The fate of the world is at stake. It’s always at stake in these sorts of movies. In this specific film, Dragonball Evolution, it’s at stake because a green-face alien, Piccolo (James Marsters) has somehow managed to escape his 2000-year-old prison and is back to enslave all of humanity, or something like that. He tried once before, but was imprisoned. Now, it’s up to high-school student Goku (Justin Chatwin) and a group of arbitrarily assembled people to stop Piccolo a second time, attempting to do so by collecting seven orange balls, called “Dragonballs,” before the green man gets to them first.
If that seems like I’m jumping into the plot too quickly and in a way that really doesn’t explain the mythology or motivation for anything, mission accomplished, because that’s what you get with this movie, too, which is based on the popular Japanese manga (and television show, presumably) Dragon Ball. If you’re familiar with either of those, you’re not going to want to see what this film has done to your beloved source material. If you haven’t read or seen Dragon Ball before this film, you’re better off doing that than seeing the movie.
See, the thing about a manga or television series is that time can be allotted for mythology and character building. Movies can do this, too, but it’s tough to shrink down a long-running series into a two-hour movie. It’s even more difficult when, somehow, the final movie is only 84 minutes. As a result, we get basically nothing in the way of characters, the universe, or why anything is the way it is.
The answer, of course, is that the film needs to drop as many references to the source material as it can. The film takes place in a near-future, Goku is a high school student, and people can have special powers seemingly at will — if they concentrate and train hard enough, of course. It initially seems like the film is taking place in a world similar to ours, which throws the audience for a loop once we learn that isn’t anywhere close to the case. But there’s no explanation given except “this is how it is.”
Names you’ll recognize from the original series show up here, although they may or may not be similar to the characters you remember. Bulma (Emmy Rossum) is the first person to join Goku on his quest to find the Dragonballs. She has a gun, is dressed like Lara Croft, and apparently wants to use the Dragonballs to invent an unlimited energy source, or something. It’s not well-defined. A man named Master Roshi (Chow Yun-fat) also joins Goku early on, and he’s … probably the closest the film gets to the source material. Both the character and Yun-fat’s performance will remind you of the original Master Roshi.
Goku also has an incredibly rushed and underdeveloped relationship with a girl at his high school, Chi-Chi (Jamie Chung), and a bandit named Yamcha (Joon Park) joins the gang later on and does absolutely nothing of value and had no reason to be in the film except for the factor of “hey, here’s another name you might remember.” This is fan service, and not the good kind.
What does all this matter? This is a series built around action scenes, right? You just want to see these guys fight each other a whole bunch, right? Well, you intermittently get that in this movie. Apart from some dodgy CGI, the action scenes are competent and serve as the only reason someone over the age of 10 might want to watch Dragonball Evolution. The mixture of martial arts and superpowers is a good one, and luckily they haven’t been edited down to the point of incoherence, even if they’re not terribly exciting to begin with.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of entertainment value to be had here. The dialogue is awful, the characters are one-dimensional, the plot makes little sense without having a base understanding of the source material — and if you have that, there’s no reason for you to see the film anyway — and when the best thing you can say about a movie is that its action scenes are competent, that’s a pretty good indication of a dud.
There is only one actor in this film worthy of praise, and that’s Chow Yun-fat, who seems invested in the material and his character. He actually seems to understand the film he’s in, and somehow makes his version of Master Roshi memorable. Most of the other actors are lifeless. This is especially true of our lead, Justin Chatwin, who is as emotionless as a speck of dust. Emmy Rossum tries to inject some life into the proceedings but her sincere form of delivering dialogue just goes to highlight how little almost everyone else cares. Jamie Chung, Joon Park and James Marsters are all horrible.
Dragonball Evolution is a pretty awful movie, even if some of the action is moderately successful and watchable. The best part of the film is that it’s only 84 minutes in length, although that winds up being to its detriment because all of the world-building and character development got lopped off to keep the running time down. The actors — apart from Chow Yun-fat — are terrible, the plot is confusing and yet somehow too simplistic and silly, the dialogue is horrible and it all adds up to a film you don’t very much want to experience.