I know nothing about the much-loved manga series Dragon Ball, and my exposure to the two anime series derived from that manga consists of, at best, some three or four episodes. I am, that is to say, no expert in the field of Dragon Ball. However, I like to think that I am, if not expert, at least well-educated in the field of movies, and thus I feel safe in declaring that Dragonball Evolution, the first live-action, English-language film in the franchise, is absolutely insipid.

Given how very little of the story makes sense or seems to matter all that much, there sure is a lot of it. Quickly: there's a young man named Goku (Justin Chatwin), trained in some kind of nondescript martial art by his grandfather Gohan (Randall Duk Kim), and on his eighteenth birthday, Gohan gives him a very special something called a Dragonball, of which only seven exist in all the world. Unite all seven, and you will be granted a single wish. Just exactly as Goku is learning about this wonderful set of objects, the evil King Piccolo (James Marsters), imprisoned for 2000 years, has returned to find the Dragonballs himself, and use them during an eclipse to take over the world. Goku assembles a few hangers-on and helpers in his quest, the only one of which I could keep straight consistently being Roshi, his new teacher after Gohan is killed; and that only because Roshi was played by Chow Yun-Fat, who really ought to be doing better things than this.

There are many, many things in this movie that make no damn sense at all, though I expect that most of them are probably well-explained in the source material. But even though it's probably safe to assume that a healthy chunk of the audience will be made up of people with some attachment to the books/TV shows, that's still unforgivably shoddy storytelling, especially if it is true, as I gather, that the movie plays pretty fast and loose with series canon. At any rate, it's kind of hard to tell where we are, who is who and how exactly they're connected, and the plot is rather posited than shown.

So far, so good. Martial arts films have always suffered from a lot of these exact same problems. Except that most martial arts films can get away with it because they then have thrilling martial arts sequences in between all the weirdness, while Dragonball Evolution suffers from... I certainly hesitate to say "the worst fighting scenes in the last several years", simply because I haven't seen every fighting movie released recently, and I expect that the very worst of them weren't released in the U.S. anyway. This doesn't change the fact that the fighting scenes are extravagant in their badness: heavily reliant on unlovely CGI, edited for minimum coherence - in fact, I cannot say what possibly motivated most of the editing in the film, lest it be the terror that we should forget what the sets looked like if we didn't see random shots of them from numerous angles several times each minute. But where was I, yes, the fighting scenes, which are totally unconvincing and confusing, and almost entirely devoid of "cool" moments. Or indeed, of any other "adjective" moments.

The film's director, James Wong, used to be one-half of a pretty great writing team on The X-Files, but since leaving that show in 1998, he has become completely awful, directing Final Destination and Final Destination 3 (though not, oddly enough, Final Destination 2); and most importantly for our present purposes, The One, a profoundly useless Jet Li vehicle. His ineptitude with the film's action sequences is almost impossible to describe; if I were going to try, I'd probably mention how none of the fights have any clear narrative beyond "two people beating on each other", and how difficult it is to make out who is winning until he or she has won.

Wong also deserves a bit of the blame for not stopping the crazed art direction and costume design, which seem devoted to recreating the look of the manga in live-action, with neither grace nor success. There was quite a lot to dislike about last summer's Speed Racer, I thought, but at least it looked, for the most part, like something otherworldly, and that made its frequent visual nods to anime fit in with the rest of the aesthetic. In Dragonball Evolution, the sets, and even more particularly, the costumes and hairstyles, jar horribly with the pedestrian, real-world look of the people, and the physicality of most of the environments. After struggling to figure out exactly what looked wrong about all of this, the best I can come up with is that the combination of real places and tangible-cartoon characters is like watching really glossy footage from Comic-Con. Which is, incidentally, the only gathering of people in the whole world where you might conceivably find a majority who would get any enjoyment out of Dragonball Evolution whatever.

Stuck in amongst all of this, the cast is mostly content to be swallowed up and ignored, though for most of them, this is their default mode anyway (in the cast: Emmy "Remember how everyone thought I'd be a Big Thing after The Phantom of the Opera?" Rossum. Man, that girl is apocalyptically uncharismatic). Justin Chatwin, an actor who I always recognise for his sleepy-or-stoned look, though I can never think of his name or what other things I've seen him in, manages to give a yet more disengaged performance than when he sleepwalked through The Invisible, a film that I suspect most people, including Justin Chatwin, have long since forgotten about.

As I hope happens, quickly, to Dragonball Evolution, a wholly miserable experience that is far too goofy and incompetent to work on any level, and yet lacks any of the madness that could shuttle it to "so bad it's good" territory. No, it stays firmly in the overcast land of "so bad it's bad", a flawless example of everything that can go hellishly wrong with movies released in the first third of the calendar year.