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Plot: contraband runner opposes the mightiest corporation in the world

Among video game purists Tekken is reviled, and while that sentiment is understandable to a degree, it misses the bigger picture that it’s also one of better video game adaptations. Not that the standards have been set high exactly to begin with. It was inevitable that Namco Bandai Games’ popular fighting franchise would eventually get the Hollywood treatment. Tekken’s character roster contains enough interpersonal drama, tragedy, and plenty of colorful personalities to fill multiple features. As a textbook example of a post-The Matrix (1999) American martial arts movie it distinguishes itself with its increased levels of acrobacy, athleticism, and far more complex action choreography. At heart Tekken is closer to Street Fighter (1994) than it is to Mortal Kombat (1995) in terms of faithfulness. Tekken, for better or worse, took the Hong Kong lessons from DOA: Dead or Alive (2006) to heart and did something with them. Sure, Tekken took plenty of artistic liberties with the source material it was supposedly adapting but on the plus side it benefitted for the most part from taking said license. As far as these things go, you could do far worse than Tekken.

That Tekken turned out half as well as it did is something of a miracle considering some of the talent behind it. Director Dwight H. Little is your standard smooth Hollywood filmmaker who worked his way up from the dregs of independent cinema. His style is technically polished but fairly interchangable with people like Renny Harlin, and Simon West. He’s the kind of director ideal for work-for-hire features and soulless Hollywood sequels. Little lensed everything from Marked for Death (1990) (arguably the last good Steven Seagal actioner before his lamentable and steep decline into direct-to-video hell and worse), Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home (1995) (the inevitable sequel to a Hollywood blockbuster), and Murder at 1600 (1997) (back when Wesley Snipes actually had a career) to Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid (2004) (the sort of unnecessary sequel that would have benefitted from J-Lo’s legendary ass).

Worse still is the fact that Tekken was written by Alan B. McElroy, the kind of Hollywood hack who makes Akiva Goldsman, Steven E. de Souza, and Joe Eszterhas look like nuanced scribes in comparison. McElroy infamously penned the Kirk Cameron Christian propaganda piece Left Behind (2000) (given the Hollywood remake treatment in 2014 with a sufficiently bewildered Nicholas Cage neckdeep in financial – and legal woes); that other video game adaptation that nobody talks about, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002) with Lucy Liu, Talisa Soto, and Antonio Banderas; as well as Wrong Turn (2003) (wherein Eliza Dushku acted primarily with her tank top) and the thinly-veiled recruiting video for the American military-industrial complex better known as The Marine (2006), or where wrestler John Cena acted better than most action stars at the time. Where did Little and McElroy start? Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988), or the last good sequel in a franchise that never should’ve lasted beyond the original.

It’s bad enough that most of the cast consists of television actors and anonymous stuntmen. The only big names (if you’re feeling in any way charitable) present are the always entertaining Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Tamlyn Tomita, and Jon Foo. There’s actually one genuine star to speak of but one-time Hollywood pretty boy Jason James Richter is relegated to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit part that he’s easily overlooked. Richter, of course, was the kid in Free Willy (1993) and its sequels before being chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine. Tagawa famously was Shang Tsung in Mortal Kombat (1995), and Tomita debuted in The Karate Kid Part II (1986). Foo on the other hand was a League Of Shadows extra in Batman Begins (2005). For all the criticism that can be levied at Street Fighter (1994), Mortal Kombat (1995), and DOA: Dead or Alive (2006) at least they had the decency of a halfway recognizable cast. Unlike in the Far East (China, Hong Kong, Japan) where talent is cast based upon past performances and martial arts prowess, Tekken was cast by the old Hollywood adage that they first and foremost must be pretty, irrespective of their fighting ability. Holly Valance was, by far, the worst actress in DOA: Dead or Alive (2006) yet in Tekken the entire female cast is made up of nothing but talent exactly like her. Kelly Overton, Candice Hillebrand, Marian Zapico, and Mircea Monroe are as pretty as they come but couldn’t act their way out of a paperbag let alone pull off a convincing fightscene. For the ladies there are enough shots of the glistening chests of Luke Goss, Roger Huerta, and Jon Foo but since this is a respectable production Overton, Hillebrand, and Zapico never bare theirs, although there’s a brief instance of sideboob from Mircea Monroe. Not that Monroe is in any way vital to the story, but we’ll take what we can get…

2039. In the aftermath of the Terror War what is left of civilization, all divided into territories, are not ruled by governments but by autocratic mega-corporations. The American territories are ruled by Tekken, the mightiest and cruelest of the surviving 8 corporations. Tekken is run by Heihachi Mishima (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and his son Kazuya (Ian Anthony Dale) in the industrial hub of Tekken City. Annually the 8 mega-corporations - under the collective banner of Iron Fist - organize The King Of Iron Fist tournament as a widely televised event to placate and scare the masses into submission and servitude. In the impoverished, burned out slums known as the Anvil young contraband runner Jin Kazama (Jon Foo) witnesses the murder of his mother Jun (Tamlyn Tomita) and his partner Bonner (John Pyper-Ferguson) by the Jackhammers. Kazama vows retaliation against Tekken CEO Heihachi and, much against the will of girlfriend Kara (Mircea Monroe), enters The King Of Iron Fist tournament. After his surprise victory against disgraced combatant Marshall Law (Cung Le, as Cung Lee) in Open Call Jin is allowed to enter the tournament. There he immediately befriends capoeira fighter Christie Monteiro (Kelly Overton) and lands a sponsorship from boxer Steve Fox (Luke Goss). In short order Kazama wins the crowds, becomes known as "The People's Choice", and a conventient representative for the rebel insurgents. Defeating anything and everyone in his way Jin will soon to able to face the man responsible for his mother’s death, whether that is the person he has in mind is something else…

As can be deduced from the above plot summary, McElroy was never above stealing when it suited him and Tekken is a beautiful illustrative example of just that. In Tekken the world is ruled by rivaling companies competing in a televised martial arts tournament. During said tournament one of the lead’s allies is blackmailed into betraying him, and a potential love interest of the lead is abducted at one point. The lead character is a small and unimportant everyman who leads a group of insurgents against a despotic, in this case corporate, ruler thus defying the existing power structure. If all of this sounds nothing like the Tekken video games and more than a passing resemblance to Heatseeker (1995) by way of Gladiator (2000), then you’d be right because that’s exactly what it is. It’s bad enough when Hollywood starts ripping off Albert Pyun. The story might be typical underdog fodder and not faithful in the slightest to the video game franchise it is supposedly adapting yet there are more than enough shots of Candice Hillebrand’s pink leather corset and Kelly Overton’s toned ass to make forget you about such trivialities as story and plot. To dispense with the obvious, Tekken is the movie that Heatseeker (1995) always wanted to be. If they were going to take liberties with the source material they could at least have traded Anna Williams for the more interesting Julia Chang, King, Combot, or Ling Xiaoju. Alan B. McElroy actually sank low enough to rip off Hawaiian trash specialist Albert Pyun. No wonder Namco Bandai disassociated themselves from Tekken when it was released.

What really kills Tekken is not so much the story it tells, which is pretty standard Hollywood fare, but its apparently random throwing together of characters from the original game as well as those from the sequels 2 to 6. Characters are true to their in-game counterparts in appearance but little else. Where the adaptation takes the most artistic license is with the relations and subplots between all of the characters. In Tekken the video game Eddy Gordo (Lateef Crowder) mentored Christie Monteiro into capoeira (not so here); Nina (Candice Hillebrand, as Candicé Hillebrand) and Anna Williams (Marian Zapico) indeed are sisters-assassins but no mention is made of their rivalry or Nina being Steve Fox’ biological mother; a throwaway line confirms that Bryan Fury (Gary Daniels) is a cyborg but nothing is made of the fact beyond that; Yoshimitsu (Gary Ray Stearns, as Gary Stearns) is not an alien lifeform, but reduced merely to an “advanced swordsman”. Tekken even goes as far as to invent an unnecessary non-canon love interest for Jin in the form Kara, and then proceeds to do absolutely nothing with her. Kara does nothing what the plot couldn't have done with Christie Monteiro. The only thing that McElroy has kept is the animosity between Kazuya Mishima and his father Heihachi and that Jin Kazama is Kazuya’s son and rightful heir to the Tekken empire. From a narrative standpoint Jin Kazama is an understandable choice as he’s the most internally conflicted but a Paul Phoenix, King, Julia Chang, Combot, or Ling Xiaoyu wouldn’t have hurt. Tekken excels in including any number of beloved characters and doing absolutely nothing beyond fanservice to develop them. To make matters worse none of the characters fight in their respective disciplines. In short, Mortal Kombat (1995) or DOA: Dead or Alive (2006) this certainly is not.

The bar is set admittedly low for video game adaptations and Tekken is a lot better than it has any right to be. Tekken is far from the worst of its kind but could have been a lot more than what it ended up being. By trying to please everybody, Tekken ends up pleasing nobody instead. Everything is decidedly vanilla from the start and it never attempts to pay lipservice to the mythos it’s adapting. Some of the creative choices are understandable, others not so much. There’s plenty of beef- and cheesecake to be had and Tekken doesn’t shy away from blood when it matters. Like any post-The Cell (2000) production the color palette is gritty, and desaturated for the sake of “realism”. Tekken (as a video game) was memorable – just like Street Fighter II: the World Warrior before it – because of its rich, candy-colored costumes and arenas. Up until at least Tekken 4 the world was full of warm, deep colors as it became thematically darker. Neither Dwight H. Little nor Alan B. McElroy seem to have understood this. As such Tekken is stereotypical Hollywood product churned out without much care or love. Tekken unfortunately is nothing more than a sum of its various individual parts, and that’s a shame. This could have been so much more, or better, if somebody had cared.

Plot: martial artists from all over the world compete in tournament on remote island

There are two kinds of American martial arts movies. Those that came before The Matrix (1999) and those that came after. The former are brutish slogs where the fights more resemble brawls with sluggish choreography and no sense of rhythm and pacing. Often times the fights in these movies tend to be heavily cut and edited because the actors in question have no formal background in martial arts. Even when the performers had a background in the arts (such as Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, or Olivier Gruner) western martial arts movies tend to be rather slow relying far more on blunt power than on technical expertise. The latter more Asian inclined variants are far more elegant, acrobatic, and fast-moving with professional combatants engaging in elaborate hand-to-hand and weapon-based action routines. DOA: Dead Or Alive thankfully leans more towards the Asian variant and is about as ridiculous as it is entertaining.

DOA: Dead Or Alive (hereafter DOA) has something of a bad rep. Undeservedly as far as we’re concerned. As a western, English-language martial arts movie there are far worse offenders. DOA takes the Mortal Kombat (1995) template and adds a healthy dose of Hong Kong action choreography and wire-fu to spice things up. DOA is what Street Fighter (1994) should have been. DOA was produced by Paul W.S. Anderson on an estimated budget of $21 million with Corey Yuen directing and Devon Aoki, Jaime Pressly, Holly Valance, Natassia Malthe, and Sarah Carter starring. Perhaps Anderson was hoping to capture lightning a second time the way he did with his Mortal Kombat (1995) some eleven years earlier. Unfortunately DOA made only around $7.5 million - just over a third of its budget - at the box office; and all intended sequels in the new franchise were summarily scrapped. It wouldn’t be until Tekken (2010) before another fighting game came to the big screen. Alas, Rare/Midway’s cartoonishly over-the-top Killer Instinct from 1994 remains without a much-overdue Hollywood treatment for reasons unknown.

Based on the Japanese video game series created by Tomonobu Itagaki for Tecmo DOA is a more or less faithful recreation of the plot from 1999’s Dead Or Alive 2. It features all the beloved characters in their signature costumes and as a bonus of sorts there’s an extended segment dedicated to its legendary 2003 spinoff Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball for good measure. There couldn’t be anything more typically Japanese than Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball where the player plays and interacts with giggling babes with oversized oppai in miniscule candy-colored bikinis. It’s fanservice taken to the ultimate extreme. It’s a thing that could only come from Japan where the near-transactional adoration and adulation of prepubescent - and adolescent girls as Idols (gravure and otherwise) has spawned a booming and very lucrative (multi-billion yen annually) otaku industry. DOA has the babes, the pastel-colored bikinis, and the volleyball. The oppai on the other hand are rather modest. In fact DOA barely scratches the surface on that end. Otherwise it is a fun martial arts romp with some lovably zany production design.

Four martial artists from different walks of life are invited to partake in a clandestine 4-day tournament somewhere in Asia. Princess Kasumi (Devon Aoki) is a kunoichi that leaves her colony to look for her brother Hayate (Collin Chou Siu-Lung). Following her are Ryu Hayabusa (Kane Kosugi) and her half-sister Ayane (Natassia Malthe), the former as her security detail and the latter on a mission to kill the Princess for disgracing her clan. Tina Armstrong (Jaime Pressly) - whose wardrobe seems to exclusively consist of a Union Jack bikini and a very short pair of blue jeans – sees it as a springboard to prove her legitimacy as a fighter and that she’s not the phony she’s often accused of being. Tagging along is her father Bass Armstrong (Kevin Nash). Christie Allen (Holly Valance) is a British master thief and assassin who not only has her eye on the $10 million price money but also on an alleged treasure hidden somewhere on the island. Along with her partner Maximillian Marsh (Matthew Marsden) the two accept the invitation. Lastly, Helena Douglas (Sarah Carter) is the daughter of the original DOA tournament organiser and the object of affection of DOA tech head Weatherby (Steve Howey). Douglas is distrustful of Dr. Victor Donovan (Eric Roberts) who now runs DOA.

The two American name-stars of DOA are Devon Aoki and Jaime Pressly. Aoki started as a model in music videos from Duran Duran, Primal Scream, Ludacris and Genuwine. Naturally that led Devon to an acting career with semi-memorable turns in 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003), D.E.B.S. (2004) and Sin City (2005). Jaime Pressly also started as a model but soon carved out a career in low-brow comedies, thrillers, and the occassional horror with Poison Ivy: The New Seduction (1997), Can't Hardly Wait (1998), Not Another Teen Movie (2001), and Demon Island (2002). Less known but not any less popular was Australian actress Holly Valance who began her career in the soap opera Neighbours (from whence Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, and Natalie Imbruglia came) but didn’t flirt with the mainstream until the new millennium. In 2002 she released the hit single ‘Kiss Kiss’, an English reworking of the 1997 original Tarkan hit single ‘Şımarık’, from her debut album “Footprints”. As far as millennial dance-pop went Valance was a rival for the likes of Rachel Stevens and Gabriella Cilmi.

Compared to her peers Canadian television actress Sarah Carter was a relative nobody with only a supporting part in Final Destination 2 (2003) to her name. Natassia Malthe (one of the many victims of predatory producer Harvey Weinstein) was in Disturbing Behavior (1998), Halloween: Resurrection (2002), Elektra (2005) and via BloodRayne II: Deliverance (2007), Alone in the Dark II (2008) and BloodRayne: The Third Reich (2011) now seems to dwell permanently in direct-to-video, low budget hell. Collin Chou Siu-Lung is primarily known in the Western hemisphere for his roles as Seraph in The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) as well as the Jade Warlord in The Forbidden Kingdom (2008). Around these parts he's remembered for the Mainland China action romps Angel Warriors (2013) and Ameera (2014) from the Film Bureau. Eric Roberts, of course, is the old school professional who has been acting since 1964. DOA was shortly before his career revival with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) and Sylvester Stallone’s all-star 80s action throwback The Expendables (2010).

There was more than enough fanservice in terms of costumes in the Dead Or Alive series and even moreso in its Xtreme Beach Volleyball parallel franchise. DOA takes its sweet time relishing in all the beautiful women that frequently populate the screen. It’s the kind of fanservice that's never exploitative. The two most obvious instances are the introduction of the four leads and the friendly volleyball match in the second act. Where else are you going to see Holly Valance in nothing but a towel laying waste to some faceless goons before putting her lingerie back on? The original scene had Valance topless when she came out of the shower and fully nude during the actual fight. To secure a PG-13 rating the scene was censored in post-production. Then there’s Jaime Pressly in a tiny bikini meting out punishment to a group of pirates while adrift at sea, the pirate leader who is none other than Robin Shou from Mortal Kombat (1995). The beach volleyball segment contains enough ass – and chest shots to satiate anybody’s cravings while the actual bouncing is fairly minimal. As much as Xtreme Beach Volleyball revolutionized jiggle physics those hoping to see Chinese belles as Zhu Ke Er, Yang Ke, Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang, Liu Zhimin, Daniella Wang Li Danni, Miki Zhang Yi-Gui, and Pan Chun Chun, or one of their 2006 equivalents, among the volleyball playing extras will be sorely disappointed. None such thing will be forthcoming.

The action direction and choreography from Guo Jian-Yong puts DOA leagues above Street Fighter (1994) and Mortal Kombat (1995). The various duels are hard-hitting, energetic and fast-paced with shorter or longer routines and wire-fu that capitalize maximally on the girls’ elegance and athleticism. Of course it would be folly to expect from Aoki, Pressly, Valance and Carter to match themselves with Angela Mao, Michelle Yeoh, Moon Lee, or Cynthia Khan. Director Corey Yuen was a veteran from the Peking Opera School and one of the members of The Seven Little Fortunes that also included Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, Jackie Chan, and Yuen Biao. Yuen was in the Tsui Hark fantasy wuxia Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and made a name for himself in North America through his films with Jet Li. He might not be as well-known in the western hemisphere as Yuen Woo-ping and Ching Siu-tung. Yuen Woo-ping will forever be associated with the Wachowski’s cyberpunk action classic The Matrix (1999) and Ching Siu-tung for his work on A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004), as well as the Hindi superhero masalas Krrish (2006), and Krrish 3 (2013).

DOA is a guilty pleasure of the purest sort. It’s not the kind of movie you watch for the story in the first place. Holly Valance looks great in lingerie and in a bikini. Devon Aoaki can’t really act and Jaime Pressly is about the worst American stereotype imagineable. Sarah Carter looks really adorable and Eric Roberts visibly enjoys himself chewing scenery while surrounded by beautiful women. The orange-pink-purple production design is a feast to behold and that DOA occassionally mimics its videogame counterpart makes it all the more fun. That’s perhaps DOA’s greatest forté, it never takes itself too seriously. DOA knows that it’s rank pulp and what little plot there was is mere pretext to showcase the four leads in their signature costumes. As far as we’re concerned DOA is the StarCrash (1978) of Hollywood martial arts movies. DOA is all about fun and as a martial arts exercise it’s better than it has any reason to be. DOA’s bad rep is not unfounded but that doesn’t make it any less of an entertaining action romp for a lazy afternoon.