Monday, July 18, 2011

Only If You Wear That Dress: Street Fighter (1994)

Being the first of several possible reviews of 90’s video-game movie adaptations!
Fans who were at the right age when Street Fighter 2 ruled the world in the early 90’s remember that there were two films based off this franchise at the time. One of them was hard to find (in Ireland at least!) since it was a Japanese animated effort, and anime hadn’t yet become the ‘nerd-chic’ powerhouse market that it now is in the west (before the information age, ‘niche’ actually meant ‘niche’! As in, you couldn’t buy it anywhere!). But if you did manage to come across a copy of it on VHS, bootleg or otherwise, you were in for a shock: to kids used to Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, this stuff was somewhat adult. It was definitely aimed at an older audience, and, unfamiliar with any form of Japanese weirdness, we didn’t quite know what to make of it. We certainly didn’t know what to make of the Chun-Lee-in-the-shower-scene, that’s for sure. April O’Neill never did anything like that.

But we’re not here to talk about that film.
No, we’re here to talk about the other Street Fighter film. The American one. The one that’s in many ways a far stranger beast. The film that came out just when US action movies were taking the world by storm. After Commando, Predator, First Blood, Rambo 2 and the high water-mark of Terminator 2, it must have seemed natural to movie executives to shoehorn the Street Fighter franchise into the action-movie format, rather than the tournament format that the backing story of the game demanded.
And that’s the source of the problems with this film. For starters, there are just too many damn characters to fit into a generic action-movie script. Maybe the film-makers were scared that a tournament setting wouldn’t make for a decent script. They must have wept when Mortal Kombat came out later, a movie based on a similar license that makes excellent use of the tournament idea to showcase its roster of characters (and get them to actually fight as well, heaven forbid). What they did instead made it quite difficult to give the many colourful Street Fighter characters ample time to make their mark.
So what did they come up with? Well, something damn strange. Here goes-
General M. Bison- the fabulous Raul Julia in his last role- is a warlord from a fictional south-east Asian country called Shadaloo (they do show maps of Shadaloo a couple of times during the movie, but damned if I can figure out where exactly it’s supposed to be). And no, there’s no explanation for why this white guy, with his remarkably multi-ethnic hiring policy, is such a big banana in this part of the world.
When the movie opens, there’s civil war going on between Bison’s forces and, eh, some other army, I don’t know, government troops or something. To keep things nice and un-political, Bison’s men are never called anything other than ‘Bison troopers’. Also fighting in-country are a United Nations-alike group called the Allied Nations. They’re like the UN except they have some balls. If you’re thinking that it’s weird for an American movie to portray the UN as the kind of force that would pull up its sleeves and sort out an evil dictator, well, watch this space. It’s a really weird scenario. Just about the only thing that it has to do with the game is that Bison was based in Thailand. Which, to be fair, is in South-East Asia. I have no idea why they decided that this scenario would be a good one to showcase the Street Fighter characters, but at least it’s interesting.
Anyway. Heading things up on the ground for the AN is one Colonel William F. Guile, played by Jean-Claude Van Damme. As far as I’m concerned, JCVD is a welcome addition to any film, and he doesn’t disgrace himself here. As often happens with failed and scorned projects that I happen to enjoy, I was saddened years later to find out that he regrets this movie and feels it impacted negatively on his career. In one way, it’s not surprising to find him popping up in a 90’s action film. On the other hand, he’s typical of the weird casting decisions that plague this film: the original Guile was an all-American tough guy, but JCVD is very obviously Belgian, leaving the movie without any main American lead (there is Ken… but I’ll get to him). Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s just a bit strange. Like I said, I like JCVD and he really does his best with the material.
The main thrust of the movie is Guile’s quest to kill Bison and stop his plans for world domination. They’re both enjoyable actors and this plot is simple and effective. Guile thinks Bison is scum, but Bison respects Guile as an adversary and wants to fight him man-to-man, which of course is a common mistake that evil overlords make.
I think I’ve got to say a few words about Raul Julia. The man was a hero- his performance here almost single-handedly keeps the movie afloat. Yes, he’s as hammy as a pig in a butcher’s, but there’s something of Lear, of Othello, in his hamminess. I get the feeling that he’s the only one taking it seriously, to be honest. As an actor, he just has a kind of Shakespearian gravitas that’s a joy to watch. He delivers lines, both genius and ridiculous, with gusto, and Bison has more than a few memorable lines that straddle that line. It’s just the right level to pitch a crazy dictator at- at times he reminds me of an only slightly exaggerated delusional Hitler from Downfall or Idi Amin from The Last King Of Scotland. He gets a great scene where he does the classic villain-explains-his-motivation thing, and wouldn’t you know it- he just wants to bring peace to the world. Why doesn’t anyone understand? He also does the classic villain thing of having a scale model of his proposed new capital (Bisonopolis, since you asked) in his office. Think about it- Hitler did this in real life.
His ‘For me, it was Tuesday,’ line really epitomises the weird line this movie straddles between corny and strangely memorable writing.
As for everyone else from the Street Fighter canon… well, they’re a mixed bag. It’s interesting that the film-makers tried to keep the multi-ethnic feel of the game, though like I said, they made a bunch of weird casting decisions to do it. I think I’ll tackle them one at a time (or two at a time, in the case of hetero life-mates Ken and Ryu). See how your favourites rate:
Sagat: does pretty well in the movie. He gets quite a lot of screen time, and his story is interesting. He’s a powerful arms dealer and gang leader in Shadaloo who occasionally deals with Bison. Again, it’s not explained why he doesn’t even look remotely Asian- in fact, he looks like Pete Postlewaithe- but what the hey. Visually the character is intimidating with his eyepatch, even if he never gets any decent fight time. Unfortunately, he gets somewhat sidelined halfway through the movie. He also runs illegal fights in the city, and his main prize-fighter is-
Vega: decidedly a low-tier character in this movie. He’s presented as a great fighter, and gets a great entrance, but then the movie infuriatingly cuts short the fight, and it’s a long time before we get to see the guy actually throw some punches. The poor stiff only gets a couple of lines, but he looks good and, supposing he’s Spanish, his character seems intact from the game. Essentially, he’s just Sagat’s heavy.
Chun-Li: does pretty well here. She gets a lot of screen time, and even gets a decent backstory that explains why she wants to kill Bison. She’s a Chinese reporter who’s also a ninja, and she does get some fight time. Fair enough, then. Actress is not bad. Her team includes:
Balrog: An American boxer who’s had his career ruined by some criminal organization. Doesn’t get much screen time, but doesn’t disgrace himself either, nor is the character made do anything embarrassing just because he’s a black supporting character in a somewhat goofy double-act with Honda.
E. Honda: In a bizarre attempt at adding even more diversity to the cast, Honda is a Hawaiian who trained to be a sumo. Um… I guess the film-makers felt they had already ticked the ‘Japanese’ box with Ryu. This kind of annoyed me… no offence to the actor here, he does an ok job, but I always liked Honda and liked that he was Japanese. Ah well. Gets one stupid ‘comedy’ scene but on the whole the character is treated respectfully.
Cammy: More casting weirdness here- why, it’s Kylie Minogue! Not sure whether this was weirder back when she was a has-been or since her incredibly successful return to pop. I think she’s trying to do a British accent here, but I could be mistaken. Cammy is one of Guile’s officers. She only sort of wears her game costume, sadly.
Blanka: Carlos Blanka has been fused with the character of ‘Charlie’, Guile’s old buddy, in order to give Guile another reason to hate Bison. It works for me- the last thing this film needed was even more characters. Bison kidnaps Blanka and experiments on him in order to create the first of a new race of super-soldiers. Instead, he gets something green and pissed-off. To be honest, it’s about the least silly way they could work Blanka into the story and have him be still somewhat relevant.
Zangief: Oh man, now we’re in the shit. Zangief was not treated with respect by this movie. He’s still Russian, he’s still a beast, but now he’s the comic relief and he’s as thick as two short planks. He’s one of Bison’s multi-ethnic heavies, and he doesn’t get any back-story. What he does get though, is multiple facepalm moments of absolute stupidity. And… they’re kinda funny. Honestly. Try to keep a straight face when he says, ‘Quick- change the channel!’ I don’t know- it shouldn’t work, but it does. So many of his lines have become classics, I don’t even know where to start.
Dee Jay: Another of Bison’s goons, Dee Jay is a Jamaican who’s also a computer expert. He’s not really evil though, he’s just in it for the money- ‘Man, I shoulda stayed at Microsoft!’ Doesn’t get any fight time, though he does get to yell ‘hell no!’, just in case you were worried that there wasn’t gonna be any jive-talk in the film. Whew.
Dhalsim: Not really sure why they bothered to stick Dhalsim in the movie at all, but if you’re paying attention, he’s there. He’s still Indian, and that’s about it. He’s just a random scientist whose work is being perverted by Bison to create Blanka. Late in the movie, he goes bald like his videogame counterpart, but only because he gets caught in an explosion or a fire or something. A pointless homage, really. He’s played by one of the Indian villains from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, though he doesn’t at any point offer anyone steamed monkey brains. A missed opportunity, to be sure.
T. Hawk: Another non-event. He’s one of Guile’s men, but I didn’t even notice who he was supposed to be until late in the movie when Guile uses his name and starts talking a bunch of mystical Native American stuff. Needless to say, he’s not dressed as a Native American like in the game.
Ken/Ryu: One of the big disappointments in the movie. In the game Ken and Ryu are arguably the main characters, and their background involves a tale of honour and betrayal. In the movie, they’re a couple of wise-cracking low-life conmen who stumble into the Shadaloo conflict by accident. It’s like booking Patrick Stewart and getting Rob Schneider instead. They’re not the worst example of these kinds of characters I’ve ever seen, but it’s still a big let-down. Ken is American and Ryu is Japanese. Ken is decidedly the more cowardly of the two.
Even with this over-stuffed catalogue of heroes and villains, there’s so much more strangeness going on in this film- the Bison dollars, the Arab arms market, the Good Morning Vietnam dj- that it’s worth seeing out of curiosity at least. There’s an old bad movie law that states that if a film is stupid, it can at least present the viewer with something new and interesting that’s stupid every few minutes, and Street Fighter certainly delivers in this regard. There’s always something odd happening, even if the strangeness never rises to the dizzying heights of the Super Mario Bros movie.
The only remotely ‘political’ message comes late in the film when Guile is rousing his troops for the final assault on chateau Bison. A cowardly, pencil-necked bureaucrat from the Allied Nations appears and claims that they are now in peace negotiations with Bison and the attack is off. Of course, this being an American film, Guile gives a speech in which he tells his men that ‘we can all go home,’ that is if they are happy to let Bison be paid off for his crimes. They all rally to his side and he leads an unsanctioned attack on Bison’s lair. This bit of UN-bashing does kind of come out of nowhere, but certainly fits in with the US’s view of the UN as a bunch of namby-pambies who don’t stick up for third-world countries while Saddam Hussein kicks sand in their face.
All in all, the film is worth a look, especially if you’re not averse to seeing your favourite characters somewhat altered. Unless, of course, your favourite character is Dhalsim, in which case, don’t bother.

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