DOA: Dead or Alive (2006) Movie Review

In his latest movie, the videogame to movie feature “DOA: Dead or Alive”, Hong Kong action choreographer turned director Corey Yuen (“The Transporter”) gives us ass shots out the ass — literally. The film is chock full of gratuitous close ups of the bikini- and panties-clad rear ends of its many gorgeous female stars. As such, the word “eye candy” would seem inappropriate to describe “Dead or Alive”, if only because it doesn’t even begin to do the film’s ultra superficial elements justice. This is T&A without the actual T&A, sex without the actual sex, and hardcore fun for the adults without the actual hardcore fun. And yes, you will forget that the story is crap, because to not do so would be entirely moronic on your part.

In many ways, “Dead or Alive” harkens back to the good ol days of ’90s direct-to-video actioners that rely on a simple premise: put a bunch of people in a tournament setting and have them fight for the whole movie, pepper it every now and then with “story”, and voila, you have one giant fight movie that the action junkies will eat up with a big ol spoon. Which is really what “Dead or Alive” is — a giant fight movie threaded together (and loosely at that) with a story about how the three main girls (ninja Princess Kasumi, thief Christie, and wrestler Tina) converge on a Hong Kong island run by Eric Roberts where they will fight, with the winner claiming a $10 million purse.

And that’s basically it. Oh sure, we get some “here, have at it” motivations, such as: Princess Kasumi (Devon Aoki, “Sin City”) wants to find her brother, who was killed during an earlier DOA tournament; Tina (Jaime Pressly, TV’s “My Name is Earl”) wants to prove to the world that she’s not a fake wrestler; and Christie (Holly Valance, TV’s “Prison Break”) has plans to steal the purse and more with the help of her partner-in-crime (and bed) Max (Matthew Marsden).

Other characters get involved in the tourney fight, including Sarah Carter (TV’s “Shark”) playing the daughter of the tourney’s original founder, who becomes a contestant herself and, eventually, the fourth member of our All Girls Kick Ass band; there’s Zack (Brian J. White), a loudmouth black guy who won’t be denied entrance into Tina’s pants; Hayabusa (Kane Kosugi, “Muscle Heat”), Kasumi’s protector, who has followed her to the island; and Ayane (Natassia Malthe, “Elektra”), who has been sent to kill Kasumi for daring to abandon her ninja clan to attend the tourney. Fans of Paul Anderson’s own fight videogame to movie adaptation, the “Mortal Kombat” films, won’t need to be convinced that “Dead or Alive” is good stuff. In fact, fans of that franchise will get a kick out of seeing Liu Kang himself, Robin Shou, playing the world’s worst Chinese pirate leader.

Obviously the story is not much to hang one’s hat on, and in truth only Kasumi’s storyline runs from beginning to end. There is an amusing, if somewhat awkward aside with Tina and her father, who is also attending the tournament. Christie and Max’s plans to rob the island come and go, but are mostly just filler material. Act Three has the girls joining forces to combat the villainous Donovan, whose tournament is revealed to be a scheme for a nefarious criminal enterprise. As the villain, Eric Roberts doesn’t have very much to do until the film’s final brawl, but then again, he’s not female and attractive, so maybe that’s a good thing.

I mentioned before how “Dead or Alive” reminds one of the ’90s tournament fighting movies, which were themselves patterned after the ’70s Bruce Lee movie “Enter the Dragon”. Corey Yuen’s “Dead or Alive” is nearly a carbon copy of “Enter the Dragon”, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Yuen intended this all along. One sequence in particular, involving Kane Kosugi’s character as he infiltrates the island complex’s secret lair, is nearly a duplicate of the famous Bruce Lee scene where Lee utilizes his nunchukas against a horde of Han’s henchmen, only to find himself captured when he’s trapped inside a room.

There is a lot of fun to be had with “Dead or Alive”, but only if you enter into it accepting that it is a PG-13 tease show for men. Jaime Pressly is a ton of fun, Holly Valance is extremely sexy, and Devon Aoki is, well, Asian. Which leads me to this observation: the film’s three main women seem to hail from not just different countries, but different eras as well. How else to explain Tina’s ridiculous hairstyle, or even what century Princess Kasumi is from that she has a ninja “clan” to answer to? Christie seems to be the only contemporary woman, and Australian singer/actress Holly Valance oozes all kinds of sex appeal in the role. If “Dead or Alive” doesn’t launch Valance into more movies, I would be very surprised.

The girls of “Dead or Alive” might not have known any martial arts going into production, but by God they certainly pull the moves off convincingly enough. Of course it helps that they’re all very athletic people to begin with, unlike when Hollywood tried to convince us chunky monkey Drew Barrymore knows kung fu in the “Charlie’s Angels” movies. Jaime Pressly, in particular, is so ripped that if I didn’t know better I would say she did all her own stunts, but of course she didn’t, as stars don’t do their own stunts in Hollywood movies. From top to bottom, the action in “Dead or Alive”, with all their wire-fu excess, works because the women performing the moves are believable doing them.

“Dead or Alive” is barely 75 minutes sans closing credits, which leads me to believe that all extraneous bits (i.e. anything that doesn’t involve action, or exposition that lasts longer than 5 seconds) have been excised completely for pacing, and with good reason. No one is going to sit through a 5-minute exposition sequence in a movie about bikini-clad beauties duking it out in slow motion. Corey Yuen and company pack the film with as much action as the gratuitous T&A can accommodate, and that just simply leaves no room for anything else. As a result, the film clips by at a breezy pace, and shouldn’t bore anyone but the snottiest New York Times film critic.

Like many Asian action choreographers finding fame with Western fare, Corey Yuen does end up regurgitating a lot of familiar fight arrangements that regular viewers of Hong Kong movies will recall from other films, but this seems like an inevitable byproduct of so many Hong Kongers doing Western films nowadays. Even Yuen Woo Ping, the master himself, has dipped into the same bag of tricks for his movies. And in any case, I’m sure Yuen probably believes (and with justification) that the vast majority of Western audiences won’t notice his self-plagiarism anyway.

In case you were wondering, “Dead or Alive” will not make your life fuller, you will not grow an extra inch (anywhere), and your IQ will not necessarily develop an extra point (and in fact, you might even lose an extra point or two). “Dead or Alive” is a videogame to movie adaptation, and such is the middling (generously speaking) qualifications of the genre, it succeeds with flying colors. Will fans of the game be satisfied? I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never played the game. As a movie, but in particular as a medium of pure escapist entertainment, “Dead or Alive” is a solid choice for 75 minutes of pure, brain mush bliss. Although I would recommend seeing the film with your buddies, and not with that cute girl in the next cubicle you’ve finally found the nerve to ask out.

Corey Yuen (director) / J.F. Lawton, Adam Gross, Seth Gross (screenplay)
CAST: Jaime Pressly …. Tina Armstrong
Holly Valance …. Christie Allen
Sarah Carter …. Helena Douglas
Devon Aoki …. Princess Kasumi
Natassia Malthe …. Ayane
Eric Roberts …. Donovan
Matthew Marsden …. Maximillian Marsh
Brian J. White …. Zack
Collin Chou …. Hayate
Kane Kosugi …. Ryu Hayabusa
Robin Shou …. Pirate Leader

Buy DOA: Dead or Alive on DVD