There are fewer depressing sights than Chow Yun-Fat performing stilted wire-fu in a Hawaiian shirt. Now, consider that this is one of the highlights of Dragonball: Evolution and the true nature of this film’s failure can be at least somewhat comprehended. No-one could reasonably expect much from a live-action adaptation of the classic Dragonball franchise. At the very least, any feature produced by Stephen Chow could be assumed to be a kooky, funny action film for kids. I don’t know if it’s actually possible to assume less than “the very least”, but you’re going to have to try if you want to enjoy this clunker.
On the eve of his 18th birthday, bullied high-schooler and martial artist Goku (Justin Chatwin) receives a mysterious gift from his grandfather Gohan (Randall Duk Kim): a shiny orb known as a Dragonball. Alone, it’s powerless. However, combined with the six other Dragonballs, it can grant “one perfect wish”. Nice one gramps, but Goku has more pressing matters. That includes charming the elusive girl of his dreams, Chi Chi (Jamie Chung, whose claim to fame is starring in MTV’s The Real World, which makes complete sense).
Meanwhile, an ancient warlord named Piccolo (James Marsters, looking like The Mask left out in the sun too long) is hunting down said Dragonballs. I’m not going to attempt to describe the historical reasons behind his quest, as most fans of the show already know, and to be honest with you, I’m still not sure I really understand. It involves revenge of some sort, and the apocalypse, and a giant ape – but I might be clutching at straws. I’m sure it makes sense in the cartoon, but the film doesn’t really clarify matters.
Eventually, Goku teams up with the brainy Bulma Briefs (Emmy Rossum), because the screenplay requires them to. They leave on a mission to locate Master Roshi (Chow Yun-Fat), who can help them defeat Piccolo, although I forget if they knew this before setting off to find him. I don’t want to be the guy who was confused by Dragonball: Evolution, but the film completely ignores sensible narrative progression and just … does things. Later on, Goku and Co. run into Chi-Chi at a martial arts tournament in the desert. Apparently, she has to fight in secret, because her family wouldn’t understand. Oh OK. Wait, why not? We haven’t even seen your parents? In fact, last time we saw you Chi-Chi, you were throwing a giant, anything-goes party in your parents’ giant castle? Can your folks really be that concerned about outdoor recreation?
Kids aren’t idiots, so why does Hollywood continue to pander to them as if they were. Dragonball: Evolution was reportedly green lit just before the writers’ strike last year, and it shows. The extent of this film’s second draft must have been limited to the addition of Evolution to the title. At one point, a character actually says “that’s gotta hurt”. That line is one of Simon’s Never-Fail Warning Signs, along with the popular “here we go again!”
There are traces (and I mean TRACES) of a better film here. Chow Yun-Fat seems to think he is in a far funnier movie, and his kookiness almost charms you into believing things aren’t all that bad. But they are. The action is too slow, too confusing and on too small a scale. By the time the finale rolls around, there are no stakes and no interest from the audience. I won’t even go into the white-washing of Goku and Bulma, which wouldn’t be a big deal if the acting was good enough to excuse it. And did I mention the villain that doesn’t really do anything? I recently read an interview with James Marsters, in which he compares Piccolo’s plight to that of a tragic Greek hero, and that he was going to try and bring a Shakespearean element to the picture. Really?