In the history of films based on video games, Double Dragon will always be the one that people go “oh, they made that? Really?”. It had the misfortune of coming out a year after the first videogame movie, Super Mario Bros, and a month before what is still one of the most heavily promoted, Street Fighter. It also had about a quarter the budget of either, and no big-name stars. But, much like the game itself when I was a kid in the arcade, I had to give it a go.
The film is set in the distant future of 2007 Los Angeles and is a wonderfully crafted cyberpunk-for-kids environment where gangs rule the night and cops only come out during the day. The crime boss is a T-1000 dressed like Vanilla Ice, played by Robert Patrick, and you can tell they are evil because they smoke cigarillos like a bad guy. He’s recently set light to a village “somewhere in China” (somewhere in those 9.5 million square kilometers has to look like a Hollywood studio backlot) and has got his hands on half of a medallion called the Double Dragon. Which looks surprisingly cheap for a thing of infinite power.
Meanwhile, Billy Lee (Scott Wolf) and Jimmy Lee (Mark Dacascos) are engaging in the twilight world of relatively-few-rules Martial Arts tournaments, living in an abandoned theatre, and traveling around in a car that turns any combustible junk they can shovel in it into jet propulsion. Their manager/emotional labour provider is Satori (Julia Nickson), who gets the other half of the medallion, gives exposition, and then dies. They are also kind of friends with The Power Corps, which is a semi-feral version of The Mickey Mouse Club. They are led by Marian (Alyssa Milano), who, once Satori dies so the boys can have the McGuffin, becomes Billy and Jimmy’s emotional labour provider and target of PG-rated sexual frustration.
What then happens is a fairly standard “baddies want the thing, goodies protect the thing, fights happen, we travel through a future world, guess who wins and finds emotional development in the end?” narrative. It’s done in a light-hearted, kid-friendly, and relentlessly fun manner. Billy and Jimmy are well-intending idiots, constantly smiling and laughing whilst committing brutal acts of hand-to-hand violence and having Satori and Marian do the bulk of thinking for them. And that bubble-headed optimism, along with some snappy one-liners and overall decent performances from the cast, is half of what makes this so watchable.
The other half is the insanely violent, nihilistic world they live in. The film starts with a medieval Chinese village on fire, before showing us the destroyed remnants of “New Angeles”. Urban and environmental decay is everywhere, including river water that kills on contact and catches alight with ease. The news anchors laugh through throw-away lines of death, destruction, and disorder. We see the body-horror of a ganger mutated into something out of a Cronenberg movie, and discover industrial-scale human experimentation. There is even a postal-service-themed gang whose members happily jump off four-story buildings at the brothers as they romp through it all, falling to their death for the slim chance of thumping the pair.
At first, it’s ridiculous. Then it’s even more ridiculous. Then, eventually, your brain gives up and just goes along for the ride. This is a child’s version of the apocalypse, so why shouldn’t it be fun? The good guys will win, so why should they worry about anything? All the sci-fi horror elements are window dressing, so why get bombed out by any of it? It’s imaginative, high energy, and stupid, but somehow manages to stay endearing by the pure naivety of it all. Its jokes are awful, its plot is nonsensical, and it’s the most wholesome bit of garbage cinema I have seen for ages.
After the first 10 minutes, you’ll know exactly why it bombed so hard at the box office, but you’ll carry on watching to the end. As a child’s adventure watched through adult eyes it’s a Treasure. Possibly most importantly for the naysayer, whilst it has almost nothing to do with its source material it’s still not the worst video game adaptation.