Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (2009)

Following the 2009 release of “Street Fighter IV,” the iconic fighting game series was more popular than it had been in years. Hoping to capitalize on this success, and likely because another Capcom inspired film series had proved surprisingly profitable, someone decided to make a new “Street Fighter” movie. Though an established cult classic by this point, the previous attempt at a live action “Street Fighter” movie certainly left room for improvement. When it was announced, I  even thought “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li” had a promising premise. Chun-Li has always been my favorite character in the game. Focusing on origin stories for individual characters might've been a smart way to avoid the crowded cast and convoluted stories of other game adaptations. “Might've been” being the key phrase there.

To any “Street Fighter” fans reading this, I want to know how faithful to your beloved video games this sounds: Chun-Li is the daughter of a rich businessman and trained as a concert pianist. As a child, her dad is kidnapped by mysterious crime boss M. Bison. Years later, after receiving a mysterious scroll, Chun-Li travels to Thailand. She seeks out Gen, a former associate of Bison who is now seeking to end crime in Bangkok. He trains Chun-Li in martial arts, before she heads off to rescue her dad from Bison. Meanwhile, an Interpol agent named Charlie Nash attempts to undo Bison's criminal empire.

“The Legend of Chun-Li” deviates so much from the games, it hardly counts as an adaptation at all. Some of these changes are minor. Shadoloo is a corporation, instead of a crime organization. Chun-Li is a pianist, instead of a cop. Many of them, however, are major. Most of the characters are unrecognizable. Gen is not an old man but middle-age. Video game Vega wears a mask to protect his pretty boy face. Movie Vega wears a mask to hide his hideously ugly face. Aside from their name, the cinematic Charlie Nash has nothing in common with Guile's dead war buddy. Even though the story is set in Thailand, home of Sagat, the role of Bison's primary enforcer is given to Balrog, who never does any boxing. M. Bison makes no mention of psycho-powers and has no interest in fighting tournaments. Nobody wears anything resembling their trademark costumes, a blue dress being the closest Chun-Li comes. The differences are such that a viewer wonders if some moments – Chun-Li doing a series of quick kicks, a female supporting character named Rose – are deliberate homages to the games or simply coincidences.

“The Legend of Chun-Li” is a bizarre movie not just because it has so little to do with the video games that ostensibly inspired it. Many of the story decisions are very strange. Chun-Li becoming a Robin Hood-like figure that defends the Bangkok slums from crime is one thing. Having her living as a homeless vagrant for long portions of the story is an unusual decision. Making Shadoloo a corporation injects a vein of anti-corporatism into the story. The bad guys drive down real estate prices by bringing crime into the city, buy the land back up cheaply, and then build luxury housing on it, forcibly displacing the people who live there. Which is a decent villainous motivations but has jack shit to do with “Street Fighter.” Or what about Nash's entire subplot? He barely interacts with Chun-Li and does no actual fighting on the street. It's a cheesy crime movie plot introduced into material that has no need for it.

The weirdest thing about “The Legend of Chun-Li” is how graphic and sexualized its violence is. Bison orders the other leaders of Shadoloo killed. Vega chops their heads off, the graphic aftermath of which we see. After a sexy dance with Bison's henchwoman (that I'm surprised isn't call Juni, as she's as close to that character as anyone else here is to their supposed inspirations), Chun-Li brutally throws her around the ladies' bathroom. When she nearly breaks her arm, the woman's pain is emphasized. Chun-Li wears high-heels through this and then swings on a stripper pole. Afterwards, Bison graphically beats the woman to death. Nash's partner, an original character inspired by Crimson Viper, is clarified as liking rough sex for no reason. The most unnecessarily fucked-up element of the film involves Bison's backstory. In his youth, he tore open his pregnant wife's belly with his bare hands! The violence is so bloody, and so targeted at young women, that it strays from animesque to slightly unsettling.

Aside from being gratuitously bloody and kinky, how do the action scenes stack up? Some of them are good. Director Andrzej Bartkowiak, previously of “Doom,” directed two films with Jet Li. This shines through in a few scenes. Like an early fight, where Chun-Li's dad weaponizes a bottle of brandy and sets a criminal goon on fire. Or Gen and Balrog's final fight, which at least uses the environment around them in decent ways. However, many of the other scenes are badly directed. Chun-Li's fights are sloppily edited, which I assumed was done to disguise Kristin Kreuk's lack of martial arts skills. Yet Gen's fight scene are similarly choppy and Robin Shou is a former stuntman, for fuck's sake. The film's attempt to emphasize various special moves, like Chun-Li's Spinning Bird Kick or Bison's seemingly magical throws, are so overdone that they veer towards unintentional hilarity. The movie, in general, focuses way too much on shoot-outs and missile launchers, feeling further disconnected from the fighting game genre.

I knew something was fishy about “The Legend of Chun-Li” the moment Kristin Kreuk was cast as the first warrior woman of video games. Kreuk might be talented – I don't know, I've never seen “Smallville” or anything else she's done – but she's no Chun-Li. Though a quarter Chinese, Kreuk looks white as can be. She lacks Chun-Li's powerful frame, looking like a scrawny teenage girl instead. Without the character's trademark head-crushing thighs, Kreuk's acrobatic skills are emphasized instead, which are fairly impressive, I suppose. Ultimately though, Kreuk doesn't just come up short physically. Her performance is largely understated, the actress showing a face of bland determination and little else. Kreuk also contributes a bored-sounding voiceover narration, a totally unneeded addition.

The rest of the cast hams it up to varying degrees of success. Chris Klein – otherwise known as the other other guy from “American Pie” – leaves all semblance of good taste behind as Nash. He overemphasizes every line of dialogue he's given, overacting with every fiber of his face and body. It's hilarious. He attempts to seduce Moon Bloodgood as Maya, who seems soundly disgusted by his advances. Taboo, the third most popular member of the Black Eyed Peas, literally growls every line of dialogue he's given. Michael Clark Duncan is having a very good time, playing Balrog as an unforgivable evil son-of-a-bitch. Neal McDonough is trying to bring some threatening power and grace to Bison but the script works against him. So he settles for being a slithering bad guy instead. Robin Shou is actually pretty decent as Gen, being the only guy in the movie acting with a degree of subtly.

“The Legend of Chun-Li” begins with a prominently displayed Capcom logo. The gaming company hoped the film would establish them as a cinematic brand akin to Marvel. (Just think, if this movie hadn't been fucking terrible, we might've gotten that “Darkstalkers” movie I've always dreamed about by now.) Likewise, “The Legend of Chun-Li” ends by teasing a sequel that would've starred Ryu. Instead, the baffling film was K.O.'d by poor box office returns and even worst reviews. I listed it as my most disliked film of 2009, for one example. However, upon rewatch, “The Legend of Chun-Li” proves to be bad in a far more compelling way than I remembered. It's a fiasco, an awful adaptation, but is also incredibly fucking weird. Too weird to be all together boring, which gives it an advantage over a lot of other video game movies. [4/10]

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