Japanese anime involving martial arts action has a tendency to go through a live action version now and again. From Fist of the North Star with Gary Daniels to the recent Takashi Miike film Yatterman (2009), the live action version of the most beloved of Japanese anime, Dragon Ball is nothing but disastrous.
Dragon Ball, created by Akira Toriyama, revolves around a young martial arts warrior named Son Goku, who joined forces with the teenage Bulma, desert bandit Yamcha, pig character Oolong, and the elder Master Roshi, to find the seven magical Dragonballs, which when brought together, summons the eternal Sheng Long, giving the founder the perfect wish.

Dragonball: Evolution, written by Ben Ramsey, follows Goku, a martial arts warrior who has just turned eighteen years old. His grandfather, Gohan, gives Goku a Dragonball to keep sacred. A legend has foretold of an alien warrior named Piccolo who returns after 2000 years to find the Dragonballs and make his wish to take over the world.

The first twenty minutes of the film look like a bad version of your basic teenage fight film in the vein of Never Back Down. Goku is seen as a martial artist who made a vow never to fight and has eyes for the high school beauty, Chi Chi. However, he is seen as a nerd who gets bullied by your average high school bullies. Chi Chi, on the other hand, learns of Goku’s martial arts and shares with him her knowledge of inner energy, or “Qi”.

The film picks up somewhat with the arrival of Bulma Reeves, a no-nonsense biker chick who uses heavy artillery and capsules that turn into vehicles. When Bulma learns Goku has a Dragonball, the two embark on a quest to find the rest after Gohan is killed by Piccolo and his new henchman Mai.

The duo soon find Master Roshi in the form of Hong Kong film legend Chow Yun-Fat. It is a good guess that Chow decided to do the film to break away from his usual serious fare. The script somewhat did an injustice to Chow’s performance as Roshi. In the anime, Roshi is seen as the martial arts mentor of Goku and it shows in the film, but Roshi’s fun side was a major part of the manga and anime and there isn’t much of that here in the film. Chow is meant to have a serious role here, and he does his best to work with the script.

Sadly, the character of Yamcha, played by Joon Park, wasn’t given any ample time and therefore, does not participate really in any action. Like his anime counterpart, he does what he does for the money, but his foremanner is completely the opposite of the anime. In the anime, Yamcha is deathly afraid of women yet in the film, he flirts like Bulma as if he tries to act like Stephen Fung’s character of Match in Gen-X Cops. As for the villain Piccolo, James Marsters, best known for his role of the vampire Spike on the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, should have been the perfect villain. However, it is sad to say that Marsters was completely wasted as all he did was mostly smugged and talked. Even in the climactic battle, he wasn’t given much to do as he took on Goku.

The fight scenes, choreographed by Jared Eddo and Jonathan Eusebio, had the potential to be the redeeming factor of the film. Like most Hollywood productions, there is the required quick cuts and close ups as well as some wirework. However, one of the biggest problems with the fight sequences, notably in the fight where Goku takes on his bullies at Chi Chi’s party, was the overuse of the slow motion technique. It felt too much like Peter Parker’s Spidey Sense in the 2002 Spider-Man film, but done in overkill fashion.

Many fans saw the trailer and had the feeling that the film would truly do injustice to the Dragon Ball name, and sad to say, those who felt that way will feel the same way about the movie. The Dragon Ball anime fans will have a field day. Akira Toriyama felt a little uncomfortable with the film version and he should have stuck with that feeling. It is even sadder that Stephen Chow is credited as producer of this really bland version of one of the most famous Japanese anime in the past few decades.

Redemption came afterwards for director James Wong, producer Stephen Chow, and screenwriter Ben Ramsey, not only offering public apologies, but in Ramsey’s case, he directed the awesome martial arts action-drama Blood and Bone that same year and of course, Stephen Chow has now continued to make his mark as a director in films like Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons and The Mermaid.

With that said, if you love manga and anime, only see Dragonball: Evolution as to see how not to make a live-action version. You’re better off with either Dragon Ball: The Magic Begins (a Taiwanese unauthorized version) or the current web series Dragon Ball Z: The Light of Hope. If there comes another chance to make a feature-length live-action adaptation, let’s hope they do things right.


20th Century Fox presents a Star Overseas Ltd. Production. Director: James Wong. Producer: Stephen Chow. Writer: Ben Ramsey; based on the manga “Dragon Ball” by Akira Toriyama. Cinematography: Robert McLachlan. Editing: Matt Friedman and Chris G. Willingham.

Cast: Justin Chatwin, Emmy Rossum, Jamie Chung, Chow Yun-Fat, James Marsters, Joon Park, Eriko Tamura, Randall Duk Kim, Ernie Hudson, Texas Battle, Megumi Seki, Ian Whyte.