In 1987, hardcore gamers flocked to arcades to pump all their change into a wildly addictive new videogame. This ‘beat ‘em up,’ one of the first successful examples of the genre, featured state-of-the-art two-player co-op gameplay, following two vengeful brothers battling a horde of street thugs to rescue a damsel in distress. This meant lots of walking from left to right down dangerous streets populated by outlandish, muscle-bound, heavily armed bad guys and duly smashing their brains in. This ‘beat and repeat’ formula made for enthralling, violent fun and the coin-op spawned numerous successful sequels on various platforms. Following the release of the Super Mario Bros. movie in 1993, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to try and translate this satisfyingly brutal franchise into celluloid form. The results would, sadly, set the trend for curiously trashy, yet decidedly underwhelming videogame adaptations.
With a screenplay from Shoot ‘Em Up’s Michael Davis, working from a story idea cooked up by Batman: The Animated Series’ Paul Dini with Breaking Bad scribe Peter Gould, the signs for 1994’s Double Dragon movie are certainly promising. Helmed by visionary music video director James Yukich and featuring a cast of up-and-coming talent, including Party of Five’s Scott Wolf and Terminator 2’s Robert Patrick, this barmy action adventure, regrettably, is a sad, surreal example of a movie being far less than the sum of its formidable parts. What could have been a dark, bruising action belter is actually a lamentably corny romp for kids.
Set in the far off future of 2007 in the post-cataclysmic-quake city of ‘New Angeles’ (think Bladerunner on a shoestring), two affable, martial arts obsessed siblings, Jimmy (Wolf) and Billy Lee (Crying Freeman’s Mark Dacascos) come into possession of half of a powerful, enchanted Chinese medallion. Evil inner city gang leader Koga Shuko (Patrick), looking for all intents and purposes like a goatee’d kung fu Vanilla Ice, has the other half and will stop at nothing to unite the two in order to gain heinous mystic powers and take over the world. Cue lots of gloriously over-the-top, but poorly realised martial arts dust-ups and corny action set-pieces, packed with cheesy ‘Eat fist, butthead!’ one-liners, retina-seering costumes and piss-poor special effects.
With a script surely much better suited to an animated show for tweens, the performances across the board are inevitably hammy and irritating, with Wolf proving the chief culprit. His whooping, wisecracking, ‘goofy’ hero simpers and spits cheesy cartoon dialogue like ‘Eat some fist, buttheads!’, suggesting the writers were trying real hard to ensnare pre-pubescent fans of the all-conquering Ninja Turtles. Dacascos fares mildly better as the reliably bland straight man who only really comes to life in the occasionally diverting fight scenes. Veteran of B-movie fight flicks like Kickboxer 5 and American Samurai, the guy knows how to rumble, lighting up the screen with some impressively balletic, bone-crunching fighting skills that are grossly underused in the hideously choreographed scraps. Worse, Dacascos’ belligerent brilliance highlights the shortcomings of pretty boy Wolf, whose skills are far less remarkable, winning his fights by resorting to slapstick trickery, such as braining bad guys with basketballs and swinging from the rafters like a monkey. However, the two do have a sweet, gratifying chemistry and almost convince as brothers, despite the fact that Dacascos looks oriental, while Wolf is clearly as American as apple pie. Ultimately, though, Billy and Jimmy are less double-hard, streetwise heroes, more goofy, quarrelling Chuckle Brothers.
As villain Shuko, Patrick does the best he can, attempting to sell diabolical dialogue like ‘Your incompetence sticks needles into the flesh of my honour!’, but certainly seems to enjoy immersing himself in the cackling villainy of the role. Smirking throughout, Shuko may look daft, but is still kinda cool, fighting off foes without ever taking his cigar out of his mouth. Charmed’s Alyssa Milano also appeals in an early supporting role, as sprightly freedom fighter/love interest Marion, all ripped jeans, bleached blonde hair and radiating a chirpy, likeable enthusiasm.
Yet, a little too much of this spunky zeal permeates the film and sadly makes it a chore to watch. This is a heightened, cheesy sense of reality, filled with magic powers, weird monsters who act like OTT WWF wrestlers and nonsensical plotting that renders it closer in style to a feature-length episode of Power Rangers than its pixelated forebear. The poor production values don’t help either with appalling CGI and a dodgy synth score that is the enduring hallmark of direct-to-DVD movies. Piss-poor make-up means that ‘mutated’ baddies just look like they’ve got bits of plastic glued to their faces, while the sparkly, sequined, pastel-covered costumes our heroes are bestowed with at the tale’s crescendo are laugh-out loud minging.
Still, the film is far from boring, cramming in a smorgasbord of speedboats, fist-fights, car chases, ninjas and bizarre, mutated, Mohawked fatsuit-sporting villains into its relatively short runtime, as though the filmmakers believed that if they threw enough crazy shit, some of it was bound to stick. It’s action-packed and some scenes, like the high speed boat chase are genuinely thrilling, but it feels like Yukich is merely ticking boxes on a list of action movie tropes, rather than attempting to tell a cohesive, involving tale. The videogame was, admittedly, effectively plot-free, an empty canvas for an intrepid filmmaker to flesh out with ideas, yet how they came up with this technicolour mess is anyone’s guess.
Double Dragon is a dog’s dinner of a movie and it’s really not difficult to see why it sunk without a trace. It’s a shame, as there are certainly enough ideas at work to fashion a compelling story that could perhaps have worked as a guilty-pleasure TV show in the mould of Charmed or Buffy. In fact, the film was closely followed by an animated show that fared marginally better on TV, which was surely a better format for some of the franchise’s zanier stylings.
It’s not completely awful, just forgettable, low-budget silliness. Made in the early days, when Hollywood was still figuring out what a videogame movie could be, Double Dragon is a mildly diverting, sugar rush of a film that is worth a watch, if only to giggle at Robert Patrick’s mad hair.