I can’t say for sure whether or not this was the first movie based on a video game whose primary plot was “two characters fight each other,” but I think it might be. If not, it’s pretty close. Street Fighter is best known for being the final film of well respected, Academy Award winning actor Raul Julia, whose final gift to society was himself in a red leather fascist get-up, cackling and flying around and shooting lightning out of his hands. Some people lament the unfortunate timing of this movie and Julia’s death conspiring to turn Street Fighter into his memorial movie. I don’t really see things the same way, though.
As probably doesn’t need to be explained, Street Fighter the movie is based on Street Fighter II, the video game. Back in 1991, pretty much the entire world was playing Street Fighter II and trying to figure out what the various exotic characters were yelling when they executed their signature moves. This was back before the web after all, so you couldn’t look that shit up. Left to our own devices, we interpreted the muffled dialogue of the video game with the same accuracy as our attempts to decipher Misfits lyrics. We were pretty sure Guile was yelling “Alec Boo!” every time he shot his energy bolts, and Ryu would scream “Whole Nougat!” for some reason. Now, I am privy to the fact that Guile was actually yelling “Sonic Boom!” but I still have no idea what the hell Ryu was yelling, nor do I want to look it up or be corrected. Because just as we discovered what we thought Misfits lyrics were, were sometimes better than what they actually turned out to be, so too do I feel that there’s nothing Ryu could be yelling that is more interesting than “Whole Nougat!”
Street Fighter the movie retains at least one aspect of the video game, in that by casting Jean Claude Van Damme as Guile, it’s still impossible to decipher half of what he’s saying. The rest of the movie does its best to make up a suitably ridiculous plot to pad the video game’s plot of “guys fight” into a feature length run time. So Guile is the leader of a multi-national UN task force opposing tyrannical madman M. Bison (Raul Julia), who’s criminal empire of Shadaloo has some plan to take over the world that is as vague and half-assed as pretty much all plans to take over the world. Both sides have assembled a force of strange and powerful martial artists, since as you know, pretty much every international conflict in the history of the world has ultimately been decided by a kungfu fight.
With the plot thus established, Van Damme and his right hand woman, Kylie Minogue, lead assorted assaults against Raul Julia’s fortress. Lots of exploding, jet boats, sparking machinery, and lead-footed fighting ensues. Ming-na Wen shows up as Chun Li. Promo photos of her and Kylie as Cammie standing back to back in their Street Fighter costumes fulfilled many of my former and still current fantasies. The rest of the characters from the video game show up in one capacity or another, with varying degrees of faithfulness to how they appeared in the video game. Most of them are pretty close, though E. Honda has chosen to fight wearing a Hawaiian shirt instead of his signature sumo thong. Blanka, who was a hairy yellow monster bristling with muscle in the video games, here has become a sort of spindly dude with yellow skin and bad hair.
Dhalsim in this movie looks like a regular Indian guy rather than like a drawing of Amrish Puri from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Of the liberties taken with character design, only Blanka is disappointing. He looks less like a terrifying jungle monster and more like Evil Ed from Fright Night. I guess Dhalsim would have been more fun, and a lot more racist, if he’d been wearing a loin cloth and a necklace of skulls and levitating around the place. Anyway, if you need to see a movie where a racist portrayal of an Indian guy shoots his fists across the room, go watch Master of the Flying Guillotine starring Jimmy Wang Yu.
I have no emotional attachment to the Street Fighter II video game the way some people do. I always sucked at it, so if anything, I sort of have a grudge. As such, I can judge the movie based not on how faithful it was to a video game with almost no plot, and can instead watch it purely as a really dumb but pretty fun piece of entertainment. Director Steven de Souza was a screenwriter with almost no experience as a director. But I guess they figured what the hell and let him direct anyway. The resulting movie is silly, cartoonish, paper thin, and pretty enjoyable. Given the premise of the video game (come on, people), the movie wisely chooses to mostly goof off. The acting is hammy and over the top, but never so much that it approaches the wink-wink level of irony. Instead, everyone does what they should do, and what always makes these movies more fun — they play it straight, as if the material were serious and important, but ratchet everything up well above where it should be.
You can lament that Raul Julia’s last film was a silly sci-fi video game thing, but he doesn’t seem to have the same reservations about it that his admirers have. He throws himself into the role of evil mastermind with gusto, and his complete commitment to the material, no matter how absurd, makes for some funny moments that wouldn’t have been funny if he’d played them as something that was supposed to be funny. Van Damme is Van Damme, as he usually is, and the supporting cast is game as well. Kylie Minogue may be tiny sized, but I love her, and Ming-na Wen, unlike some other actresses who would portray the same character, looks the part of Chun Li. The fights are mostly trickery and gimmicks, but if you’re looking at this as a breezy adventure film rather than a martial arts movie, there’s little of which you should be wary.
I think that many people, because of the video game adaptation nature of the film and because it starred Jean Claude, dismiss this movie as terrible without giving it any consideration. It ain’t no Rembrandt or nothing, but honestly, I think Street Fighter is pretty damn entertaining. It keeps a brisk pace, it never fails to keep throwing something ludicrous at the audience, and the cast treats the film with a more gravity than it deserves, which makes it even more entertaining. For my money, this is the sort of film the video game deserved — no classic, but bright, fun, and absurd never the less. Years later, someone would decide that the Street Fighter story needed to be retold in a grim, depressing, and “realistic” fashion, and that M. Bison should wear a business suit instead of his awesome red leather Hitler duds.
Those people, of course, were idiots.
Release Year: 1994 | Country: United States | Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Raul Julia, Ming-Na Wen, Damian Chapa, Kylie Minogue, Simon Callow, Roshan Seth, Wes Studi, Byron Mann, Grand L. Bush, Peter Navy Tuiasosopo, Jay Tavare, Andrew Bryniarski, Gregg Rainwater, Miguel A. Nunez Jr. | Screenplay: Steven E. de Souza | Director: Steven E. de Souza | Cinematography: William A. Fraker | Music: Graeme Revell | Producer: Edward R. Pressman, Kenzo Tsujimoto