DOA: "DEAD OR ALIVE," "DEAD ON ARRIVAL," OR "DRIVE ONCE AGAIN?"
by Dr. Craig Reid
As I'm watching a special screening of DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE, I can't help but wonder about what the movie's acronym really stands for. I know that, in a perfect world it would stand for DEAD OR ALIVE, because, after all, the movie is based on a video game series of the same name. But when I reflect on how similar films (and by that I mean martial arts movies) have been handled by the The Weinstein Company (TWC), I think perhaps it will merely become another SHAOLIN SOCCER; in others words, making this film's acronymic title DEAD ON ARRIVAL. Or, if you've ever seen the film DRIVE, starring Mark Dacascos, DOA could very well stand for DRIVE ONCE AGAIN.
So which is it? DOA is sadly a statement on the current status of Hong Kong's influence on today's Hollywood movie-making machine. It is also an inside look into the exciting and somewhat devious nature of an industry cloaked in pseudo-smiles, and, according to the recent sarcastic remark by the star of TV's LAW & ORDER and the latest man to enter the presidential race, Fed Dalton Thomas, the "genuine sincerity of the entertainment industry."
DOA is based on the best-selling computer game series created by Tomonobu Itagaki for Tecmo. It focuses its pugilistic mayhem on the eye-candy surrounding the mythos of Princess Kasumi. The name of this particular game was actually hot chicks kicking butt; DOA gained notoriety from the jiggling breasts of its female fighting characters, and this philosophy most definitely oozes into the film version. Itagaki dubbed the game "DOA" because when he initially became a programmer for Tecmo, he made a bet with the company's owner that he could create a video game that would establish a firm fan base, and so the title was a reflection of the "do or die" stigma of his employment future.
The film follows several of the best fighters in the world as they are invited to a remote island where they will compete against each other in a quest to be named DOA champ and take home a huge cash prize. However, the battling babes Kasumi (Devon Aoki), Tina Armstrong (Jaime Pressly), Christie Allen (Holly Valance), Helena Douglas (Sarah Carter) and Ayane (Natassia Malthe) must not only defend their bodies during mortal combat, they must learn to fight together to save the world.
The film's producer and screenwriter, Mark Altman, who is the co-publisher of the once highly respected sci-fi/genre magazine "Cinefantastique" (recently dissolved) and the one-of-a-kind publication "Femme Fatales," adds to the mix, "The marketing is concentrating on the female characters for obvious reasons. Plus, a lot of the popularity of the game is attributable to the notoriety around the assets of the primary troika of female fighters. However, it's important to note that there are substantial roles for many of the male fighters, including Hayabusa, Zack, Bass and several others. Brad Wong didn't survive the first few drafts and I suspect Jann Lee, who is a character I really enjoy, will have a more substantial role in future movies (counting their sequel chickens before they hatch? -- Author). With an ensemble as large as the world of DOA, it's impossible to focus on everyone's favorite characters, but I think the movie does a great job in servicing the characters to some degree or another."
In a painful showing of business as usual for Hollywood, Altman reported that all these women trained hard for two months in order to do their own stunts and fights and at the end of the day, everyone of these glorious girls either did, "a fantastic job," "were simply amazing," or "they were impressive."
But the bottom line is, for this film to work (at least for the fans of the game), it must have a director and fight director that could bring the outrageousness of the game to life on screen, and what better Hong Kong action director still willing to work in Hollywood for peanuts on the dollar to bring in but Corey Yuen, who did a bang up job with the first TRANSPORTER film. Ironically, one of the biggest surprises of the film was a cameo by Robin Shou (he plays a comical high seas pirate), who starred in arguably the best and certainly the most successful film based on a video game to date: MORTAL KOMBAT. Game creator Itagaki openly admits that the game DOA was inspired by the Japanese fighting game FATAL FURY and the MORTAL KOMBAT movies. Making DOA's tie-ins all nice and neat is the fact that the film's producer is Paul Anderson, the man who not only directed MORTAL KOMBAT but also cashed in on the video gaming industry with his RESIDENT EVIL franchise. An insider scoop reveals that one of the characters, Hayate (brother of Kasumi), was supposed to be played by Shou, but the part was given to Collin Chou (Seraphim in THE MATRIX) because Yuen was miffed about something.
So what's behind the second of DOA's acronymic titles (DRIVE ONCE AGAIN)? DRIVE was one of those little known films that was thoroughly enjoyed by the diehard fans of American-made martial arts movies. Director Steve Wong (the man who really created the look and costume of the predator in PREDATOR, and not Stan Winston) allowed his stunt coordinator Koichi Sakamoto to literally borrow most of the fight scenes, wire gags, and stunts from many recognizable Hong Kong Fant-Asia and action films made between 1982 and 1990. Watching DOA was akin to playing "Jeopardy" or "Trivial Pursuit" under the category of "Hong Kong Xerox," where every action sequence attempted to pay homage to some pre-existing film.
According to Altman, "Settling on the tone was the hardest aspect of the film. All of us are big fans of ENTER THE DRAGON, which is the ultimate tournament film, but I don't think DOA is quite as serious as that, although the jeopardy is played very, very straight. I think though, that DOA is really a great metaphor for girl power, and while some of the fighters don't get along in the beginning, they discover that they are stronger working together than on their own.
"It was also a huge challenge to write a movie based on a game series that really did not have a plot. So although the game is a fighting game, there is a lot of character back story and plot in the strategy guides and manuals as well as some of the cut scenes, and I think DOA is surprisingly faithful to that storyline, including DOATEC and Fame Douglas and what they are up to on the DOA island. In fact, during the first week of shooting in China, I got a call while I was on the set of another one of my films in L.A. that they needed a bible going more into depth about the characters' backgrounds and quirks, and being the resident expert on the game I put together a bible about the history of the DOA universe and the characters that I think proved very useful to the actors."
When you watch DOA, see if you can spot the following homages to MORTAL KOMBAT, ENTER THE DRAGON, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA, HERO, BUTTERFLY AND SWORD, SWORDSMAN II, KISS OF THE DRAGON, JAMES BOND, BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR and many more, including a knock on Tae Bo. There's even a blatant rip-off from my short film LOST TIME, which was featured in Shou's award-winning docudrama RED TROUSERS: LIFE OF THE HONG KONG STUNTMAN. So this is why the acronym DOA could be DRIVE ONCE AGAIN, except in DOA's case, one major difference between Koichi and Yuen is that Koichi watched these films while Yuen lived them.
Of course, one of the nods to the games that will totally thrill the puberty-struck fans still in junior high and high school is the homage to the Xtreme Beach Volleyball game that occurs in the DEAD OR ALIVE 3 game, a sort of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN BREAST thematic device, if you will.
And what about the third DOA acronymic title DEAD ON ARRIVAL? Here is what Altman had to say about DOA's distribution deal with TWC: "I'm just thrilled the Weinsteins are releasing the film. Being an entrepreneur myself in filmmaking and publishing, it's been my goal to have a film released by Bob and Harvey for a long time, and no one markets and promotes films better than them so I'm just really excited about seeing the film come out and hear the reaction of DOA fans around the world. I think they'll be very happy with the result."
When DOA was initially announced, the release date was supposed to coincide with the release of the DEAD OR ALIVE 4 video game (2003). However, the $30 million martial arts extravaganza was taking longer than expected to complete, and the release date was rescheduled for April, 2004. Why was it taking longer than expected to complete? The film didn't start shooting until May 4th, 2005. Talk about TWC spin-doctors doing some fast-talking and trying to pull off what was once known as the Klink Dipsey Doodle (sorry, my age is showing through here).
As it turns out, DOA was released in September of 2006, but only in Australia and New Zealand (undoubtedly a ploy to tap into the popularity of Australian actress Holly Valance). Several months later, DOA was released in Europe and in January of 2007, the DVD was on the shelves in the U.K. It was slated to be released in the US on DVD in April 2007, but that decision was changed to give it a wide release on June 22nd, 2007. At the last minute (literally less than two weeks ago), DOA was relegated to a limited release on June 15th, with no press screening, no production notes, no official website, only six pictures available on TWC's media publicity site and no interviews granted to anyone.
Did I happen to mention that the aforementioned comments by Altman about the film and his distribution deal with TWC were from an interview back in July of 2006, and the special screening I attended was a few weeks prior to the guaranteed released date of August 26th, 2006? I wonder if Altman is still excited with the Weinsteins on board. Just ask Stephen Chow (SHOALIN SOCCER) or Chen Kaige (THE PROMISE, originally with TWC until the deal horribly went awry) and I'm sure Altman's answer won't be far from theirs. If this doesn't sound like DOA could be DEAD ON ARRIVAL, then the 1971 hit song "DOA" by Bloodrock is not well known to all you readers.
Which brings us to what the film may truly represent. Is DOA an homage to all the great Hong Kong films from the ?80s or was Yuen being complaisant? For the past ten years, Hong Kong stylized action has popped up in many Hollywood TV shows and movies, after Hollywood finally realized that a lot of money was to be made using Hong Kong fight directors and choreographers (and a handful of stars). The problem is that Hollywood studio execs were sold on the action video clips from the old Hong Kong films choreographed or directed by the likes of Ronny Yu, Yuen Woo-ping, Ching Siu-tung, Corey Yuen, John Woo, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and several others, and had no idea of why the action looked that way it did and the time and commitment necessary to create that look, and the execs didn't care.
These giants of the Hong Kong industry were invited to Hollywood and asked to simply do what they were doing some 20 years ago and were not given any creative freedom, and therefore did not strive to come up with anything new. This worked for a few years?until it was done to death. Audiences got bored, and those adventurous enough to search out the old films by these directors realized they were all just ripping themselves off. But who can blame them?
These Hong Kong filmmakers were getting paid millions of bucks to do the same song and dance routine over and over again, something they could do blindfolded in their sleep, and not have to bang their heads against the wall to come up with something new. Yet it is this mentality that is now hurting Chinese martial arts films and has really caused a lax in interest of mainstream American audiences in regard to Hong Kong cinema's approach to stylized action. The heyday is over, there is no new blood, and even Chinese film is beginning to rely more heavily on visual effects over what made their industry so fascinating to the Western audience in the first place: some poor dude dangling on the end of a piano wire 30 feet off the ground, putting his life on the line, knowing it could break any minute (and many did) and doing it for the love of cinema, pride and face, and not for money.
But ultimately, DOA is a great reflection of the fa?ade that is Hollywood. Regardless of how the film is being handled, no one will complain, because if you do you will burn a bridge. What many people don't often realize is that there was never a bridge to burn in the first place, and that it is merely the illusion of the bridge that keeps you going.
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Written by Dr. Craig Reid for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM