That time Hollywood came calling to Shadaloo, then went home to be a family man.
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A Latino and Native American playing Thais, two Aussies playing a Brit and a Brazilian, a Chinese American and a Samoan playing Japanese guys, an American playing a Russian and a Belgian playing an American all walk into a bar…
Even in the biggest, brightest, no-brainer of an idea lies the potential for chaos. In the early 90s, Universal Studios held what must have seemed a surefire pot of gold in the rights to make a movie based on Capcom’s Street Fighter 2: The World Warriors. The game was taking the arcades by storm, kicking off a phenomenon that caught the imagination of teen video game fans all over the world. What gamer worth his salt wouldn’t salivate at the thought of a live-action movie featuring their favourite characters – and more pointedly, wouldn’t compel their parents to buy tickets to said movie?
They also had an impressive lineup of principal cast and crew, with the cast headed by the Muscles from Brussels himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and a respected veteran in Raul Julia to give the whole thing a sheen of critic-friendly class. Overseeing matters would be writer/director Steven E. de Souza: not a household name per se, but someone who had written some of the most-loved and financially successful action movies in the last decade, including 48 Hours, Commando and Die Hard. He may have been making his directing debut, but that kind of track record buys a lot of faith.
As we all now know, the reality didn’t quite pan out as expected. Saddled with a meagre, US$35m budget, a fraught production period and ongoing interference from IP holder/primary financier Capcom, Street Fighter: The Movie limped to its Christmas 1994 release to scabrous reviews and a far less enthusiastic reaction from the fanbase than expected.
Not surprising, really, as de Souza, in classic Hollywood style, took it on himself to remold the IP from the ground up. Not wanting to make a tournament movie a la Enter the Dragon or Bloodsport, he instead changed the premise to a conflict between a noble AN (Changed after the UN refused permission to use their name in the script) peacekeeping force led by Guile (Van Damme) fighting to depose third-world dictator M.Bison (Julia).
Of course, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat would come a year later and thoroughly disprove that idea, proving that you can make a tournament movie and still have larger-scale machinations going on in the background. Unfortunately, de Souza had his heart set on turning Street Fighter into a militaristic action thriller, and not a particularly focused or thoughtfully-plottted one, either.
Right from the off, the film seems hell-bent on messing with the game’s lore, most egregiously with the characters’ professions. Chun-Li’s a reporter? E. Honda and Balrog are her camera crew? Why’s Zangief in that uniform? Dee-Jay’s a hacker now? And wait, this is getting ridiculous: since when were Ryu and Ken con-men?
Not that the plot feels in any way worth all this trouble. It meanders along inoffensively, alternating between Bison subjecting Blanka to inhuman experiments and talking about ruling the world, Guile talking about beating up Bison, and Ryu and Ken getting into a variety of fish-out-of-water hijinks that bring them into the orbit of Bison’s forces, and ultimately, the overall conflict. The whole thing plays like a cross between Apocalypse Now and The Year of Living Dangerously made by someone who has never seen either film, and gave up halfway through in favour of turning it into a screwball comedy. de Souza may have sniffed at the narrative qualities of the source material, but clearly has no idea what he actually wants to turn it into.
Neither is he particularly into all those goofy special moves: the few that appear are almost laughably undersold. Ryu’s Hadouken is reduced to a single white frame to create the illusion of a flash (Making the move look more like some kind of electric nipple-cripple). The nearest Cammy gets to a Cannon Spike is throwing a generic kick, while a hilariously ADR’d Kylie Minogue cries “Thrust kick!”. At least Bison gets a halfway adequate-looking version of the Psycho Crusher, probably owing in large part to Raul Julia’s insistence on performing the wire work himself.
Julia is by a mile the film’s MVP. Stricken with bowel cancer and clearly emaciated, it’s incredible that he not only mustered the energy to play the role, but that even in this condition he performs with a thunderous, operatic intensity that makes the rest of the cast look like a High School drama class.
Julia knows exactly what kind of movie he’s in, and simply goes for it with every last drop of his energy and immense talent. Knowing that he was losing his cancer battle and that his time was short (He would pass away shortly before the film’s release), he accepted the role for his Street Fighter-loving kids and delivered what can only be described as the thespian equivalent of a Viking death.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for the film’s lead. Van Damme was at the height of his fame at the time of Street Fighter: The Movie’s production. However, instead of the world’s biggest action star they got a flexing, strutting trainwreck, stricken by an ego almost as rampant as his cocaine habit. Accounts of his conduct on the production are uniformly negative, with regular no-shows on set playing havoc with the shooting schedule.
This apathy fair oozes through his stilted, listless performance. He looks bored throughout, with the blank stare and mealy-mouthed enunciation of someone who’s just woken up with the mother of all hangovers. Don’t take that as a cheap jab at his non-English speaking background,, either: Van Damme’s English had improved considerably by this stage of his career. In other films he made around this time, like Timecop and Hard Target, he sounds far more natural and legible than he does in Street Fighter: The Movie. No, this is a complacent star gacked out of his skull, who simply can’t be fucked to deliver his lines with the slightest modicum of effort.
But on the bright side, it did inspire this little slice of YouTube genius:
Though Street Fighter: The Movie has gone down in history as one of the go-to examples of Hollywood’s self-sabotaging hubris when it attempts to delve into the world of videogames, it’s often forgotten that it was actually a financial success. Its US$99 million haul in its theatrical run was strong by early 1990s standards; for the sake of comparison, the biggest action film of that period, Terminator 2, grossed $205 million. Half of that may sound small, but when you consider that Street Fighter: The Movie was much lower-budgeted, critically panned and was aiming at an at this point relatively untested audience, it performed quite impressively. It might not have shown Hollywood how to adapt videogames well, but it did give the first clear indication that a market existed that wanted to see them.
Capcom did release a tie-in game, with digitized renditions of the cast’s versions of the characters instead of the traditional Capcom designs. Released in arcade, PS1 and Sega Saturn versions, it didn’t exactly set the charts on fire, the digitized style weirdly ripping off the aesthetic of Street Fighter’s main competitor, Mortal Kombat. It’s widely seen today as a not-quite-terrible, but still minor entry in the franchise.
Despite the tumultuous production, bizarre creative decisions and critical mauling, time has been kinder on Street Fighter: The Movie. There’s an infectious enthusiasm to the thing that ameliorates its many flaws, and in some cases arguably makes them more enjoyable. The AN are hilariously ramshackle, with Van Damme’s Guile coming across like a reckless middle manager someone gave guns to. That said, Ming-Na Wen makes for a strong Chun Li, arguably the only cast member to hold her own performance-wise against Julia (In the classic ‘It was Tuesday’ scene, which on its own has become something of a meme legend).
Andrew Bryniarski’s adorably clueless Zangief (“Quick! Change the channel!”) is almost fourth wall-breaking in how his unabashed dimness sets the tone for the film in general. Even some of the film’s clumsiest stabs at addressing the game’s lore (Such as E.Honda and Balrog’s shoehorned-in lines establishing that, yes, they were a sumo and a boxer) fly so close to action movie parody that just accepting them as such makes the film far more fun. Maybe it’s simply because a lot of the creative decisions are so inherently ludicrous, especially in comparison to the source material, that it almost feels intentionally comical.
In the end, it’s that lack of focus that makes Street Fighter: The Movie at once a humiliating failure, and genuinely loveable. de Souza may have tried to kitbash a militaristic thriller from the IP, but the hapahazardly-conceived nature of the changes and the campy tone leave any attempt at dramatic consistency withering on the vine. What its flailing nature does produce, however, is a sense of buoyancy and eagerness to please that has only become more weirdly charming over the years.
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Also published on Medium.