It may be silly and occasionally miscast, but “Dragonball Evolution” never loses steam; the movie is both entertainingly ridiculous and ridiculously entertaining. And as counter-programming for kids who wouldn’t be caught dead at “Hannah Montana: The Movie,” this live-action adaptation of the popular Japanese anime and manga series makes a much more exciting Intro to Martial Arts movie for kids than the turgid “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li.”
Goku (Justin Chatwin) is a nerdy outcast at his high-tech high school, since he spends all of his time training with his grandfather (Randall Duk Kim) to use his innate gifts in the martial arts. On his 18th birthday, Goku attends a wild bash hosted by his crush Chi Chi (Jamie Chung) — bullies try to prevent him from entering, but he honors the no-fighting pledge he made to his grandpa by ducking blows and letting the mean kids beat each other up instead — but that’s the night that the evil Lord Piccolo (James Marsters) shows up and kills Goku’s granddad as part of his quest for the Dragonball in his possession.
We come to learn that there are seven Dragonballs — Goku received his as a birthday present — and that anyone who possesses all of them can have a wish granted. Scientist Bulma (Emmy Rossum)—armed with a high-tech motorcycle and a blue streak in her hair — shows up trying to find her stolen Dragonball, which she thinks could be used as a power source. The two of them hunt down Master Roshi (Chow Yun-Fat), who explains to them that Lord Piccolo is trying to find all the Dragonballs to summon his evil master (who nearly took over the world 2,000 years ago) during the upcoming total eclipse.
So yes, “Dragonball Evolution” isn’t a movie people are going to be seeing for the screenplay. What makes this Karate-Kid-vs.-Invaders-from-Mars movie work is that it’s never dull. The story may be goofy and convoluted, but we always know what’s happening, and what the heroes’ goals are, and what’s at stake if they fail. And director James Wong, a veteran of the similarly breathless “Final Destination” movies, always throws something new in the mix.
In one particularly impressive fight scene, Chi Chi battles her exact double (actually Piccolo’s henchwoman in disguise) in a very realistic-looking skirmish. Compare the CG wizardry on display here with a similar scene in Jackie Chan’s “Double Dragons” — Chan wins for fight choreography, but “Dragonball” does a better job of keeping both assailants’ faces in the frame.
Part of the reason that “Dragonball Evolution” feels a step above other live-action remakes of face-kicking cartoons is no doubt due to the presence of Stephen Chow (“Kung Fu Hustle,” “Shaolin Soccer”) as a producer; he and Thailand’s Tony Jaa are probably two of the leading forces in modern martial arts cinema. Even if “Dragonball” isn’t on par with Chow’s directorial efforts, his balance of wit and acrobatic melée can be felt throughout.
Older cast members like Chow Yun-Fat and Ernie Hudson (made up as an Asian monk, no less) seem to be having a ball, and the charismatic Chatwin makes for a fine leading man, even if you can’t escape the suspicion that the character should be played by an Asian actor. (There’s a third-act revelation behind Goku’s ethnicity that’s so bonkers that I wouldn’t dare reveal it here.) Rossum, on the other hand, is singularly unconvincing as a Lara Croft type.
“Dragonball Evolution” is no classic; you’ll probably have forgotten most of it by the time you hit the parking lot. But little kids will have such a blast that you can turn this movie into the gateway kung-fu drug that makes them want to watch the earlier work of Stephen Chow and Chow Yun-Fat.