The extensive, vastly popular empire of Japan’s Dragonball series runs to 42 manga books and hundreds of kid-friendly anime episodes, videogames, and movies. But older viewers completely unfamiliar with the series won’t have any problem jumping on board with the first American live-action spin-off. Not only does Dragonball: Evolution pause every 10 minutes to re-explain its plot, but most of its material, characters, and style should already be familiar to adult film buffs. For instance, the protagonist, Goku (Justin Chatwin), is drawn equally from The Karate Kid and Shia LaBeouf in Transformers; he’s a martial-arts whiz, thanks to his chipper, goofy grandfather/sensei (Randall Duk Kim), but he’s still a cartoonishly spastic imbecile around his crush object Jamie Chung, and since he’s forbidden to fight, he sucks up a lot of abuse from bullies like Chung’s hunk-o-beef boyfriend.
That changes on his 18th birthday, when Kim gives him a glowing magical sphere and explains that there are seven such “dragonballs,” and that whoever has them all is granted a wish. It turns out that this wish may be the only defense against a bald, green alien invader named Piccolo (an unrecognizable, underused James Marsters) who was banished from Earth 2,000 years ago and has inexplicably returned to claim the dragonballs and take over the world.
Director James Wong (Final Destination) gives this high-flown nonsense the crowded but genial Hong Kong knock-off feel of The Forbidden Kingdom and the look of a shinier, updated Mortal Kombat, with a hefty dose of 300’s fast-then-slow-motion combat style and Dragon Wars’ impenetrable exposition and CGI beasties. Everything about the film feels polished but generic, competently but unimaginatively drawn from decades of special-effects films that are as focused on specialized action and as uninterested in plot as any porn flick.
But even more noticeably, Dragonball feels like a 2009 update of Krull, Red Sonja, and other mid-’80s quest movies in which a hero travels a lot while picking up a crowd of ablative, idiosyncratic companions—in this case including an embarrassingly mugging Chow Yun-Fat as aging master Roshi, Emmy Rossum as grabby technophile Bulma Briefs, and Joon Park as amoral thief Yamcha. The film is crammed with treats for old-school Dragonball fans, from the inclusion of all these characters (who don’t actually do much) to the moment when spiky-haired Goku dons his orange gi. For everyone else, this amounts to another seen-it-before, probably-willing-to-see-it-again distraction, a passable collection of ’splosions and special effects for a slow film weekend.