Video game-to-film adaptations are tough to do well, folks. 1994’s oft-forgotten Double Dragon movie was a critical and commercial disaster, but I feel that it is still worth a watch for fellow connoisseurs of bad/weird cinema.
In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed Hollywood transform Street Fighter into something that more resembles G.I. Joe, Prince of Persia into a soulless Pirates of the Caribbean knock-off, and Super Mario Bros. into Cronenbergian body horror of the highest order. Sure, there’s the occasional well-received adaptation like Detective Pikachu or Sonic the Hedgehog, but the success rate for video game movies is remarkably low overall. And it's hard to place the Double Dragon movie in either category.
The Double Dragon Movie: Not Just a Game Anymore
Double Dragon is based on Technos Japan’s seminal 1987 beat ‘em up arcade game of the same name. One could argue even that was itself inspired by Walter Hill films The Warriors (1979) and Streets of Fire (1984). The Double Dragon movie, though, is the story of two orphaned teenage brothers named Bimmy Lee… *cough* I mean, Billy Lee (Scott Wolf) and Jimmy Lee (Mark Dacascos). Brothers who live in the earthquake-ravaged ruins of New Angeles in the distant year of… 2007.
Billy and Jimmy study martial arts under their mentor, Satori, who tells them the legend of the Double Dragon medallion that contains mystical powers. The medallion was split into two halves, with one granting power over body and the other power over soul. Billy, despite being a hotheaded moron, has the “body” medallion. The villanous Koga Shugo steals the other from it's hiding place.
How Many Times Can I Say “Koga Shuko”?
I could honestly devote this entire article to Koga Shuko. The T-1000 himself, Robert Patrick, plays him in what is easily his most scenery-chewing performance ever.
Koga Shuko is a ridiculous character – a thirty-something, theatrical white guy who names himself after a feudal Japanese warlord, wears over-sized suits, and rocks a laughable Vanilla Ice-inspired hairdo. With his ill-fitting coat, partially bleached hair, and ever-present cigarette holder, he could pass for Cruella de Vil’s long-lost brother. Whether he’s verbally abusing his whip-wielding dominatrix assistant, Lash, or performing acrobatics with his eyebrows, Patrick is clearly having a blast in the role, and as stupid as the character is, he brings an enormous amount of energy to the movie.
Koga Shuko eventually catches up to the Lee brothers and Satori sacrifices herself to allow them to escape. Alone and on the run from both Koga Shuko and the relentless gangs of “maniacs” who roam the streets of New Angeles, Billy and Jimmy attempt to gain the support of the Power Corp – an organized group of underaged vigilantes who make up for the weak police presence in the city by patrolling the streets at night.
After several clashes with the maniacs, including a speedboat chase through a flooded Hollywood, Billy and Jimmy meet up with the Power Corp’s leader, Marian (Alyssa Milano). She sneaks out of her house at night to lead the group while evading the watchful eye of her father, the *gasp* chief of police. Billy and Jimmy team up with (and disgustingly leer at) Marian and confront Koga Shuko to recover the second half of the Double Dragon medallion.
Biting Satire… With No Teeth
Double Dragon desperately wants to be like The Warriors, but lacks any of that movie’s grit-and-grime appeal. Instead of interestingly-themed gangs, Double Dragon’s so-called maniacs are a motley crew of non-threatening idiots. They look more like Las Vegas street performers than menacing thugs. It’s hard to be intimidated by doughy middle-aged men dressed like schoolboys, theater ushers, and…postal workers.
I’d be lying, however, if I said I didn’t burst out laughing when the mailmaniac performed his signature attack: jumping off a roof toward his opponents while yelling, “Special delivery! Airmaaaaaail!!!” The most prominent gang members in the movie are the musclebound Bo Abobo and his weaselly companion, Hawk. Fans of the Double Dragon game are undoubtedly familiar with Abobo, the prominent heavy placed at the end of many levels.
Double Dragon also desperately wants to be like Robocop, at least in terms of satire. We see clips of New Angeles’ televised news, with George Hamilton and Vanna White playing themselves as news anchors. Andy Dick is a “smogcaster” weatherman. These cameos are sprinkled throughout the movie, but these fourth-wall-breaking moments are neither clever nor funny. Why do George, Vanna, and Dick all look exactly like they did in 1994 despite it being 2007? That's some Hollywood magic, there.
The best satire the writers were able to come up with is a tired joke about Madonna divorcing Tom Arnold. My eyes rolled especially hard when the Action News correspondent for Channel 69 popped up. Nice. That number makes anyone laugh, right? This immaturity is the crux of the movie’s problems. It feels far more like a children’s movie than it should. Despite being a video game adaptation. The Power Corp’s hidden base looking one Aggro Crag away from being identical to the set of Nickelodeon’s Guts TV show certainly doesn’t help.
The saddest thing about Double Dragon is the waste of talent behind it. Paul Dini (Batman: The Animated Series) wrote the story. Peter Gould (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul) handled the screenplay. So it’s almost impressive how disastrous the resulting movie turned out to be.
Robert Patrick was only a couple years off of his iconic turn as the villain in Terminator 2. And Alyssa Milano’s star was rising rapidly. Mark Dacascos has long been a martial arts cinema favorite of mine. And while he does exhibit some impressive stunts occasionally in Double Dragon, he’s subjected to the same embarrassing script that everyone else is.
All complaints aside, I do think Double Dragon is a fun and often bizarre movie to laugh at. Most of the humor does not land as intended. But there’s a unique sort of manic energy that propels the film to the point where there’s rarely a dull moment. I always have a great time laughing at the ridiculous costumes. (One of Alyssa Milano's outfits, a tie-dye top, jean shorts, garters, and chaps, is especially egregious).
Even though there are a ton of cheesy digital effects and numerous stunts-gone-wrong, I think the Double Dragon movie is required viewing for fans of schlocky martial arts movies. It's an acquired taste, but a required one, at the same time.
Fun Fact – Lash is played by Kristina Wagner, best known for General Hospital. Marian is Alyssa Milano, best known for Who’s the Boss?. The two have an… interesting exchange. After striking Marian, Lash taunts her by asking, “Who’s the boss now?” Later on, after knocking Lash unconscious, Marian says, “You’re lucky. Generally, I put people in the hospital.” Cue that cringe!
Fun Fact II: The Revenge – The most notable contributor to the ultra-’90s soundtrack is a young, up-and-coming rapper named Coolio. Coolio would go on to “act” alongside Mark Dacascos as a villain in 2000’s China Strike Force.