Thursday, November 20, 2014

Heavy Action: Street Fighter / Mortal Kombat

by Patrick Bromley
Action-packed video games make for some of the worst action movies.

I've seen 1994's live action video game Street Fighter a couple of times now, and every time I watch it I have the same thought: as it is unfolding, Street Fighter seems like one of the worst movies ever made. It's not. There are worse movies (more on that in a bit). But it is pretty terrible, albeit in a goofy, cartoonish way. It's impossible to take seriously, though to the movie's credit it never tries to be. It's a fucking idiotic movie that knows it's fucking idiotic. If it were just a little better, that self-awareness would probably afford it a pass.

Jean-Claude Van Damme sleepmugs his way through the film as Col. Guile, the leader of the Allied Forces, who must bring down self-appointed General M. Bison (Raúl Juliá) when he kidnaps hostages and demands a $20 billion ransom. This all takes place in the fictional South East Asian country of Shadaloo, because that's a thing. I could explain the rest of the plot to you, but it's unnecessary; there isn't a story so much as a series of character introductions and fights, because this a movie concerned primarily with acting out stuff from the Street Fighter game. So we get appearances from characters with names like Balrog (Grand L. Bush) and sumo wrestler E. Honda (Peter Tuiasosopo) and con artists Ryu Hoshi (Byron Mann) and Ken Masters (Damien Chapa) and Guile's sidekick Tammy (Kylie Minogue) and, of course, Chun-Li (Ming-Na Wen), later of her own legend in a Street Fighter sequel/reboot. There are bad guys like Viktor Sagat (Wes Studi) and Zangief (Andrew Bryniarski) and Blanka, formerly a United Nations relief worker and Guile's best friend turned into a monstrous green-skinned, orange-haired mutant by Bison.
I have never really played Street Fighter, so I come to the movie with neither an affection for the "material" nor a desire to see these characters brought to life on screen. I know this fact will allow some to dismiss my opinion of the film, as it was clearly made for fans of the original property. But isn't that like saying no one should like Guardians of the Galaxy because they didn't read the comics? Shouldn't the movie stand on its own? Unfortunately, it doesn't. There is no story, only a setup. There are no characters, only three-dimensional avatars that represent characters from the video game. The action isn't particularly good, the script even worse.

That's particularly surprising seeing as how the movie is written and directed by Steven E. de Souza, of whom I am a big fan and will forever owe a debt of gratitude. This is the guy who wrote Commando and 48 Hrs. and The Running Man and Hudson Hawk and MOTHERFUCKING DIE HARD. He belongs on our #HeavyAction Mt. Rushmore. This was his first time directing a theatrical feature and he's out of his depth, but he can't really be blamed for the movie's problems. Earlier this year, Chris Plante wrote a piece at Polygon called "Street Fighter: What Went Wrong," a disaster-by-disaster post-mortem on just how much de Souza was up against with the making of the film. The hero was high on coke and sneaking off to fuck his co-star, the villain was dying of cancer (Juliá would pass away before the film was even released, which might be for the best), the schedule was chaos, the shooting conditions miserable, the producers (Capcom) knew about video games but nothing about movies. Reading the article (which you really should do -- it's terrific), one becomes amazed that the movie exists at all, even in this incarnation. It's a horror show.
One of my biggest problems with Street Fighter is just how ugly it is. I don't want to put too much of the blame on cinematographer William A. Fraker, because he shot Rosemary's Baby and All the President's Men and Bullitt. But none of the gifts for lighting and composition he brought to those films are on display here; instead, Street Fighter is one of the tackiest-looking movies I've ever seen. Every scene is flat and too brightly lit -- there's not one iota of mood or nuance to the visuals. The color palette is repellent, in part because it's a product of the mid-'90s and looks it and in part because none of the colors really go together. There are moments in which it seems like de Souza is trying to achieve a kind of Dick Tracy-esque aesthetic of brightly-colored costumes and sets that leap off the frame, but he needed to go further. As it stands, the movie is a lot of browns and greens and dark reds and oranges that all blend together into a kind of pukey soup. Everything just looks so cheap.

It doesn't help matters that the movie is pitched at the level of an episode of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers or a theme park stunt show. Everyone is wide eyed. Everyone shouts their dialogue. Everyone stands and gestures too big, as though they know their voices are going to be dubbed into 18 other languages. The whole thing is very clearly pitched at young kids despite the fact that it's PG-13 and wall-to-wall violence. But once you're older than 10 (even if you have the maturity of a 10-year old, like me), it all stands out as being uncomfortably broad and stupid. I don't mind that de Souza went for a cartoonish tone -- for a movie based on a video game that itself has no plot, only characters fighting one another, it's probably best that he didn't aim for "gritty." Unfortunately, the movie is a living example of Spinal Tap's maxim that there is a very fine line between clever and stupid.
Street Fighter never cracks the Blanka problem, either. In the video game, he's the least human character (from what little I know), and the decision to include him in the movie despite not figuring out how to do it is a huge mistake. The filmmakers take a page from Lou Ferrigno's depiction of The Incredible Hulk but fail to even cast someone of his physical stature; Blanka might as well be me covered in green greasepaint (ladies, YOU'RE WELCOME for that image). There's too much buildup to the character, as he spends most of the film's running time being mutated, checked in upon and yelling from the box containing him. When he's finally let loose, it's incredibly anticlimactic. Taken on its own, no one would give a shit. With the stockpile of problems this movie has, though, it becomes just another example of Street Fighter's failure to get even its own elements right. It's bad enough that it's a video game that's poorly translated to film, but it's unforgivable that it's Street Fighter that's been poorly translated to Street Fighter.

The biggest disappointment of the movie is Van Damme, who's just here to take a paycheck while at the height of his box office success. His casting came at the insistence of Capcom, who wanted an action star they could sell around the world and demanded a Belgian actor play the role of an American colonel. I love Van Damme (he's probably my second favorite of the major action stars), but he is a fucking disaster in this movie -- half-assing every scene, smug and indifferent. Because of the huge amount of characters the film has to juggle, Van Damme is basically a supporting character despite clearly being the star. Half of his scenes seem to be press conferences and TV interviews, and he can't even do those convincingly. Between his drug problems, his divorce and his wandering dick, it's clear that Van Damme's heart just isn't in the movie. What makes it all the more depressing is that it comes right in the middle of the greatest run of his career, sandwiched between Hard Target, Timecop and Sudden Death.
For as bad as it can be, Street Fighter comes very close to transcending its own stupidity and working -- it's the '90s equivalent of G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra. There are moments of humor (like M. Bison pointing out where the food court will be located in his new stronghold) that indicate de Souza knew exactly what movie he was making and a kind of Roger Moore-era (era) Bond villain "bigness" to the whole thing. The G.I. Joe comparison is particularly apt, as de Souza structures his film as a kind of Joes-vs.-Cobra siege instead of the tournament fight narrative built into the video game. It's one of the few good choices the movie makes. It's truly unfortunate that this is Raúl Juliá's last film, but he gives it 110% despite being months away from dying -- he's big in the right way, and when the rest of the movie matches his cartoonish pitch in the right way, it actually clicks.

So, yes, Street Fighter is mostly terrible. Reading Plante's article, it never stood a chance of being much else. But it's too silly and lunkheaded to really hate, and for some reason I check in on it every couple of years despite the fact that I have no affection for the game and have never particularly liked the movie. I'm not even sure it's Van Damme's worst movie, because I have seen Derailed and The Hard Corps.

Mortal Kombat (1995)
Just when I start to think Street Fighter is one of the worst video game movies/'90s action movies ever made, I am reminded of Mortal Kombat, a movie that is much worse by virtue of the fact that it takes itself completely seriously. Where Street Fighter wants to be big dumb fun, Mortal Kombat desperately wants to be seen as cool. And it is so fucking not cool.

There's even less of a plot here than in Street Fighter. It focuses on an interdimensional martial arts competition (blow my head off) called Mortal Kombat, which is held to limit invasions between realms. Apparently this has been a problem in the past. The assholes from the Outworld dimension will invade the Earth realm if they win the competition for the 10th time, so it's up to three fighters from Earth -- Shaolin monk Liu Kang (Robin Shou), soldier Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson) and MOVIE STAR Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) -- working under the tutelage of thunder god Raiden (Christopher Lambert) to enter the competition and defeat the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). I feel stupider for having typed those words.
Like Street Fighter, I never played Mortal Kombat. I was aware of its massive popularity in the mid-'90s and became familiar with all of its dumb catchphrases, all of which have been jammed into the film as fan service standing in for dialogue. Practically every one of Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa's lines are shit like "Your soul is mine" or "Finish him" or "Flawless victory." It's the kind of thing that could have been done once as a reference to the game tossed in for the devoted, but the film adaptation is so creatively bankrupt that it repeats these catchphrases over and over because it's much easier than having to write new words. Watching the Mortal Kombat movie is like watching your friend play the game for 90 minutes, only without the thrill of numerous potential outcomes. This one always turns out the same.

Also like Street Fighter, the only real standout of the cast is the villain. Tagawa has a long history of playing villains (and boasts one of the best bad guy deaths ever in Showdown in Little Tokyo) and is the only actor in Mortal Kombat to breathe some life into his character. There's nothing particularly interesting or original about Shang Tsung, but Tagawa commits to the bit and at least lends the role some screen presence. The three main heroes are completely bland -- even Bridgette Wilson, who starred in this at the height of my love for her (apparently Cameron Diaz was originally cast to play Sonya Blade but injured herself during training). Wilson is very pretty but fails to create any kind of convincing human, though the story goes that she performed all of her own stunts on the film, which endears her to me a whole lot more and makes me wish she had made more action movies. Christopher Lambert is just too silly in his dumb white wig spouting nonsensical platitudes and never really getting involved in the action.
Mortal Kombat marks the second feature from notorious (and, to be fair, successful) hack Paul W.S. Anderson. On a purely formalistic level, Mortal Kombat is better than Street Fighter in that it actually looks like a movie and not a syndicated TV show from 1991. Therein lies part of the problem, too; this is bad material that the movie takes far too seriously. Anderson wants the world of Mortal Kombat to seem very "cool," which no doubt pleased the fans who saw the movie opening weekend and had their affection for the property validated by a film that tells them that thing they like is VERY COOL with its music video lighting and its techno soundtrack (taken right from the game) and its kindly old Highlander dispensing wisdom. But it's an aesthetic that doesn't work almost 20 years later. I'm not sure it's an aesthetic that works beyond that first weekend. This isn't a movie; it's fan service.

That's because Paul W.S. Anderson (credited here only as "Paul Anderson") is a director without a point of view on anything. It's something I first mentioned on our recent Event Horizon podcast and   had affirmed on this viewing of Mortal Kombat: Anderson is the most shameless kind of mercenary filmmaker -- a guy with flash and style and a degree of competence but no interest in art, only in regurgitating other shit he's seen. In Event Horizon, it was a dozen better science fiction movies. Here, it's obviously the video game. What both he and screenwriter Kevin Droney fail to recognize is that imitation is not the same as adaptation. Making a movie that's just like a game of Mortal Kombat means you have made a shitty movie.
There is one area in which Mortal Kombat succeeds where Street Fighter fails, and that is in the realization of its most "fantastic" character: Goro, the four-armed half man/half dragon and reigning champion of Mortal Kombat. He's not an interesting character, but at least he looks neat on screen -- more than can be said of the abortion that is Street Fighter's Blanka. A combination of a live actor (Tom Woodruff Jr.) and puppet animatronics, Goro is the movie's best special effect (there is a good deal of CGI in the movie, but this was 1995 and it wasn't there yet so it hasn't aged well at all) and is fun to watch even when the rest of the film isn't. Like every character in the movie, he's thinly sketched and basically sucks, but at least he's fun to look at. He and Bridgette Wilson have that in common.

Please understand that my distasted for both Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat do not reflect a distaste for video games. Don't take it personally if I don't like something that meant a lot to your childhood. I don't play video games, but I don't judge those who do. I will watch video game movies, though -- especially if they're action movies starring Jean-Claude Van Damme or Ms. Veronica Vaughn -- even though they are almost all uniformly terrible (it's saying something when the average-at-best Prince of Persia is one of the best video game adaptations). If forced to choose between the two, I'll pick Street Fighter every time. It's more upbeat and fun. It's goofier and has a point of view towards the material. It's bad, but in a way that's more amusing. Mortal Kombat is joyless. Street Fighter is joyfully braindead. It wins by default.

Flawed victory.

Got an action movie you'd like to see discussed in a future Heavy Action column? Let us know in the comments below!


  1. There are no words for how disappointed I was when I saw Street Fighter in 1994. The "story" has been done very well in animated form several times now, always with vastly superior results to the live-action film (probably because animation can capture the fighting style and comic-book aesthetics of the game, which was like a cartoon already), but I have long wondered how this movie even got made; so few of the neat things that worked in the game were translated to the screen. There wasn't really enough there for a movie, anyway. I did like Mortal Kombat better as a movie, probably for the reasons you mentioned, and because it retains the tournament-feel of the game (which I never actually played) but I haven't felt the need to revisit it in years and years. I think it's given me all it can.

  2. The second Mortal Kombat is even worse than both these movies and is all the more watchable because of it. I remember reading an inteview with director John R. Leonetti prior to Mortal Kombat: Annihilation's release in which he claimed the quote-unquote gloves were coming off. It went something like this:

    "This time, it's all out war. Just to show I'm not playing around, I'm killing off a fan favorite character in the first five minutes."

    SPOILER ALERT: That was Johnny Cage, favorite of precisely zero fans. And following his death is 90 minutes of slapdash nonsense, character cameos and ugly special effects.

    On a positive note, I think I like James Remar as Raiden more than Conner MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod.

    1. I agree, if it's possible Annihilation is just a mess!

    2. Best-worst about Annihilation is Jax, a character who takes the "Black dude making funny remarks" to a superlative ever seen level.

  3. As bad as the first Mortal Kombat is, I would unfortunately say that it is probably one of the better video game adaptations out there. However, like Heath, I haven't seen it in years, so it could just be my dumb kid self reacting positively to it. At least I had fun with it and enjoyed the soundtrack back then.

  4. I watched Street Fighter (a movie with fights, but barely any streets) a few years ago, and actually kind of loved the first half, in all its bonkers weirdness, self-aware frivolity, and nonstop gags. The second, action-focused half, is indeed an almost total waste of time, but hey, the first half entertains. Too bad the movie itself didn't go completely, meta-tastically off the rails fifty minutes in, turning into a mockumentary of the production itself, complete with musical numbers, animated bad acid trips, and overlit Top Gun-style love scenes between JCVD and Minogue playing themselves.

    (Yeah, I'm one of those disappointed Kevin Smith lost his nerve and didn't actually end Red State with the End Times happening. Having the psycho cultists in that movie actually be right would have been a truly inspired gag... that he said he abandoned because he didn't have the budget for it? Come on, man, if you want to do something, make it work!)

  5. I havent watched Street Fighter in ages, although I do remembering seeing it at the time and being mad that they didnt follow the storyline set up in the game. (Your right Patrick there is none.)

    Mortal Kombat on the other hand was a huge learning experience for me as a moviewatcher. Forgive me I may have told this story before but I saw this movie opening day and love it (WHY?!) then due to a friends urging saw it again the next day and hated it with a passion. I saw every horrible fault in the production and the boringness overwhelmed me. I saw the sequel in theatres (I like pain?) and didnt repeat that viewing. Its a real shame too that they dont have the guts to do a hardcore R rated Mortal Kombat as their is a short film online that is probably the best video game to movie translation out there.

  6. I assume we've just erased Chun-Li from our memories.

  7. To your request for Heavy Action recommendations, I watched Mr. Majestyk last night on Amazon, and I thought it had just the right mix of B-movie action and dead-pan comedy. For example, when asked where the villain is at the end of the movie, Majestyk (Charles Bronson) casually replies, "He's out back dead." while sitting on a windowsill. Not sure if it qualifies as "heavy" action, but I really enjoyed it. I'd like to hear you guys' thoughts on some classic Bronson flicks.

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  9. Haha, this is going to be good. Haven´t read it yet, but I hope you mention two things:

    From Street Fighter, Van Damme´s speach.
    From Mortal Kombat, "Use the element that gives life".