In many ways, “Scott Pilgrim vs the World” is something of a 21st century “Big Trouble in Little China” – a flashy, colorful martial arts fantasy which failed at the box office during its initial release, only to steadily grow more and more beloved in the ensuing years and eventually rise to become a cult classic.
On top of that, it also happens to be by far, one of the best examples of video game translation to the big screen, an especially impressive achievement considering it’s based on a comic book!
Michael Cera steps into the title role of Canadian rock musician Scott Pilgrim, who wins the affections of high-schooler Knives Chau, played by Taekwondo exponent Ellen Wong, only to have his affections diverted by a delivery girl named Ramona Flowers, (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
Kieran Culkin portrays Scott’s roommate Wallace Wells, while Alison Pill, Mark Webber and Johnny Simmons assume the roles of his band mates, Kim, Steven, and “Young Neil”.
However, Scott’s safety ends up being threatened by The League of Evil Exes, a team of Ramona’s former flings played by Satya Bhabha, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Mae Whitman, Shota and Keita Saito, under the leadership of the ruthless Gideon, played by Jason Schwartzman.
Twenty two year old Canadian, Scott Pilgrim has little to no direction in his life, though he largely seems fine with that. He plays bass for the rock band Sex Bob-Omb and is in a relationship with 17-year old Knives Chau, but his devotion to her is soon tested when he develops an attraction to Ramona Flowers, a delivery girl and American immigrant to Toronto.
Scott neglects to actually break-up with Knives before pursuing his feeling for Ramona. However, this ends up being the least of his problems with the arrival of The League of Evil Exes; seven of Ramona’s previous significant others whom Scott must defeat in order to live to see another day as Ramona’s boyfriend.
It’s one thing to try to adapt a video game to live-action and as the average gamer will tell you, the results have been, more often than not pretty unimpressive. It’s something else entirely for a movie to try to actually be a videogame, and “Scott Pilgrim vs the World” doesn’t TRY anything.
Nintendo-style graphics and sound effects pop up on screen for everything from captioning what’s going on inside character’s heads to such mundane tasks as the act of urinating. Fight scenes regularly conclude with the loser exploding into a pile of coins along with the number of points the victor has earned flashing across the screen like neon lights.
Even the entire concept of the League of Evil Exes is portrayed as equivalent to a gamer ascending the levels of a video game to get to the final big boss at the top. What makes it all work is how the film plays the entire scenario straight, with none of the characters batting an eye at the outlandishness of the world they inhabit.
Whether it’s Scott being hurled hundreds of feet through the air and dusting himself off without a scratch or Ramona casually pulling a hammer (that even Thor would gulp at the sight of!) from her purse, the realm of “Scott Pilgrim vs the World” is one where these sorts of things are as commonly accepted a part of life as the concept of gravity.
It’s hard to imagine anyone as impeccably prepared to play Scott as Michael Cera (Jesse Eisenberg excluded), and the fact that he so flawlessly embodies his character is what makes his martial arts’ abilities work with the intended effect.
It’s a good thirty minutes into the film before the audience is given any indication that such an oblivious, mumbling dork as Scott could possess such a radically metaphysical set of martial arts skills. Then, Matthew Patel, the first of Ramona’s Evil Exes, arrives, and Scott leaps into action and displays a combat prowess no one would associate with a socially clueless doofus whose idea of a pick-up line is explaining why Pac-Man’s name was changed from the original Puck-Man.
Of course, Cera’s performance is downright subtle compared to almost everyone else in the cast, but that too is kind of the point. Ellen Wong is irrepressibly energetic in her portrayal of Knives as a teenager utterly enraptured by her older boyfriend, and Chris Evans hams it up marvellously (no pun intended!) in the role of Ramona’s second Evil Exe. Hollywood action star Lucas Lee’s villainous portrayal looks like it was modeled on M. Bison’s cosmic egomania as embodied by Raul Julia in “Street Fighter: The Movie”.
Brandon Routh also proves he can do comedy as Todd Ingram, an Evil Exe who draws his powers from veganism, and Mae Whitman’s portrayal of Roxy Richter leads to one of the action highlights of the film with Ramona having to control Scott’s limbs like a puppet in order to get him to hit a girl.
The film seems to lose a little steam near the end when Exes five and six, Kyle and Ken Katayanagi, show up and their appearance ends up being of almost no consequence at all.
However, the final battle with the leader of the Exes, Gideon, brings the film’s energy roaring back to life after that momentary lull. The overall theme of the film comes full circle, with Scott finally maturing as a person; taking responsibility for his careless transgressions towards Knives and Ramona, it must be said, the sheer visual insanity of it all is simply astonishing.
Swords materialize out of thin air for Scott and Gideon to wage war with and everything you’d want to see in the final level of a video game is here, including an extra life for Scott to cash in at a critical moment!
“Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist” may have been the film to finally show that a video game can be adapted to a movie with artistic and dramatic depth, but “Scott Pilgrim vs the World” pioneers the concept that a movie can not only become a videogame, but can do so while playing the whole thing straight.
At last, there is an heir to the throne of “Big Trouble in Little China”, and one that also happens to be home to what is arguably Chris Evans’ best non-Captain America performance.
- Bryan Lee O’Malley based the “Scott Pilgrim” comic book series around two premises. The first was the idea of “What if, after a life of playing fighting games, someone confronted you and you actually had the ability to fight like a ‘Street Fighter’ character?” The second concept came about when O’Malley was dating his future wife, Hope Larson. When he learned that she had three exes named Matthew, he came up with the idea of a League of Matthews, which eventually developed into the League of Evil Exes.
- Peng Zhang served as the film’s fight choreographer. Some of his other credits include “47 Ronin”, “X-Men: The Last Stand”, “Ninja Assassin”, “Ant-Man”, “Kingsman: The Secret Service”, and “The Wrath of Vajra”.
- Jackie Chan stunt team member Brad Allan served as the film’s stunt coordinator. Some of his other credits include “Gorgeous”, “Mr. Nice Guy”, “Shanghai Knights”, “Kick Ass”, “Pacific Rim”, and “Kingsmen: The Secret Service”.
- Mae Whitman is also well-known as the voice of Katara in the animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender”.