There’s a scene in Street Fighter that serves as a nice metaphor for the movie itself.
When the heroes storm the secret fortress of bad guy M. Bison, one of his henchmen, Dee Jay (Miguel Núñez Jr.), decides to make a run for it. Grabbing a trunk of valuables, he makes his way towards a hidden exit. But before Dee Jay can make good his escape, he is confronted by another henchman, Zangief (Andrew Bryniarski), who tries to convince him to stay and “fight the enemies of freedom and justice.”
Exasperated, Dee Jay turns and sighs. “Are you totally demented? Our boss is the enemy of freedom and justice,” he explains. “These people came from all over the world to stop him.”
“General Bison is a bad guy?” Zangief is sincerely puzzled. “If you know this,” he asks, wide-eyed, “then why do you serve him?”
“Because,” Dee Jay replies, “he paid me a freakin’ fortune, moron!”
Zangief stares, slack jawed, as Dee Jay disappears through the secret door. “You got paid?!?”
Poor Zangief. His heart was in the right place, but he made a few bad choices and wound up unwittingly serving the forces of evil. The same might be said about Steven de Souza, writer and director of the 1994 live-action movie version of Street Fighter. Understand this right from the start: this movie is a bad movie. But for all its flaws, it manages to sort of overcome them and deliver something much greater than the sum of its parts, something that a lot of technically better made films don’t deliver — a good time. It’s certainly not the worst video game-to-film movie – there are lots of worse ones, like Super Mario Brothers or Double Dragon. Heck, it’s not even the worst theatrical Street Fighter movie: the much more slickly-produced but infinitely less watchable 2009 Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li fills that slot.
Anyway, the story is pretty basic. The tiny East Asian country of Shadaloo has been torn apart by warfare, most of it instigated by the megalomaniacal warlord General M. Bison (Raul Julia, The Addams Family), who has chosen Shadaloo as the launching point for his plan for world domination. After kidnapping a group of relief workers, Bison threatens to kill them unless the Allied Nations pays a 20 billion dollar ransom by his 72-hour deadline.
Enter Allied Nations commander Colonel Guile (Jean-Claude Van Damme, Knock Off), who comes to Shadaloo with a task force to restore order and bring an end to Bison’s reign of terror. Guile has a personal grudge against the madman, and enlists two traveling con men, Ken (Damian Chapa) and Ryu (Byron Mann) to infiltrate the criminal organization of Sagat (Wes Studi), an arms dealer who is in league with Bison. Things are complicated by the presence of reporter Chun-Li Zang (Ming-NaWen, Mulan and more recently on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), who is not entirely what she seems… and she and her crew are pursuing their own vengeful agendas against Bison.
It’s like the Village People version of the United Nations
The hardest thing in the world to do must be to adapt a video game for the big screen. You’ve got to expand the plot, or create one, and flesh out the characters, and do it all under the fierce scrutiny and harsh criticism of the legions of fans who adore the source material and react unpleasantly — to say the least — to the slightest changes to their favorite characters. Most of the time it just doesn’t work: either the filmmakers take the material as seriously as the fans (which is to say, far too seriously), or they infuriate the fan base by doing something so far removed from the game that it resembles the source material in name only.
Steven de Souza isn’t ashamed to admit that his movie is based on a video game; in fact, he seems to flaunt it at every turn, since almost every scene contains an homage or in-joke specifically targeted at the game’s fan base. This is his directorial debut and, bad movie though it is, it’s really not as bad as you’d think. You may remember de Souza as the writer of the box office smash hits 48 Hours, Commando and Die Hard. He also wrote box-office flops like Hudson Hawk and Knock Off. Hey, you win some, you lose some.
Of course, I actually liked Hudson Hawk, so read into that what you will.
Two tickets to the gun show.
Here, de Souza abandons the gritty gung-ho of Die Hard and swings back to the exaggerated testosterone fantasy of Commando. Instructed by Capcom (who owns the game and also produced this movie) to include all of the game’s sixteen characters in the movie, de Souza simply smiled, rubbed his hands with glee and crowbared them in, complete with their signature moves and video game outfits — prompting you to wonder, for instance, why one character would take the time in the middle of a full-scale invasion to put on a boxing outfit, complete with gloves, or why another bothers to change into a sumo wrestler’s diaper thingee. But so what? There’s no law that says you can’t fight a war half-naked and with your hair in a bun.
Jean-Claude Van Damme is unintentionally hysterical as Colonel Guile, the Allied Nations commander with a chip on his shoulder. But his stunningly awkward and ham-fisted performance actually adds to the charm of the movie — he seems to be having a good time, despite his inadequacy, and how can you hold that against him? He’s the Good Guy, gung-ho for freedom and tough as boiled shoe leather, able to spout the most cornball one-liners with a smirk and a gleam in his eye. He’s G.I. Joe, John Wayne and Rambo all rolled up into one marble-mouthed mountain of muscle, complete with a tattoo of Ol’ Glory on his bicep. And he has the sense of humor about himself to carry off the farce — he knows he’s a bad actor, even if he won’t say it outright. He’s not fooling anybody.
You want me to do WHAT?
Guile’s major problem in the movie (aside from his inability to communicate effectively with the English language) is Raul Julia’s way over-the-top M. Bison. I want to say, incidentally, that I absolutely love Raul Julia in this movie. There have been a lot of venerable actors who somehow find themselves in films like this – one thinks of Frank Langella in Masters of the Universe, for instance, or poor Henry Silva in that most cringeworthy of 80’s action disasters, MegaForce – but the best actors weather these things by embracing them to the fullest extent possible. Plus, playing the big bad is fun. You get the best costume. You get the secret base in the volcano and the absurdly-constructed superweapon. You get the crazy master plan that involves extorting the world by threatening to turn the population of Guam into chicken mcnuggets with some kind of ray. You get the ‘crack’ troops can’t hit the broad side of a barn in a firefight – of course, Bison seems intent on replacing these with the genetically-altered supersoldiers he’s cooking up in his lab (the first of which, created from one of Guile’s friends, resembles nothing so much as the illegitimate offspring of the Incredible Hulk and one of those weird Troll dolls).
General M. Bison’s ambitions are pretty straightforward. He wants global peace (through global domination), to crush the Allied Nations, and to get a bigger food court in his proposed ‘Bisonopolis’. Julia mentioned in an interview that he’d taken the role only because his two sons, who were great fans of the game, implored him to, and it shows. His performance here reminds me of a father telling his children a scary story, fingers clawed and a mock scowl on his face, before falling on the bed with them and tickling them mercilessly. Julia takes the character’s villainy to wild extremes of buffoonish egomania, lampooning such posturing dictators as Mussolini and Noriega, and his character, for the most part, has the best lines in the movie. This sort of comic book over-exaggeration is exactly what the movie calls for, and you sort of wish that the other actors had realized it… or that de Souza had bothered to let them in on the joke.
“I wish I’d gotten to wear an eye patch, too.”
A slightly more threatening counterpoint to Julia’s cartoonish Bison is Bond-villain reject Sagat, played with growly, raspy menace by the greatly underappreciated Wes Studi. A legendary ex-street fighter, Sagat is the head of the Shadaloo Tong, and supplies arms and ammunition to Bison’s army. Sagat and his henchman, Vega (a deadly street fighter in his own right) are the primary antagonists for Ken and Ryu, who find themselves on the crime boss’ bad side after attempting to swindle him in an arms deal. Sagat is eventually deceived into trusting the two con men and leading them to Bison’s secret fortress by Guile’s ‘clever’ plan — a clever plan that has been used by a hundred good guys to fool a hundred bad guys in a hundred b-movies. Oh, Sagat. If only you’d taken time to go to the cinema every week, or at least watched some old episodes of The A-Team, you’d have been unstoppable.
Yeah, he TOTALLY claimed he hit that.
The film’s pacing really isn’t bad, though, moving things along rather briskly, without dull, sagging stretches, as you might expect from a b-grade feature like this — which is surprising given the number characters we’re trying to keep track of. Maybe because of the number of characters we’re trying to keep track of. There’s certainly no time to get bogged down in sub-plots. Or any other kind of plot, for that matter. Every single character gets a backstory, paper-thin though it may be, and at least a few moments of screen time and even a couple of gags.It all seems to kind of work in de Souza’s favor, though, and that’s the real saving grace here. He is not afraid to embrace the silliness that most other directors would try to avoid, and he throws us full-force into this cockamamie world he’s created trusting that we’ll suspend our disbelief enough to have a good time. And that’s why Street Fighter, against all odds, manages to avoid becoming a complete waste of everyone’s time. There is an earnest innocence at the heart of the movie; it tries so hard and is so keen to entertain us that we can almost forgive the formulaic and predictable plot, the gaping plot holes, and the mediocre acting by most of the cast.
Unfortunately, for an action movie called Street Fighter, there’s surprisingly little fighting taking place in the street. De Souza mentions in the commentary that he was caught in a tough spot: he couldn’t make the fights more realistic without losing that coveted PG-13 rating, essential for the video game’s preteen fan base, but he also had to include just enough action to please the wider audience that might, in a moment of weakness or despair, be tempted to plunk down some hard cash for the pleasure. However, as usually happens when you try to please too many people, he ends up pleasing none of them. What fighting there is cartoonish, as befits a living comic book, but Julia’s comical overacting and Van Damme’s uncomfortable but amusing non-acting help make up for some less-than-breathtaking fight sequences. On the other hand, there are some fight scenes where the actors actually seem devoid of any emotion at all, and in one scene, Damian Chapa, as Ken, even looks bored while punching Wes Studi repeatedly in the face. Of course, given the film, it’s actually quite possible that Chapa simply lost interest. But that’s the difference between a forgettable stock player like Chapa and a solid acting superstar like Raul Julia. Julia gives it everything he’s got even when the part and the movie doesn’t deserve what he’s got.
Princess Leia ain’t got nothin’ on me!
For that matter, the relationship between Ken and Ryu seems a little wooden. They’re supposed to be best buds from way back when, but it doesn’t feel that way. Byron Mann actually puts a lot into his portrayal of Ryu, but he’s not getting much to work with from Chapa, and they never achieve the sort of Hope-n-Crosby ‘Road Movie’ camaraderie that de Souza seems to be aiming for. The rest of the cast is mediocre at best, but how could they be anything else, considering the lack of screen time to develop their characters? Ming-Na Wen, for instance, is certainly capable of better things, but her character is so sketchy and clichéd that the battle is lost before it even begins. She is really, really cute in her little Chinese outfit, though. And that goes a long way.
Alas. If only we could give this movie extra points for effort. And for optimism: after the end credits have rolled, there is a short sequence that sets up, bless their little hearts, a sequel. Isn’t that cute? After all is said and done, though, this is a pretty harmless movie. If you like hard-hitting martial arts action with an intricate story, this might not be for you. But if you enjoy the old Adam West Batman, or silly Van Damme movies, or just a good time with some mindless fun and corny dialogue — or if you just have a fetish about watching Kylie Minogue kick people in the face — give Street Fighter a try.