Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, July 8, 2017

JCVD-A-THON: Street Fighter (1994)

Movies based on video games have a reputation of being bad which is, let's face it, not unearned. Yet I sometimes find myself yearning for the lovably crappy video game movies of the nineties, as opposed to the joylessly crappy video game movies of today. Such as “Street Fighter!” History remembers the adaptation of Capcom's iconic fighting game series as a flop, though it was actually one of Jean-Claude Van Damme's biggest hits. This was the peak of Van Damme's cocaine-fueled egomaniac days, which further hastened his soon-to-come fall from the A-list. In time, “Street Fighter” has become something of a cult classic. Thanks to countless VHS rentals, it has become an object of nineties kids nostalgia, an enjoyably campy cast-off from another era.

General M. Bison, mad tyrant and drug lord of the nation of Shadaloo, has declared war on the world. He is holding a handful of relief workers hostage, to the price point of several billion dollars. This is all part of his plan to breed a race of genetically engineered super soldiers and take over the planet. The Allied Nations have sent Colonel Guile into Shadaloo to save the workers and stop Bison. Guile has personal business with Bison, as the villain has kidnapped/mutated his best friend. Meanwhile, several other characters get involved. Reporter/Martial artist Chun-Li wants revenge on Bison for the death of her father. Conmen Ryu and Ken, along with weapons dealer Sagat and Vega, get roped into working with or against the madman. Soon, the fight begins.

Adapting anything for film is hard but fighting games present unique challenges. By their very nature, fighting games have huge cast and generally thin stories. Turning “Street Fighter” into a movie was never going to be easy. What made it more difficult was Capcom constantly exerting their influence on the production, demanding more characters be added and rushing filming to meet a Christmas release date. Considering these problems, legendary eighties action screenwriter-turned-director Steven de Souza managed to make a surprisingly coherent film. He juggles the large cast by forming different characters into groups of two or three. Everyone's goal is united by wanting to defeat or kill M. Bison. Most of the characters get complete character arcs, as even Ryu and Ken realize they need to fight for more than just themselves. You never loose track of who's who or what's happening. “Street Fighter” is a deeply flawed film but it easily could've been much, much worst.

Still, “Street Fighter” is not a good “Street Fighter” movie. As an adaptation, it's a catastrophe. Capcom specifically demanded the movie not be about a fighting tournament. They wanted something closer to a James Bond flick. Shadaloo is now a country, instead of a crime syndicate. Balrog is a good guy. Zangief and Dee Jay are bad guys. Dhalsim is a doctor. Chun-Li is a reporter, instead of an Interpol agent. Ryu and Ken are conmen, instead of journeying martial artists. Charlie Nash and Blanka have been combined into one character. Aesthetically, there are differences all over the place. Traditionally Thai Sagat is played by full-blooded Cherokee Wes Studi. E. Honda is Hawaiian. All-American hero Guile becomes All-Belgium kickboxer Jean-Claude Van Damme. Ken isn't even blonde. If “Street Fighter II” fans in 1994 were expecting an accurate reflection of their beloved video game, the movie provided them with something very different.

“Street Fighter” may fail as an adaptation but, as a goofy blockbuster, it's pretty entertaining. De Souza keeps the tone light-hearted and goofy. “Street Fighter's” tongue is thoroughly in its cheek. There's silly comic relief all over the place. Balrog and E. Honda traded playful verbal jabs. Ken and Ryu react to most of the adventure with sarcastic disbelief. Zangief is a source of delightfully dumb comic relief, a massive nincompoop who gets several funny moments to himself. When the film isn't full of deliberately comedic moments, it carefully captures a tone of cartoonish excess. The costumes and sets are fantastically bright and colorful. The writing is Saturday morning cartoon simple but this works for the movie. In fact, its premise of a good military organization fighting a themed evil organization, led by a colorful madman, recalls the “G.I. Joe” cartoon. A sequence built around a high-tech speed boat really seems like something out of that show.

Many factors were involved but “Street Fighter” may owe its winning tone of joyfully childish excess to one man. Raul Julia probably seemed like a weird choice to play M. Bison, the towering, musclebound, superpowered end-boss of “Street Fighter II.” Julia's already thin figure was further whittled down by the stomach condition that would soon end his life. Yet Julia's performance couldn't be in higher spirits. He is gloriously hammy, biting into every scene with as much over-the-top power as he can summon. Bison is a evil cartoon super villain and he loves it. Julia shouts most of his dialogue, capturing a perfectly condescending strength in every line. It's an incredibly entertaining performance. When you learn Julia picked this film as his final role to please his kids, it even becomes oddly touching.

Perhaps following Julia's example, the rest of the extensive cast endeavors to have fun too. Ming-Na Wen doesn't have Chun-Li's legendary thunder thighs – not that any flesh-and-blood woman ever could – but she's otherwise perfect, leading the day with a sense of self-assured, ass-kicking power. Damian Chapa and Byron Mann don't represent Ryu and Ken as we know them very well but both are enjoying themselves. Grand L. Bush and Peter Tuiasosopo are similarly miscast as Balrog and Honda but both project a sense of endearing goofiness. Wes Studi is clearly having fun playing a two-dimensional villain. He even manages to make Sagat a little intimidating. Miguel A. Nunez Jr. and Andrew Bryniarski utilize their goofy accents towards creating reliably amusing comic relief bit players. As for Van Damme, he uses all his considerable charm, pumping Guile up into a cornball hero who despises evil and loves to flaunt his strengths. It's probably not the most accomplished cast but it seems to have been the right one for this movie.

As an action film, “Street Fighter” is surprisingly soft on fights that take place in the streets. Instead, de Souza delivers the blockbuster action Capcom requested. The finale features lots of explosions and gun fire, as the heroes lay waste to Bison's lair. There's plenty of faceless henchmen for Guile and his gang to lay waste too. Occasionally, “Street Fighter” does feature some one-on-one fighting. The film does throw in most of the character's trademark moves. Guile's flash kick, Honda's super-slap, Ken's Shoryoken and Ryu's spin-kick look incredibly awkward but they are in the movie. There's even a Hadouken, though you'd be forgiven for missing it. The action works the best when it incorporates the film's silly sense of humor. Such as Zangief and Honda's fight being scored to Godzilla sound effects. Or Guile brandishing a small knife when faced with a gang of armed henchmen.

“Street Fighter” was meant to launch a franchise and honestly made enough money that it could've. Ultimately, the meager critical reaction was enough to sink the idea of a sequel. Who knows what a cinematic “Street Fighter II” might've looked like. The sequel obviously would have to recast Raul Julia and I'm not sure a story like this would work without him. Whether “Street Fighter” is a good movie is debatable. However, it sure as hell is a fun movie. I'm not a regular player of the “Street Fighter” games – I'm a hardcore “Darkstalkers” fan – but I do recognize that a better movie could probably be made from this material. (Capcom second attempt, fifteen years later, sure wasn't it.) However, “Street Fighter” sure made me smile a lot. Isn't that, after all, why we watch movies? [8/10]

[THE VAN DAMMAGE: 4 outta 5]
[] An Entire Fight, Sans Shirt
[X] Close-Up Screaming
[X] Dancing*
[X] Jump-Kicks A Guy, Through Something
[X] Performs Either a Split or a Spinning Roundhouse Kick

*Guile rights himself with a helicopter spin, which is a breakdancing move.

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