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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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