come off as offensive.

As is, the only dead spots are when the characters are forced to speak in exposition to try and explain to us that which we couldn’t possibly care less about. DOA works best when it forgets itself and gives in to Yuen’s outsized impulses. It is exploitation and big dumb action at its very best as Yuen and his team go from one ludicrous moment to the next.

At times you could flip a coin to decide which is more unrealistic the people onscreen or the CGI effects. The actors don’t play the characters as people so much as pin-ups, substituting poses for emotions. Jame Pressly’s Tina is the most fleshed-out character, but only by a slight margin.

Her father, Bass, is played by Kevin Nash, and somehow the two manage to make you believe these two or father and daughter despite the movie’s refusal to exist in anything resembling our reality. At one point the duo is forced to fight each other which leads to Nash’s Bass breaking down his daughter’s hotel door only to find her in bed with Christie (Holly Vance). The two are merely sharing a bed, but Bass gets the wrong message and takes a raincheck. “I’ll leave you with your special friend.”

The scene is cheezy but honestly supportive parents in silly low budget video game movies are a sadly too rare breed. Tina repeatedly tries to explain to her father that she is not gay. He just happens to always walk in on her while she is in bed with, or as is the case in another scene, in the arms of, another woman. Curious that Tina is the only character not to end up with a love interest at the end.

Devon Aoki comes off the worst. She plays Kasumi, a princess who leaves her people in search of her brother, Hayate (Collin Chou) who went to the fighting tournament the year before never to be seen again. Though why her clan then sends the purple-haired assassin Ayane (Nastassia Malthe), to kill her, is beyond me. I’m fine with that because it’s clearly beyond the movie as well. 

To be fair to Aoki, it’s not that she’s bad so much as she is given multiple moments in which to stare off to the side of the screen while the music swells. It’s hard to project a character’s inner thoughts when your character’s only real backstory is the button combo you smash on the controller to get her to perform her signature move. Though Yeun and his writers do try and give her a back story, it’s a melodramatic cockamamie sliver of one.

Oh and I almost forgot the bisexual thief Christie. There’s a whole subplot involving her ex-partner and his attempt to rob the organizer of the tournament Dr. Donavon (Eric Roberts) that goes nowhere fast. Along with the pointless attempts to explain what’s going on it represents the only dead spot of the movie.

Tina, Christie, and Kasumi team up to fight Dr. Donovan, who’s using nanotech to download all their fight moves into a pair of sunglasses, while also rescuing Hayate-and finding love in all the wrong places. That sentence makes more sense than anything in the entire movie and I had to guess at it. Scenes follow one another without rhyme or reason as if Yuen and his editors were willing the film’s momentum into existence.

In fact, Yuen worked with a team of editors, as well as cameramen, and honestly if you were to walk away from DOA thinking anything is how the colors and the action seem to almost pop off the screen. This is largely due to the editors Ka-Fai Cheung, Eddie Hamilton, and Angie Lam who seem to be working from the Russ Meyer playbook.

Meyer was a sexploitation director who famously edited his films within an inch of their existence because he hated to see his actresses blink. Cheung, Hamilton, and Lam, likewise cut DOA with an almost punishingly exactness making the action seem kinetic while also reminding us of the film’s video game origins. 

Combined with the camerawork of Chi Ying Chan and Kwok-Man Keung the fight scenes have a sort of larger than life quality to them. Yuen takes all of this and orchestrates one of the most cartoonishly live-action cartoons I’ve seen in recent memory, outside of the Wachowski sisters. He uses his actors like action figures, posing them, and pitting them against each other in random scenarios, just because.

Yuen will zoom in on the torso of an actress, the sweat glistening on their bronzed skin before cutting to their legs as they shoot out and make contact with another character’s face. If DOA took place in a recognizable world, one where Pressly’s Tina didn’t parachute out of an airplane with a cowboy hat and land in the ocean, hat still in place, all of this would be too much. It’s the male gaze hyped on steroids mixed with mescal and shot into the sun before it goes nova. 

This is grindhouse cinema pure and simple. There’s no place for something so pastiche as “good taste”. It’s hard to take anything in DOA seriously, much less it’s patriarchal tendencies.  

I can’t hate DOA for its flaws because it embraces them and rushes off the cliff with Wile E. Coyote gusto. Yuen’s DOA is trash; gloriously and transcendently trash. But I’m reminded of Pauline Kael who once said: “movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” 

Image courtesy of Dimension Films

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