Let’s just get one little fact out of the way before we start things: I am in love with this film. Since I’m a big fan of kung-fu tournament fighters and shonen anime, I’m predisposed to the type of sweet genre lovin’ that Turbo delivers in spades. I admit this. What astonishes me is that I don’t have to qualify my love for Turbo in any way. It is not a good action film— for a short—it is a superior action film. Full stop.
Described by the creators as a cross between The Karate Kid and Tron, Turbo is a futuristic martial arts fighter, where the action takes place at the local arcade rather than a secluded warehouse in Chinatown. In this future, Street Fighter-style arcade gaming has evolved into a “4-d” fighter called Turbo, via an interface that is a cross between Dance Dance and The Wizard-era NES powerglove, allowing for mano a mano sparring on the virtual level.
The film stars Justin Chon as Hugo, a young hotshot at the game. He lives with his brother who once fought the old-fashioned way—physically in a kickboxing ring, before a fight injury landed him in a wheel chair. The two brothers struggle for money, and Hugo has taken to occasionally betting on Turbo matches. When Hugo finds out that Turbo-legend Pharaoh King is holding a tryout competition for his elite team, he figures it could eliminate their money concerns. Can Hugo carry on his brother’s legacy and win a spot the team? To do so he’ll have to defeat Ruse Kapri, the gorgeous Turbo savant, and Shamus, the local arcade’s undefeated bully.
If that sounds like every fighting film you have ever seen, then congratulations, you are right. Turbo does not succeed in spite of its limitations as many action short films do—cleverly inventing a twist or deploying a new innovation such as Alive in Joburg did. Instead Turbo ignores the concept of limitations. This is standard genre-fare all the way, but the execution is astonishing. NOTHING in this film looks cheap. Especially not from a design standpoint (the sets are terrific), nor in the animation dept. handled by Ember Lab, where the team arguably pulls off extreme fighting in a way superior to the recent Dragonball movie; using a mix of After Effects, Illustrator, Maya and Shake.
The astonishing thing is the precociousness of this bunch. Jarret Lee Conaway developed Turbo as his thesis film at USC, which as a filmmaker fills me with a deep sense of personal shame. In the process of getting his career kickstarted Conaway has gotten off to a fantastic start—the buzz and reception for Turbo looks to be matching the strength of the film itself, and he recently participated in the well-connected Project:Involve contest over in LA, which we featured on this site a few weeks ago via the Short of the Moment, Market Price. What I love is that the internet has played a crucial role in gaining both films exposure, lending strength to calls for free internet distribution of shorts as a way to garner attention to a film and, by extension, its filmmakers.
The strong debut by Conaway, and the startling production values of Turbo on what was a 100k budget, has lead for many calls to see the film expanded into a feature. I would not hesitate to give the team a larger canvas in which to work, but I argue that Turbo trumps almost every fighting film of recent vintage precisely because of its nature as a short film. A brief thought exercise: to expand the film I think you could provide a bit more background on the brother, delving into his kickboxing career a bit further and correspondingly devote more time to the training montage. Certainly you add a romantic scene with the girl, and more fighting footage at the competition itself. You’ve now stretched the runtime to 45 min. You still don’t have a feature and you haven’t necessarily improved the film.
The lesson is that films of this genre suffer when orthodoxy regarding film lengths forces them to stretch in ways beyond their comfort and capabilities. If you are following standard conventions, shorthand plotting is actually preferable. In Turbo‘s present form our main character’s motivations are stated simply, and as sophisticated genre viewers, we accept them without having to be exposed to maudlin emoting regarding them. Turbo I think represents the spiritual zenith of a fight movie, if not yet its commercial zenith. I would love to see the series continue, anime-style with 20min installments. Next time out, Hugo has his first practice with Pharaoh’s team! Shamus signs with a rival group! Stay Tuned!