|Directed by: Steven E. de Souza
||Running Time: 102 min
Cast : Jean-Claude Van Damme, Raul Julia, Ming-Na Wen, Damian Chapa, Kylie Minogue, Byron Mann, Roshan Seth, Andrew Bryniarski, Grand L. Bush, Robert Mammone, Miguel A. Núñez Jr., Gregg Rainwater, Jay Tavare, Peter Navy Tuiasosopo, Wes Studi
At Bison’s fingertips are the actual controls to the Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers arcade cabinet.
Review by Jay Wilson
Street Fighter II, upon which this movie is based, is a 1991 arcade game about a tournament in which competitors from all around the world compete in one-on-one combat, so of course, Street Fighter: The Movie is a combination of Frankenstein, The Incredible Hulk, G.I. Joe, Scarface, Full House, James Bond, Superman: the Movie, and Godzilla—and no, I’m not being facetious. By the time this Hollywood interpretation entered production, Street Fighter II had reached its fourth iteration in New Challengers, elevating the playable cast from twelve to sixteen. The kitchen sink approach was writer/director Steven E. de Souza’s attempt to satisfy both Capcom’s plans to keep everyone’s favorite world warrior accounted for and to turn Bison into a comic book supervillain.
True to the games, antagonist M. Bison schemes to take over the world in a secret underground lair right out of a James Bond movie. Semi-true to the games, Colonel Guile opposes him along with his sidekicks, T-Hawk and Cammy, in the spirit of G.I. Joe where helicopters, boats, trucks, and army men wage colorful, family friendly, Saturday morning cartoon war. Completely unrelated to the games, Frankenstein and The Incredible Hulk come into play as not-so-mad scientist Dhalsim creates Bison’s super soldier, Blanka; Sagat satisfies the Scarface comparison as a gang leader in a smoky underworld where he runs into the warm and fuzzy Full House sitcom friends, Ryu and Ken; and finally, E. Honda and Zangief battle it out over a Superman-inspired real estate miniature, Bisonopolis, while Gojira sound effects play. Again, I wasn’t reaching for a joke. This shit really happens.
While Capcom wanted Jean-Claude Van Damme to play Guile in this PG-13 film, director Steven E. de Souza was actually reluctant because Van Damme fans would expect the R rating his films typically received at the time.
With the exception of M. Bison, most of the characters wear normal attire for the first two acts, only donning their colorful game costumes for the finale.
The only character I truly dislike is Ken because look at him. That’s an expression that makes you want to punch him, and this screenshot is representative of his entire personality.
The Cool King Sagat and Cool Claw Vega. Did I mention Street Fighter also draws from famous prison movies?
As a result, Street Fighter plays out like a mish-mash of tangentially related stories that might work in a television series where you have time across dozens of episodes to build an investment in the characters; however, in a feature film with a finite running time, you end up with a glorified montage of people you don’t know doing things you don’t care about in places you have no interest in visiting. You don’t even get the benefit of coming in with, at the time, three years of attachment to characters from playing the games because in most cases their actual backstories and personalities (or both) are completely disregarded so they can fill the role of a generic overused movie cliché. You might as well be meeting series icons Ryu, Ken, Chun-li, and Sagat for the first time, except you don’t really get to meet them because the movie is too busy using them like action figures.
And just to be clear, I don’t mind that they changed Chun-li from an Interpol agent to a TV news reporter. What bothers me is that—cop, reporter, or janitor—Street Fighter doesn’t give me a reason to care about her or anyone else.
I do find it curious, however, that de Souza invented connections to replace connections that already existed. In the film, Bison’s henchmen are Dee Jay and Zangief, but in the games Bison already has henchmen: Sagat, Vega, and Balrog. Why shuffle roles around? In the games, Sagat has a personal grudge against Ryu who gave him the scar on his chest in the first Street Fighter Tournament which, by extension, connects Ryu to Bison which, by further extension, connects his friend/sparring partner Ken to Bison. This link is disregarded entirely. In the games, Chun-li is in law-enforcement, which lets her more logically and organically team up with the military characters, Guile and Cammy, but here, as stated earlier, she’s a reporter. Why? I can understand adapting Blanka, whose in-game explanation of being big, green, and able to channel electricity through his skin is utterly ridiculous—“he was lost in a plane crash when he was a boy”—or maybe even, God forbid, not including Blanka at all (Why not? They left out Bruce Lee knockoff, Fei Long.) I can even understand tweaking Honda, Dee Jay, T-Hawk, Zangief, and Dhalsim so they tie into the story’s central conflict. But in doing so, why make Balrog Chun-li’s cameraman when he already ties directly back to the lead antagonist as said antagonist’s violent enforcer?
And who the hell thinks a reporter and a cameraman are more interesting than an international cop and hired muscle in a movie called Street Fighter?
I repeat, this does not kill the movie for me—stupid as these decisions are. I just find them really weird. What kills Street Fighter for me is how unfocused it is. Pick a character or small group of characters and stick with them, flesh them out and fill in the blanks—tell their story. Everyone else can have a cameo; the tournament setting conveniently allows you to slip in completely unrelated characters as participants. Yes, people will complain that their favorite world warrior only appeared for one fight, but this isn’t a video game where you can spend days mastering T. Hawk’s inescapable throw loop or old Sagat’s low tiger shot barrage. It’s a movie. Split your typical blockbuster across sixteen characters, and you have sixteen glorified cameos and everyone is pissed. Guile is technically the protagonist, but it feels like he’s not even onscreen half the time because we cut away to Bison in his evil lair with his comic relief henchmen, then we cut away to Ryu and Ken attempting to swindle Sagat and Vega, and then we cut to Chun-li and her news crew who are at least in proximity to Guile, and then after that we cut back to another part of Bison’s lair for Dhalsim’s forced experiments on Blanka. Any one of those would be a fine premise to base an action movie around, but all of them together leaves no room for any one of them to develop, and so none of them carry any weight.
Dhalsim’s stretchable limbs do not make an appearance, although the magic elixirs that create Blanka get spilled on him, so it is setup for a sequel that never materialized.
Dee Jay and Zangief as comic relief really isn’t that different from the games, and truthfully, Zangief is more intelligent here than he is in Street Fighter V.
A few characters perform their signature special moves. Surprisingly, Bison’s Psycho Crusher is one of the more believable since it’s accomplished with a science-fiction techno gadget that’s been properly set up and threaded into the narrative.
Guile has a personal vendetta against Bison in both the game and the movie, albeit in different forms. In the film, it manifests as Bison capturing and experimenting on Guile’s old war buddy, Charlie (who becomes Blanka). Do we see Charlie captured? No. Do we see any scenes with Charlie and Guile together? Not really. Going into the final assault on Bison’s base, Guile briefly watches a tape that shows him and Charlie having dinner with, presumably, their wives. Do we see Charlie do anything? Protect the innocent? Save other soldiers? Sacrifice himself or perform some similarly selfless act to garner audience sympathy? No. The sparse few minutes he does appear on screen, he’s escorted around in restraints before being chucked into a giant test tube to become the Incredible Hulk knockoff in Dr. Dhalsim-stein’s lab. The entirety of Guile and Charlie’s friendship is quite literally the line, “Hang in there, buddy. I’m coming for you.”
Likewise, Balrog, Honda, and Chun-li all have personal grudges against Bison. Balrog’s and Honda’s, like Guile’s, develops exclusively through one passage of dialog. Chun-li at least gets a monologue. And I’m not suggesting a clunky flashback—the tape sequence is bad enough, short and harmless as it is. No, I hate flashbacks, especially since this is supposed to be an action martial arts movie. But I would like to see these personal grudges exist outside of their isolated dialog. Balrog and Honda both had their careers ruined by Bison, and they have no trophies of what they accomplished and no newspaper snippets projecting what they would have accomplished? No good luck charms? No mementos from their trade? Chun-li’s father was murdered by Bison, and she has no picture of him nor an old trinket that he once gave as a birthday gift? I’m not asking for a lot—I don’t want a drama—but I do ask that these people have conviction, something to give their fight meaning.
Going into the final assault, one of Guile’s men comments that the operation looks like a suicide mission to which the Colonel answers, “Fortunately, Bison has driven me crazy.” Later on, when Guile meets up with Blanka (formerly Charlie) he says the obligatory, “What have they done to you?” but then immediately forgets about it. Literally two minutes later, he’s face to face with the man responsible—the man who has driven him crazy—and there’s no emotion. None. The climactic final battle has all the intensity of putting a couple rowdy punks in their place. Granted, Jean-Claude Van Damme isn’t known for his dramatic range, but surely he can back up his own words and throw a punch like he intends to take Bison’s head off.
The special moves are what really defines the characters in Street Fighter II. Translating any of them to live action is tricky because they’re all fantastic, but Guile’s trademark Flash Kick makes the transition very effectively.
Street Fighter ends with an homage to the game where after the end credits roll, the entire cast appears performing their victory poses.
It’s telling that the only two characters with anything resembling character arcs are Zangief and Ken. All muscle and no brain, Zangief, switches sides because someone explains to him that his egomaniacal, genocidal, power hungry boss is, in fact, the bad guy. And Ken comes to the profound, existential conclusion that swindling an organized crime syndicate with its own army capable of fighting a world war is probably not the best get-rich scheme ever devised. Idiotic as both are, at least the former is a big dumb lug that exists to inject comedy with every spoken line of dialog, so I can accept that. The latter, however, is supposed to be taken seriously. Well, semi-seriously. Charles in Charge life lessons, seriously. Call me cynical, but I have no sympathy for someone so selfish and blinded by greed that he tries to rip off mass murderers, and I certainly don’t feel moved by his life changing epiphany that actively provoking these cut throat killers might be detrimental to his survival.
It’s also telling that the most developed character is Bison, himself, played with larger than life grandeur by the awesomely charismatic Raul Julia. Played to such extreme across the entire movie that in the final confrontation, when he calls himself a god, it doesn’t sound like stock supervillain quote number ninety-seven. This is a man who doesn’t contradict himself; you just don’t understand with your tiny brain and puny mortal logic. When Guile calls him out for using weapons after proclaiming the purity of unarmed combat, Bison responds, “This is merely superconductor electromagnetism,” as if it’s generated naturally from his charming personality and thus fair game. Any script shortcomings can be chalked up to his egomaniacal dementia; plot holes don’t tear him down, they make him stronger!
And, fortunately for Bison, there’s a lot of them.