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October 17, 2010

Movie Review – Assault Girls (2009)

by Master Pillow

Assault Girls is a thoroughly pedantic exercise in futility that attempts to mesh its underlying human philosophical take on man and the machine with a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) setting.  The title assumes that viewers will be treated to some sort of action extravaganza featuring beautiful women shooting machine guns or slicing enemies with swords yet it is completely misleading and should in fact be renamed LFG.  For those not schooled in MMORPG terms that means “looking for group” and I am dumbfounded that any serious film director or even film student would attempt to create an entire narrative based on one of the most tedious aspects of online gaming.

Mamoru Oshii, director of the highly acclaimed Ghost in the Shell movies, turns his sights back to live action with this straightforward tale featuring three women and one man who are playing within the MMORPG called Avalon.  The crux of the narrative revolves around the fact that all four are basically soloing the game but have hit an impasse as none can single-handedly defeat the Madara boss which resembles a huge land worm in the same vein as those found in Frank Herbert’s Dune.  While a film set within a MMORPG is certainly a topic rife with possibilities Oshii decides to focus solely on creating a forlorn mood punctuated with sweeping shots of desolate landscapes and even more endless shots of people walking around aimlessly.  Every so often he decides to intersperse shots of a snail tediously crawling over a stone statue which makes for the perfect metaphor for the movie in how monotonous everything seems to feel.

I consider myself more than a veteran of MMORPGs as I’ve played World of Warcraft, Aion, Lineage II, RF Online, Rift, Pirates of the Burning Sea and Final Fantasy XI to death and though I hate to admit it I’ve probably wasted a good year of my life in these virtual realms.  That said I have doubts as to whether or not Oshii understands or even has played any of these games for more than a cursory period as it literally makes less than no sense to build a movie on four solo only players who seem to wander a virtual world that is devoid of other inhabitants or features a scarcity of monsters to kill.  What makes matters worse is that the world of Avalon incorporates what must be the worst implementation of a gamemaster who constantly gives the same piece of advice to all the players in an omniscient narrator’s voice.  After the hundredth time that it recommends that the players team up and join a party to defeat Madara I would suspect each player would shout for it to “STFU”.

The movie might have still worked if it managed to create some needed character depth and perhaps show them interacting and building some sort of relationship between the combatants.  It is quite quickly stated that all four hate each other but since the entire thrust of the narrative is for them to join forces we expect some sort of forced camaraderie at the very least.  Unfortunately, Oshii robs us of this and in fact fast-forwards the story so that we do not see the negotiations that take place between the girls and only the one between presumably the leader Gray (Meisa Kuroki) and the grizzled male, Jager (Yoshikazu Fujiki )which quickly devolves into a pissing contest.

No I don’t mean that literally but the duo cannot decide on how to split the experience points so they decide to settle it with a player versus player duel.  While this sounds intriguing hopes are quickly dashed when Oshii decides to be cheeky and create a duel based on console/arcade fighting games rather than sticking to his established Avalon universe.  Therefore, we are treated with an incredibly cheesy fight sequence that looks like it was ripped out of Street Fighter II showing character portraits loudly proclaiming Gray VERSUS Jager.  Compounding this silliness we are then treated to four rounds of badly choreographed melee combat whereby Gray finds new ways in which to kick Jager’s ass each time killing him and forcing him to respawn.

Our three female protagonists are all defined by their costumes and fighting skills rather than having any backstory to speak of.  No doubt they make a striking image especially Meisa Kuroki and Hinako Saeki who are basically wearing very form fitting attire.  Nevertheless, none of these actresses get down and dirty as their number one goal seems to be striking combat poses with their large phallic machine guns.  As the lone male Yoshikazu Fujiki is reduced to comic relief since he’s the only character who constantly dies making one wonder as to his real life video game proficiency.  He is also the only avatar who does not have some sort of fast travel means of transport as the three women come equipped with fighter jets, mecha and even a spell which turns one into a giant bird.

While there is something to be said about avatars in an online setting and the fact that rarely does the real user appear like their virtual toons the movie only gives credence to this with a few throwaway lines.  I’m actually surprised more filmmakers do not delve into this area of the human psyche as it is a well known fact that most female avatars are controlled by male players.  Nevertheless, all viewers get are a few lines where each character insults the other and the entire topic is then dropped like a hot potato.  Even another appalling movie like Bruce Willis’ Surrogates conceived of a situation where a huge obese man was in fact controlling a sexy young woman who regularly cavorted with members of the opposite sex calling into question his sexual orientation.  Although that movie didn’t explore the topic further it still manages more insight than Oshii gives here.

Perhaps Oshii decided that he was too smart to debase himself with online video games but in an odd attempt to give the film meaning he grafts an almost eight minute prologue at the beginning of the movie which features random images and an uninterested narrator who decides to basically inform the audience as to how humanity came to create the Avalon MMORPG.  The problem is that this entire sequence feels preachy and ultimately pretentious almost as if Oshii is purposely trying to explain his opinion about how technology is influencing mankind.  Structurally this is a disaster in the making as the movie itself runs a brief 70 minutes and is only around 65 if one minuses the end credits.  While devoting more than 10% of the movie to what is essentially a university lecture takes some gumption it does nothing but completely flatline the film’s pace in which it never recovers.

It is obvious that Oshii is trying his best to create a solemn and sombre mood but wasting precious minutes showing the audience extraneous scenes does nothing but cause sleepiness and outright frustration.  While having a movie featuring nothing but wall to wall action is as brain-numbing an experience as this devoting a few minutes to a close up shot of Jager frying two eggs and bacon adds nothing to the narrative and doesn’t advance the plot nor expand on characterization.

Adding even more insult to injury Oshii decides to imbue one of the women with the annoying habit of perpetually dancing on the battlefield while excruciating circus music blares in the background.  We get that she’s a bit eccentric but when this is the only element that stands out from her character it makes one wonder if Oshii has ever logged onto an online game.  If a player were to waste time in a party dancing around like some sort of court jester in the middle of a harrowing battle with a boss monster that player would likely be kicked out of the party and be the subject of much scorn for not utilizing their talents in a better manner.

Then again what dialogue is included is so pedantic that there’s nothing much any of these thespians can do to add some spark.  In a way it might be an unintended asset that Oshii has forced his actors to speak English for the majority of the film even though it is frightfully obvious that they are not proficient in it.  This leads to large sections of the movie where their dialogue is hard to discern or completely unintelligible at all forcing viewers to quickly reach for their remote to turn on the subtitles.  What sentences do come out right are mangled because their tone and word emphasis is almost completely out of whack.   Perhaps Oshii is making a statement that English would become the de facto language in the Avalon MMORPG but this point is quickly demolished when the actors lapse back into Japanese near the end of the movie.

Assault Girls is the kind of movie that most viewers will not want to experience since it fails in the most spectacular of ways in that its short 70 minute running time actually feels like four hours.  If an enterprising film editor were to cut out all the redundant shots of characters posing or walking listlessly around the landscape I have no doubt the overall film could fit in the average time of a sitcom.  Mamoru Oshii seems to have constructed Assault Girls as a kind of overt joke as conceptually it is the opposite of his much more insightful work on Ghost in the Shell.  Nevertheless, the joke is clearly on viewers who are enticed to view the movie based on their preconceived notions that they will be entertained with a deep narrative and views on the human psyche as there is none of that here at all and in its vacuum Oshii fills the movie with nothing but an incessant drive to force viewers to sleep.

* out of ****

2009, Japan, 65 Minutes, Geneon Universal Entertainment
Directed by Mamoru Oshii
Written by Mamoru Oshii
Produced by Issei Shibata
Original Music by Kenji Kawai
Cinematography by Atsunori Sato, Hiroaki Yuasa
Film Editing by Atsunori Sato

Gray: Meisa Kuroki
Jager: Yoshikazu Fujiki
Lucifer: Rinko Kikuchi
Colonel: Hinako Saeki

© 2010 The Galactic Pillow

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