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October 5, 2012

How to Make a Good Dead or Alive Movie

I find it rather interesting that my post How to Make a Good Street Fighter Movie has consistently been the most popular post on this blog for months now.  Kind of odd, considering that (I assume) only two people read it when I first posted it on Destructoid.  I’m guessing that has to do with everything I touch turning into a novella, which is admittedly a problem I need to address sooner rather than later.

In spite of that, I’m going to do the exact opposite right now.  Let’s see if lightning can strike twice, and I can propose a satisfying -- if hypothetical -- Dead or Alive movie.

Fair warning, though: there’ll probably be improbably buxom women in this post.  I know how much of a deal-breaker that is, so I thought I’d be responsible and tell you early.

First off, I guess I might as tell you the impetus for this post.  You’d think that it’d be because I just saw the (awful) Dead or Alive movie, better known as…er…DOA: Dead or Alive.  But actually, that’s not the case -- if only because I saw it months ago on TV.  Nor is it the recent release of DOA5 -- not directly, at least.  Nor is it the recent comments made by its developers, silly and bewildering as they may be.  Apparently, some noble patron decided to post all of DOA5’s story cutscenes back-to-back, creating a sort of movie out of the proceedings.  It’s kind of fitting, considering that the twenty-plus characters’ stories are all (to some extent) mixed into one continuous narrative.  So at the very least, I have to give Team Ninja some credit for telling players exactly who won the tournament instead of multiple, non-canon endings.  And some credit has to be given for Team Ninja actually trying to make a cohesive narrative.

Of course, the key word here is “try”.  It becomes readily apparent that DOA5’s story is laughably incompetent.  In the eyes of some, it’d fit into the “so bad it’s good” subset, but sadly I don’t believe in any such subset; you wouldn’t want a shampoo that smells so bad that you kind of like it, because you’re going to be around people that are repulsed by the scent.  And DOA5 has a bad, bad scent.  At least two thirds of the plot becomes irrelevant before story’s end.  There’s no connective tissue, logic, or often even a conclusion to dozens of events.  The main story centers around four of the most boring characters in the franchise, while sweeping nearly everyone else (including one of the franchise’s newcomers) under the rug.  Revelations are treated as earth-shattering shocks when it’s painfully obvious what’ll happen at least a half-hour beforehand.  And the ladies that Team Ninja once proclaimed would have a “deep and emotional connection”?  Pshaaaaaaaaaaaaw!  The most they did was keep the girls from getting groped on trains, turning into naked mermaids, or grinding against stripper poles.  Careful guys, you don’t want to strain yourself with all that PROGRESS. 

And yet, in spite of my complaining…believe it or not, I can actually see potential.  There are glimmers of something more in DOA5’s story; the plot to stop ninja girl Kasumi’s evil Jell-O clone is a bust, but the stuff relating to the tournament is actually kind of interesting.  Or rather, the people entering the tournament are interesting.  Arguably the best cutscene(s) feature Eliot and Brad Wong together, including an entertaining battle over who gets the last scrap of food, or just the former being insecure about fighting while the latter eggs him on.  I also have to nod in approval at the stuff featuring Tina, Mila, and Bass -- all fighters at different points in their life, brought together by the how of the fans, the glitz of the ring, and the friendships and rivalries bred by battle.  DOA5 is at its best when it drops all pretenses of having a world-threatening crisis and just has fun -- with itself, with its characters, and with its tournament.  It’s just a shame that it opts to try and ape a bad summer blockbuster…and succeeds in doing so without removing any of the problems.  (Hell, they even throw in a sequel hook at the end.  I know video games can pull it off more competently -- especially fighting games like DOA -- but still…you’ve done enough, Team Ninja.  More than enough.)

As for the actual, live-action movie...I don’t want to talk about it.  I really, really don’t want to talk about it.  I’ll probably allude to it and give examples of what NOT to do based on it, but…let’s just say it’s bad and leave it at that for now.

Now then, let’s take this step by step.  If Team Ninja wants to make DOA into a movie -- to put one in their games, or throw the rights to some fool in Hollywood, here’s my prescription.

Step One: Characters
I’ve said it several times before, but I’ll say it again just for the record: I hate ninjas.

With the exception of a few stories (Naruto being one of the most notable examples), ninjas are booooooooooooooring.  You can sum up everything there is to know about them in two sentences, if that, minus a traumatic backstory here or there.  They’re stoic badasses, and that’s it.  That’s all people think they need to do when it comes to creating one.  And DOA is no exception.  For the life of me, I can’t think of any distinct traits that separate Ryu Hayabusa from Hayate, other than the clothes they wear.  Kasumi and Ayane fare a little bit better, though their traits are less geared toward giving them three-dimensional personalities as they are one-note motivations and moods.  And as long as I’m talking about the ninjas in the franchise, I would like it very much if Team Ninja toned down the creepy incest love polygon between Kasumi, Ayane, Hitomi, and Hayate.  Why are there at least three barely-legal young ladies lusting after a man whose most notable trait is being dedicated to whatever mission he’s on?  Has the bastard ever even talked to them beyond give orders?

So here’s my prescription.  Kasumi is to DOA as Ryu is to Street Fighter, so make her the focus.  Make her the star of the movie.  Hayabusa and Ayane are there too, but with significantly-reduced roles.  Hayate is there as well, but being Kasumi’s brother (and a blank slate) there’s never been a better time to define him.  All the characters from the first game, sans Raidou, appear -- Zack, Bayman, Lei Fang, Gen Fu, Tina, Bass, and Jann Lee.  (Helena also appears, because she’s connected to the organization funding the tournament.)  The importance of their roles varies, but they each have a role to play.  Everyone else -- Christie, La Mariposa, Kokoro, Eliot, Brad Wong, Leon, Mila, Rig, Ein (actually Hayate minus his memory), Hitomi, Tengu, and Alpha-152 all take a backseat.    Maybe cameos, maybe references, maybe threads that can be teased for a sequel -- Gen Fu mentioning his apprentice Eliot, for example -- but their presence has to be severely diminished.

Step Two: Plot
Kasumi is fed up with her duties as a ninja.  She’s tired of the bloodshed, tired of the paranoia, tired of all the training, the isolation, the secrecy…and when she’s forced to take the life of a seemingly innocent girl -- one no older than she is -- she decides to bail.  She abandons her clan and her post, much to the shock of Hayate and the rage of her half-sister Ayane.  But they’re feelings that she bears without question; she leaves behind the village without shedding a tear, eager to begin her life as a free woman.

Except her life as a free woman isn’t as rosy or as easy as she expected.  With no family, no home, and no friends, combined with a world that is anything but inviting, it’s not long before Kasumi ends up having to settle for a meager life in the big city, living in a tiny apartment and scraping up funds however she can.  She puts on a brave face, of course, and tries to remain cheery and pure-hearted in a world that’s anything but, yet there’s a severe disconnect between her idealized world and the real world -- and more notably, between the ninja village where she was practically a princess and the outside world where she’s stuffed into a chicken suit to promote the new burger down at Stevie T’s Diner.   (A fitting reference, if there ever was one.)

After a hard day of sandwich-peddling, Kasumi prepares to head home…only to witness a creepy looking black dude (better known as Zack) harassing an improbably buxom young woman.  Kasumi immediately leaps into action to try and stop him, and lands no shortage of hefty blows on Zack before he can even say “Aw, HELL naw!”  But to her shock, it’s not the ex-ninja that deals the final blow, but the damsel in distress…with a well-placed giant swing.  Turns out that Kasumi just interrupted a quick spar between Zack and -- wouldn’t you know it -- the wrestling phenom, Tina Armstrong.  As a sort of recruiter for the upcoming tournament, Zack’s job is to recruit as many world-class fighters as he can and make sure they’re hyped up for a good fight when the broadcast goes live (and the dollars start flowing in).  The whooping that Kasumi gave him immediately inspires Zack to invite her as well -- and top off his recruitment quota -- and of course, he wanted to keep Tina riled up so she’d have plenty of fire in her for the fight with her father, the famous wrestler Bass Armstrong.  Kasumi’s reluctant, and outright refuses at first (even with the allure of fame and fortune Zack dangles in front of her)…that is, until that very night she finds out she’s being watched by ninjas.  Eager to escape yet again Kasumi decides that the best thing to do is hide in plain sight -- she’ll enter the tournament, keep the camera on her, and win the fame Zack promises so that the ninjas will have a rougher time getting close to her.

And so we have our main trio.  Kasumi’s in it to find her place in the world, and cut all ties from the past.  Tina’s in it to prove her strength, and her ability to live outside her father’s shadow.  Zack’s in it because he’s (hilariously) fired and demoted to being a regular tournament entrant, but decides to use it as an opportunity to follow his own dreams.  You can bet they’ll be fighting for survival, for glory, and for their futures -- as will the other entrants in the tournament.  Who will win?  Who will lose?  It’s all going to be decided by the fists of the strongest fighter.

Step Three: Setting
The tournament takes place on an island, with all the proper trappings of battle (and fans eager to watch) prepared in advance by DOATEC, the canonical mega-corporation funding each event.  While the island has all the mainstays of a Hawaiian resort -- perfect for sucking more wallets dry -- there are plenty of unexpected surprises.  A circus, a cage filled with (animatronic) dinosaurs, the odd wrestling ring here or there, and even a simulated volcano; combined with the natural environments like a jungle, a beach, and a marketplace, there’s no shortage of arenas.  (Note that all of these are stages from other DOA games -- because hey, why not?)  What’s important to note, though, is that while there are arenas, there are far more places for tourists and tourney-viewers to kick up their heels and relax -- facilities that the fighters can use free of charge.  These areas can provide breaks between the action, and offer something more than fist fights.  Character development is a given, but if it were up to me I’d add in no shortage of humor and unexpected situations -- a chance to define and redefine characters by way of them leaving their usual routines.  And since this is a sunny resort with beaches and pools, you can probably guess what that means…yep, lots and lots of tax-filing.

I should probably take this time to stress that even though DOATEC is behind the tournament, they’re actually not as notable or malicious a presence as they could be.  For now, their intentions are earnest (if mercantile) -- no naked Jell-O clones of teenage girls, and no secret laboratories hidden under the island.  This is a story that’s “smaller in scope”.  It focuses on and establishes the characters, proving that there’s more to them besides bra-busting bosoms.

Step Four: Music
This one’s actually a bit tricky.  At a base level, I’m inclined to say that there should be remixes of the games’ themes, because a lot of them are actually pretty good.  But what about the style?  And furthermore, there’s a disparity between the average DOA OST and the mood each song invokes.  The songs are intended to be played during, and psyche players up for, battle -- they can’t very well be used for quiet or tense moments.

So I’m just going to say “guitars out the ass”.

Now hear me out on this.  Guitars, as you likely know, make lots of songs MANLY AND COOL.  But they can be used in a number of ways -- an acoustic-heavy track can make a song more mellow or somber, while a healthy dose of electricity can set a song and souls alike on fire.  Both of those would have a place in my hypothetical movie, but more importantly, there needs to be something with a bit more…style.



There’s an engraved cheesiness to DOA, and it seems fitting to give its soundtrack some bombastic, over-the-top songs that invoke the spirit of long-gone eras.  Not always, of course, but sometimes.  Enough to leave a lasting impression -- enough to convince viewers that there is some deeper stuff going on, but more importantly it’s all about fun. 

Alternatively, create songs that invoke the spirit of Aerosmith.  Or barring that, just throw in Aerosmith songs.  The series has done it before, so why not do it again?

Step Five: Tone and Depth
Part of the reason why DOA: Dead or Alive managed to be…well, THAT…was because there was an assumption that nobody took the canon seriously.  I know there’s not much going on, and I know Team Ninja would push out its volleyball “games” more readily than a sequel to the actual fighting franchise (seriously, there was a seven-year gap between DOA4 and 5), but there IS something.  There are ninjas dealing with heady themes like loyalty, betrayal, honor, duty, and birthright.  There’s a shady corporation out to do…shady corporate things.  There are fighters with motivations, traits, and backstories that drive them to repeatedly enter tournaments that make them come under fire from no shortage of demons and clones.  The boobs are a big part of the franchise, but to say that’s all there is to Dead or Alive IS A FALLACY.

What DOA needs to prove that it’s more than just fanservice is to offer something substantial.  Volleyball games aren’t going to do it, but neither will quarter-assed live-action movies or Japanese game developers trying to ape Hollywood schlock.  It needs to find a solid ground, and operate on its own terms -- rather than try to win the people over with shallow bombast and spectacle, it needs to prove that its ladies (or all of its characters) are more than just one-note character sketches.  It needs to be taken seriously, but to do that it has to take itself seriously.  It needs a bit of decorum.

My stern prodding aside, I want to emphasize a bit of decorum.  Go too far in the wrong direction (the meat and potatoes of DOA5’s story mode with its “fighting entertainment”), and you create something bland and forgettable.  The movie I envision isn’t afraid to have fun.  Kasumi in the games is often portrayed as a waifish, gloomy, doe-eyed pacifist -- in my movie, Kasumi’s got her penchant for kindness and friendliness (even if it’s only because she’s been conditioned to be polite), but she’s also delightfully ignorant of the real world’s workings.  This is something that can be played for laughs and drama as needed, and the fact that she’s constantly looking over her shoulder for ninjas trying to capture her injects some tension into the story.   Tina could serve as a foil of sorts, in that she’s savvier about the world’s workings.  But rather than act like a total cynic, she’s hot-blooded and boisterous to a fault, and just decides to smash and power-bomb her way to whatever she wants in life…even if she tends to make a mess out of things.  Zack has always been something of a joke character (have you SEEN his costumes?), and for the most part that remains constant here -- he’s the no-respect loser who’s made the butt of every joke and the target of every prank.  But he’s another foil to Kasumi, in that he’s got no shortage of intelligence and savvy, and a much clearer idea of what he wants to do than the ex-ninja.  He can also poke fun at all the silly elements of the series -- chief among them, FINALLY addressing the fact that every woman he meets seems to be sporting some generous cleavage…up to and including the average grandmother.

But the key determinant of the story is this: Hayate, who’s regularly been one of the series’ most notable heroes, is the villain.  Not the “it’s time to take over Earth” type, but a more subdued version, one that could still arguably be called a hero if the perspectives were flipped.  Hayate wants Kasumi back in the fold by any means necessary -- not only because she’s one of the best in the clan, but because it’s her destiny.  The notion of freedom, of choosing one’s path in life, is lost on him.  He took up the path of the ninja, like his father before him, and his father before him; the concepts taught by and learned from the real world are a mystery to him, but moreover an inconsequential facet of life.  He’s the antagonist, but not antagonistic (that honor goes to Ayane); he’s just doing his duty and trying to get Kasumi to do the same.  He’s the wall she has to overcome if she wants to find her freedom -- a test, and a way to prove that she has what it takes to become something more than just a stoic killer.

In a sense, every character’s out to prove their mettle one way or another.  Some are in it for the money.  Others to show their strength.  Still more, just looking for a good time.  A chosen few, out for blood.  Whatever the case, everyone has a reason to fight.  It’ll take strength, and strength of heart, to win the tournament.

Step Six: The Fights
But make no mistake: just because the movie would have depth doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be fun.  If Team Ninja is really dedicated in making its series known for “fighting entertainment”, then I have to say that in terms of mid-battle happenings, they’re off to a good start.  Just watch this video -- and keep in mind that this is a quick sparring match.


If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that the developers took lessons from a Stephen Chow movie rather than American cinema.  And there’s nothing wrong with that -- in fact, it’s actually preferable.  Have a look.


Both are absurd, and both are ridiculous…but both of them, in their own stylish way, are kind of awesome.  The movie needs that -- a mixture of practical martial arts and effects combined with over-the-top happenings as needed.  Judicious use of spectacle is something a story can make great use of -- and this movie is no different.

Step Seven: The Actual Movie Stuff
Even though wikis and manuals suggest otherwise (yes, I read game manuals -- I know, I’m a sick man), I’m convinced that Kasumi -- at least pre-DOA5 -- is actually the most improbably buxom of the bunch, not Tina.  Kasumi is the main character, after all, so…hey, why not make her the bustiest in-game?  Of course, that glowing title loses its meaning when you’re surrounded by similarly-talented ladies, so I guess there’s not much reason for debate.  (Maybe there’s just something in the water in the DOA universe, or the series actually takes place in a totalitarian future where all the women are given nanomachine-filled injections to make their chests swell up.  It’d certainly explain the why the physics are bonkers -- their tissues are filled with tiny machines programmed to move asynchronously.)

Let’s be real here.  Even if my movie, with all its good intentions and depth and potential actually ended up being made, the first thing people would think wouldn’t be “a genuinely good story”.  The first, second, and third thing would be “boobs”, “big boobs”, and “panties”.  That’s not going to change anytime soon.  The problem is, Hollywood is never going to be able to get enough improbably buxom AND martial-arts trained women together to get this thing made, primarily because in real life physics actually work like they’re supposed to.  The only way to get this movie ready and not have it betray fan expectations is to make it a CG movie, much like Tekken: Blood Vengeance.  It works out perfectly.  Everybody looks the way they’re supposed to, all the girls keep their nanite-laced bosoms, Team Ninja already has a leg-up on the technology, and nobody can complain about bad CG because everything is CG.  Plus, getting the movie voiced would be easier than getting it filmed.  If they wanted to take it to the silver screen, they could grab some voice actors who could give a good performance.  Alternatively, if they wanted to make it a smaller release -- like on DVD, or as the cutscenes of a game itself following some sort of reboot -- they could just use the standard stable of actors.  Yuri Lowenthal, Laura Bailey, Kate Higgins, Troy Baker, Liam O’ Brien, all the actors that have given the characters voices in the past can be called on again.  No need to even bother Hollywood.

There is one tiny problem, though.  The same one that plagues DOA, even to this day.

All of the faces are fucking creepy.


I mean…shit.  Just look at that face.  That’s what Kasumi used to look like -- she’s got these huge-ass eyes, and these tiny lips, and this too-round head and fake looking hair, and it’s impossible to tell what emotion she’s feeling.  Is she happy?  She…kind of looks happy.  But it’s just so wrong and distorted -- like it’s just an approximation of a face, a mask that some alien invader might wear if he wanted to infiltrate society.  I get that it’s supposed to be anime-styled, but I know anime.  I’ve seen eyes that are a lot bigger and a head that’s a lot more childish.  And there have been only one or two times when I ended up repulsed by it.  With DOA, this is a constant event, even for the men. 


Even with DOA5, it’s a problem.  The eyes, while more normal-sized, are still so dead and lifeless.  The faces in motion feel off, and even with that aside there’s a major stiffness to them -- like they can’t emote, or even move properly.  It’s like they only had one face modeled per character, and anything else is too much of a strain on the system.  Am I going crazy here?  Am I just trying to raise trouble over something that doesn’t need to be brought up?  Have my perceptions been skewed?  And Mila…Mila, stop looking at me like that.  You’re freaking me the hell out. 

What I’m getting at is that nobody at Team Ninja/Tecmo Koei should be allowed to touch the movie’s graphics (at least not until they figure out how to do faces).  In the meantime, their best bet is to outsource production to a company that can handle it.  A company that specializes in graphics and OTT-bombast…only this time, they’ll have a story to go by so they don’t go off the rails.  Who might this company be, you ask?


Squeenix, if ever there was a time to throw your money at something that ISN'T stupid, this is it.

Step Eight: Franchise Baiting
I find it kind of alarming that I left off half the cast of the series for this installment, but I think it’s a necessary move.  Even if their roles in this movie aren’t necessarily the largest, each character contributes towards that idea of fighting for freedom.  Kasumi fights against Hayate.  Tina goes up against Bass (and likely Leifang, as they’re canonical rivals).  Zack fights fate itself as he tries to become something more than a put-upon black man -- and ideally, he’d get his payoff thanks to Kasumi giving him half her tournament winnings (and Zack immediately uses it to realize his dream: the creation of Zack Island).  The characters that appear here, while fewer in number, are more defined than they’ve ever been -- and with that definition comes credibility, prestige, and of course entertainment.

If there was a sequel, it’d likely do the same thing for a new batch of fighters.  Hitomi can be the star of the next movie, with her journey to DOA glory sparked by her discovery and blooming friendship with the amnesiac Hayate (who takes on the identity of Ein).  Leifang and Hitomi can partner up, since they’re both friends in-universe and the former has a score to settle with Tina.  Eliot joins in the fight in the stead of his ailing master, and he’s followed along by the boozehound Brad Wong.  The shadier parts of the tournament are revealed, thanks in no small part to a struggle between the heiress Helena and the assassin Christie.  The scope starts to increase slowly but surely, with backing from both characters that have already been defined as well as characters that GET defined over the course of the second movie.  And once that’s done, the third movie can build even further -- increasing steadily towards those summer blockbuster stakes, now that we know who these people are and why we should care.

See, Team Ninja?  Creating a story is not that hard.  It’s not 100% easy, mind, but if you’re willing to put a lot of thought and effort into it, you can actually make something that’s worthwhile.  If you want to be purveyors of fighting entertainment -- if you want people to stop thinking of you as breast-obsessed juveniles who coast on bare-bones plots -- then do something about it.  Tell a story.

Or just let me do it.  I’ve got a Facebook fan page now, so you can just mosey on over there, and we can sort this out.

4 comments:

  1. "Fair warning, though:
    there’ll probably be improbably buxom women in this post. I know how much of a deal-breaker that is"

    LIES!

    I really like those hypothetical articles you write. There's a reason people read the Street Fighter article: it was good. It might have been chuny and big (but then again, I'm never one to complain) but it was a plausible hypothesis on setting up a movie based on a fighting game, which is way harder than it looks.

    I've never been into DOA much, I only bought the game for the jiggling tits (I was 14, bite me) but I like knowing that there was a backstory and some means to bring depth to a storyline. However, my warning remains the same as before:

    This idea SHOULD NOT be made into an official DOA movie. The companies and the production studios are going to take it and ram their 'ideas' up its ass until it's nearly unrecognizable. You know what would be way better? Why don't you take these ideas, replace the franchises and restructure them as something original?

    Great article, dude.

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  2. "This idea SHOULD NOT be made into an official DOA movie."


    True enough. Like you said, if this thing actually did get made it's likely that my ideas would get turned into some horrible beast by the time production's all done...but now that I think about it, there's another issue. What happens next? Would Team Ninja/Hollywood keep up the momentum I've given them, or would they fall back on old tricks? Would they miss the point, and take all the wrong lessons from my suggestions? There are a lot of ways for it to go awry...the payment chief among them. (I would have a clause in my contract to make anyone around me dance to the sound of Flynt Flossy's "Did I Mention I Like to Dance".)


    But in any case, these "what-if movies" are pretty fun to make. If nothing else, I'm pretty good at generating ideas (something I'll likely prove very, very soon, heh heh heh...), and there's no better way to start generating ideas than with characters. It's not that much of a stretch to give these what-ifs to fighting games, because they're all heavily dependent on characters. Like I said, giving a fighter a story is just a matter of giving it a good, honest try.


    Rambling aside, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Maybe I'll do another one of these someday -- I mean, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 puts on airs of having a good story. Certainly wouldn't mind doing what Capcom wouldn't...or couldn't.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Rival Schools is what you get when Capcom tries. Sort of makes you wish they did more often.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rival_Schools:_United_By_Fate

    Likable characters? Actual character Conflict? An Amusing Love Triangle (in 2)?


    Great read though. I love the shameless 'boobies' picture. Very tasteful.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Aw man, I always wanted to try Rival Schools! So much so that I played Batsu in TvC! Maaaaaaaaaaaaan, Capcom. I say you bring back Rival Schools ASAP. You can resurrect Darkstalkers first, but after that, give us some Rival Schools.


    In any case, glad you enjoyed my little "what-if" project. Also glad that someone finally made note of my (admittedly done before) visual pun. Maybe next time I'll toss in a picture of a motor boat or something -- I could use a new gag.

    ReplyDelete