The Fourth Strike is the Sweetest
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If the 2010s are remembered for anything in the history of live-action video game adaptations, it’ll be for the Internet doing what had eluded Hollywood for two decades: doing right by fighting games.
Dearly departed pop-culture hub Machinima.com deserves a lot of the credit for this turnaround, by giving fans of these properties the chance to make versions of them that may at times have seemed radically different to what gamers knew of them in form, but undeniably true in spirit. First came director Kevin Tancharoen’s excellent Mortal Kombat: Legacy, a reimagining of the game’s lore that jettisoned a lot of the camp that eventually sank the Hollywood versions (though I will forever throw down for that first movie), replacing it with a grittier, more grounded tone that seemed heavily inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
After nailing it with Mortal Kombat, it was a no-brainer to take a similar approach with that other cinematically–squandered 90s fighting game franchise: Street Fighter. Here, they turned to the creative team of director Joey Ansah, and martial artist Christian Howard. Having turned heads with their own re-imagining of Street Fighter with the short film Street Fighter: Legacy (apparently the word “legacy” was in vogue at the time), Ansah and Howard were commissioned to produce a web series based on their take on the origins of everyone’s favourite shoto bros, Ryu and Ken. The series was popular enough that it was eventually released in a re-edited, expanded form on home video, which is the version we’ll be covering in this article.
Assassin’s Fist’s main narrative thread is about the growing bond between Ryu and Ken as they are trained in the Ansatsuken (Assassin’s Fist) fighting style, under Gouken (here spelled “Goken”, but we’ll stick with canon). Interwoven with this story are vignettes telling the story of Gouken’s youth, and his friendship/rivalry with troubled student Gouki, who would eventually master the forbidden Satsui no Hado (‘Dark Hado’) style and become Akuma.
Naturally, these stories eventually converge in the present as Akuma returns to torment his old friend and destroy his students. So yes, we finally get Akuma in a live-action Street Fighter movie and he’s awesome – played by Ansah, himself a talented martial artist.
If the prospect of seeing Akuma realized well in live-action isn’t reason in itself for you to check out Assassin’s Fist, it’s also the best Street Fighter adaptation we’ve seen to date, and by a considerable margin at that. For starters, the fight choreography is leagues ahead of the previous versions, a definite perk of having legit martial artists at the creative helm. It’s also shot wonderfully, prioritizing flowing wide shots that let us see every last drop of skill the fighters bring to the screen. None of that ADHD zoom-cut bullshit going on around here.
The casting is also excellent: Mike Moh as Ryu and Howard as Ken legitimately look like the Alpha series versions of the characters ripped out of the screen and into the real world, and they both do a decent job performance-wise (apart from the odd moment of woodenness from Howard, which can be forgiven since damn, that guy is Ken incarnate). Ansah is appropriately mean-looking as Akuma, but the highlight is undoubtedly Akira Koieyama, who radiates genuine dignity and soul as Gouken.
Apart from all of the above, what puts Assassin’s Fist above all previous Street Fighter films is its heart. It has a palpable love for, and unflinching preoccupation on, two things: the characters, and the philosophies behind their skills. The Hado/Dark Hado schism may be a rehash of the classic Light Side/Dark Side conflict, but Ansah and co understand that that idea hinges on the emotional reality of the protagonists and antagonist. The film’s heart is the relationship between Ryu, Ken and Gouken, and they don’t waste any effort in exploring the parental/generational nature of those relationships. This film has moments that actually put a bit of a lump in this jaded, crusty-arsed throat of mine; considering that I’m saying this about a bloody Street Fighter film, I can only assume that it’s either a sign of crisis of emotional dysfunction on my part, or that these guys actually succeeded in making a legitimately good movie.
Honestly, I believe that the evidence overwhelmingly points to the latter. There are some moments in here that will make fans of the franchise positively giddy with well-executed fan service. The “birth” of Akuma; Ken’s dad showing the boys some of his old boxing moves as Ken’s theme shreds in the background; Ken and Ryu getting hammered at a bar before discovering the concept of street fighting thanks to a back-alley bare-knuckle brawling meet. Among all this, they, along with Gouken, feel like fleshed-out people with clear emotional lives. Even the games have rarely managed to touch this kind of territory.
This movie just fucking rules. Sure, you could argue that it’s just an edited-together web-series and not a theatrically-released film, the thrill of seeing someone finally come up with a good Street Fighter adaptation – that not only honours but deepens the original lore – handily trumps that pedantry. In fact, I’d argue that it’s the best live-action video game adaptation of all time, and by a comfortable margin at that. If you’re a Street Fighter fan, you need to see this. It often goes cheap as chips on Madman’s website, so it’s easy to source, and well worth your time.
Being such a relatively low-key release, there was no licensed game to accompany Assassin’s Fist: much like Legend of Chun-Li; instead, the film was treated as part of the promotion of the latest mainline game, in this case Street Fighter V. They quickly produced a follow-up, Street Fighter Resurrection, in 2016, but because its release was limited to Machinima’s Go90 app (nope, never heard of it either) and Amazon Video, it quickly sank without a trace. I’d say “sadly”, but, well… this attempt at a sequel was kind of a non-starter on all levels.
Set ten years after Assassin’s Fist, we rejoin Ryu and Ken after several, briefly-referenced but unseen tussles with Shadaloo and Bison, bafflingly skipping the events of Street Fighter I-IV. Here, they find themselves in an uneasy alliance with Charlie Nash to protect London from a Shadaloo plot led by Decapre. Short (with a sub-40 minute runtime) and saddled with a ropey script, Resurrection failed to reach the bar set by Assassin’s Fist. With Machinima shuttering in January 2019, the chances of seeing an extended cut as with Assassin’s Fist are pretty much nonexistent.
Thankfully, Ansah and co are getting another shot at the property with a live-action series announced in March 2018. Hopefully, they’ll get the space and budget to produce a worthy successor to their highly impressive first outing. If nothing else, this mostly perilous journey into the realms of narrative Street Fighter has ended in a place where the property’s custodians are people who clearly love and understand it and, given the right resources, have shown they can get it right. That’s odds I can go on.
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