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Plot: high-ranking military officer must diffuse hostage situation in Southeast Asia 

Street Fighter wasn’t the earliest big screen videogame adaptation - that dubious honor going to 1993’s Super Mario Bros. with Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo – but the first of two high-profile beat ‘em ups to get a Hollywood treatment. In two consecutive years the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat videogame properties were given a big-screen adaptation, and while one would go on to spawn a modest franchise, the other would be condemned to the relative obscurity of shlock cinema. Unfortunately the third big beat ‘em up of the 1990s, arcade hit Killer Instinct (1995) would not be given the same treatment. Jean-Claude van Damme should be applauded for attempting to bring the martial arts movie into the big-budget blockbuster realm. Street Fighter, remarkably light on actual streetfighting, is an 80s action movie with enough 90s cultural sensibilities and PG-13 trappings as to completely misunderstand what its popular titular source material was about.

Written and directed by 1980s action specialist Steven E. de Souza, famous for writing the Rambo plagiate Commando (1985), The Running Man (1987) and the surprise blockbuster Die Hard (1988) with sitcom star Bruce Willis, amongst many others, is a bog-standard 1980s action movie decked out with Street Fighter II: The World Warrior lore. The star of Street Fighter is Belgian martial artist Jean-Claude van Damme, who infamously declined the role of Johnny Cage, a character based on his likeness, in Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat (1995) to star in this adaptation instead. Boasting an all-star line-up the main cast of Street Fighter consists of Jean-Claude van Damme, Raúl Juliá, Ming-Na Wen, Kylie Minogue, Damian Chapa, Byron Mann, and Wes Studi. Unfortunately, despite being called Street Fighter there’s nary a hint of that much pined after street fighting.

Colonel William F. Guile (Jean-Claude van Damme) from the Allied Nations is ordered to diffuse a hostage situation in the Southeast Asian country of Shadaloo, somewhere on the borders of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand in present-day Myanmar. Reporting on the ongoing conflict from the bombed out capital city is wartime correspondent Chun-Li Zang (Ming-Na Wen), with the always smiling Balrog (Grand L. Bush), who just happens to box, and a Hawaiian shirted E. Honda (Peter Navy Tuiasosopo), once a sumo wrestler, as her crew. The country is under tyrannic repression of the despotic M. Bison (Raúl Juliá), a mentally unstable warlord with something of a god-complex. Assisting Guile on the mission are Cammy (Kylie Minogue) and Sergeant First Class T. Hawk (Gregg Rainwater). Guile posits to Chun-Li that in the war against Bison there’s no place for a “personal vendetta” after which he spents the rest of the movie enacting one of his own.

Bison, with his two generals Dee Jay (Miguel A. Núñez Jr.), a computer technician, and Russian wrestler Zangief (Andrew Bryniarski) in tow, conducts Skinnerian behavioural programming straight out of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange (1971) on imprisoned soldier Carlos “Charlie” Blanka (Robert Mammone), a composit of Blanka from Street Fighter 2, and Charlie Nash, Guile’s deceased friend from Street Fighter Alpha. Leading the experiment, against his will, is Dr. Dhalsim (Roshan Seth). In cahoots with Bison are weapon smuggler and crimelord Victor Sagat (Wes Studi) and his prize fighter/torero Vega (Jay Tavere), the latter of whom was about to face con men Ken (Damian Chapa) and Ryu (Byron Mann) in the fighting arena. Street Fighter recreates all the game’s iconic fighters and most of their costumes (be it in slightly altered form), but instead of pitting them against each other, the Steven E. de Souza screenplay adheres to action movie conventions.

The problem with Street Fighter isn’t so much the plot itself, which is a fairly typical mid-90s affair, but that it delivers something entirely else than the property it is supposedly adapting. The premise of Street Fighter as a video game was incredibly simple with enough background for each participant. Under any circumstance the script that was written for Street Fighter should have been its own property. As an adaptation from a different medium Street Fighter is an abject failure as it forces recognizable and beloved game characters into stock action archetypes. Far more damning is that Street Fighter is almost completely bereft of any actual street fighting. More egregiously was the decision to rewrite most of the characters’ backstories to fit the solid but industry standard action script that was used for the adaptation. De Souza’s script does everything you’d expect of an industry-standard action screenplay, but it is left wanting since this is supposed to be Street Fighter. Fights and confrontations do happen, but none of them resemble their source material – and the great majority of them are straightforward gunfights. The candy-colored production design shows that money was sunk into the project, but it only raises the question whether or not some of that money was better spent on a more fitting script. Mortal Kombat (1995) would prove that screen adaptations do work.

That de Souza chose to adapt the Street Fighter lore the way he did at least is understandable given his background. Guile is the typical redblooded, muscled American hero. Cammy is the leggy, hot blonde sidekick, Chun-Li Zang the damsel-in-distress, and the main plot is set in motion by a buddy cop movie convention. Shadaloo is a stand-in for the genre-typical Asian (or Latin/South American) banana republic, and de Souza’s screenplay even includes the obligatory hostage situation, a nod to Die Hard (1988) and Under Siege (1992). The Allied Nations troops obviously represent the United Nations, and Bison is the game equivalent to the kind of dictator played by everybody from Franco Nero to Dan Hedaya. Since this is a 1980s action movie at heart Guile hates members of the press with a zeal, and when a trace on Bison fails he thanks reporter Zang for being “almost useful.” Prior to the mission briefing a city intercom can be heard yelling “Good morning, Shadaloo!”, a line surely meant as a callback to the Barry Levinson dramedy Goodmorning, Vietnam! (1987) with Robin Williams. At one point Street Fighter invokes memories of Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977) and Zombi Holocaust (1980) by having a disguised assailant brandishing a Shadaloo tattoo.

Street Fighter had an ensemble cast of respected actors, reliable character actors, an action star at the height of his popularity, and a down-and-out pop star. Everybody seems to realize the glorious mess they’re in, and are making the best of the situation. Raúl Juliá hams it up in what would be his final role, and Jean-Claude van Damme’s futile attempts at emoting are only surpassed by his thick French accent. Ming-Na Wen looks absolutely ravishing in the various garments she gets to wear as Chun-Li even though sadly her blue cheongsam or qipao makes no appearance. Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue is able to hold her own despite her accent, and her acting is far better than that of Milly Carlucci. Robert Mammone’s transformation into Blanka makes him look like a sub-Lou Ferrigno with a paintjob only slightly better than that of Eurociné trashtacular Zombie Lake (1981). Damian Chapa resembles a scruffy Scott Wolf from Double Dragon, that other videogame adaptation from 1994. Just two years before Damian Chapa was in Under Siege (1992). A decade down the line Byron Mann would end up in the risible Pitof comic book adaptation Catwoman. It’s not nearly as bad as it’s made out to be, but it is far from what it ought have been. This ought to be an Enter the Dragon (1973) variation and not this bog standard Steven Seagall action flick.

Jean-Claude van Damme seems to be under the mistaken impression that Street Fighter is a serious project, which is understandable since he declined a role in Mortal Kombat (1995) over this. Kylie Minogue and Ming-Na Wen obviously can’t hold a candle to Cynthia Rothrock, Brigitte Lin, Yukari Oshima, or Cynthia Khan as they neither of them has that sort of balletic grace, and vast martial arts skill set. What doesn’t help matters either is that the fight choreography focuses on squarely brawn and not on acrobatic elegance and rhythm. The fights in Street Fighter make the average Cirio H. Santiago topless kickboxing movie or Godfrey Ho martial arts epic look legitimate. Van Damme, as a trained martial artist, fares better for obvious reasons but his acting chops haven’t improved much, or at all, since Bloodsport (1988) and Cyborg (1989). Kylie Minogue would truly hit rock bottom with her appearance in the Pauly Shore comedy Bio-Dome (1996) two years down the line. Those hoping to see Minogue sporting her signature kaki bathing suit, red cap, combat boots and schoolgirl ponytails better look elsewhere. At least Mortal Kombat (1995) had Puerto-Rican beauty Talisa Soto in her leather figure-fitting corset. There are enough explosions, fisticuffs, pseudo-witty one-liners and bone-crushing takedowns to satisfy the average action fan. A much bigger problem is that a movie called Street Fighter constantly forces its purported heroes into gunfights, chases, and any and every other situation besides a street fight.

It was Hollywood that ruined the original Street Fighter movie, and Jean-Claude van Damme is the least complicit in its subsequent mishandling. With a specialist director and a reworked script it could’ve matched Mortal Kombat (1995) is sheer efficiency. The ever-present humor glosses the game’s darker story elements and every other character scene is followed by a Chun-Li costume change (her Arabic dance sequence in Sagat’s underground fighting arena, or the Thieves' Market, is particularly memorable) or some comedic interlude. The role of Ryu was perhaps a better fit for Keith Cooke than Byron Mann. While Mann obviously was a much better actor Cooke had the actual fighting chops. Ryu is a supporting character instead of the lead, Dhalsim is transformed into a scientist, and Cammy is one of the good guys. Suffice to say, Street Fighter gets more wrong than it gets right, and never recovers after making Shadaloo, Bison’s terrorist organisation, a country. There are more plotholes than in the average Albert Pyun production, and every major event is so telegraphed as to not rattle any cages. Street Fighter’s ill-repute is, unfortunately, well deserved. In short: this should have been better.

Plot: retired commando is forced into action by Central-American dictator

French indie filmmaker Benjamin Combes has virtually done the impossible. On an estimated budget of a modest €35,000 Combes has created the ultimate and definite throwback to 80s action. Not only is Commando Ninja a loving tribute to the most memorable movies from Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Jean-Claude Van Damme; it also shows what that much pined after collaboration between Cirio H. Santiago, Godfrey Ho, Andy Sidaris, and early Peter Jackson that the world never got could have looked like. In a brisk 70 minutes Commando Ninja pays homage to everything from 80s American action movies from Cannon, Hong Kong ninja movies, Italian - and Thai Vietnam war movies, and even Filipino post-nuke actioners. There’s dinosaurs on the loose and Combes doesn’t shy away from showing tanned babes in candy-colored bikinis and a few jiggling breasts that would make the late Andy Sidaris and even Jim Wynorski proud. Commando Ninja doesn’t just have one of these things, it has them all… and then some. How come nobody is talking about the coolest independent action movie of 2018?

And who’s the main creative force behind Commando Ninja? The Frenchman Benjamin Combes. Combes works as a director and video editor at Ubisoft Entertainment in Montpellier by day but brews on his own feature film projects by night. Not only was Benjamin (in true early Peter Jackson fashion) responsible for the casting, props, and production design next to the practical - and visual effects he also wrote, produced, photographed, edited, and directed Commando Ninja. What makes this 70-minute feature even more impressive is that Combes only has the short The Last Human in the Milky Way (2015) and a few video game trailers to his name but nothing substantial otherwise. Commando Ninja is the result of some friends getting together and working towards a common goal for a couple of months. Combes and his friends manage to either mask and (more often than not) transcend the restraints imposed on their pet project. Commando Ninja is bursting at the seams with energy and that it looks as professional as it does is testament to Combes’ talent and skill. As of this writing Commando Ninja has been dubbed or subtitled in 15 (!!) languages (and counting) with premieres pending in South America and Asia. Not too shabby at all for a crowdfunded indie without a single big name star, production company, or distributor to speak of. Il faut le faire

1968. Green Beret John Hunter (Eric Carlesi) and his Lizard Smokers platoon – Leeroy Hopkins (Philippe Allier), Oskar Kowalsky (Stéphane Asensio), and Curtis “Snow White” Jackson (Thémann Fagour) – are on a routine recon mission in the jungles of Vietnam. Suddenly they are ambushed by a clan of ninjas brandishing highly-advanced weaponry and led by a mysterious red kimonoed, golden-masked ninja (Antony Cinturino). Hunter and his team put up a valiant fight but end up scattered in different directions in the jungles near the Laotian border. Snow White doesn’t survive the ninjas’ surprise attack and Hopkins, injured and bleeding during the fracas, finds himself chased by velociraptors. Hopkins is certain he will die until Kowalsky appears out of the foliage in a fight to the death with the carnivorous dinosaurs. Bravely Hunter engages the the troops of brutal North Vietnamese general Yinn (Thyra Hann Phonephet) in a desperate one-man guerilla war. Outnumbered and outgunned John is taken POW by the general’s armed forces. Seeing Hunter’s natural affinity for martial arts Yinn decides to instruct John in the ways of shinobi. Yinn had one pupil before but that pupil was seduced by “the darkside.” According to Sensei Yinn, “there can be only one… Commando Ninja!

1986. In their Los Angeles suburb home John’s ex-wife Lori (Cécile Fargues) is brutally slain by a clan of black clad ninjas while his daughter Jenny (Anaëlle Rincent, as Anna Rincent) plays Operation Wolf on her beloved NES console. Little Jenny puts up a brave fight against the ninjas swarming the house but is eventually taken captive. After his brush with The Red Ninja in Vietnam John has retired to a peaceful life in the Canadian woodlands. Hopkins, now decked out with a bionic arm and a comfortable deskjob, comes to recruit Hunter to help him take down Russian armsdealer Oleg Kinsky (Olivier Dobremel). Hunter politely declines but is forced to take up arms once again when he learns that Kinsky is behind Jenny’s kidnapping. He travels to the Central American republic of Val Verde where he singlehandedly slaughters The Colonel Kinsky’s entire private army. Kinsky is building a battalion of cyborg super-soldiers for which Kowalsky served as the prototype. The way Kinsky sees it Hunter has two choices: join his New World Order or perish. Jenny, precocious as ever, kills The Colonel Kinsky with a handgrenade, but she disappears in an electric storm with Kowalsky never to be seen again. Once more Hunter faces The Red Ninja. After a protracted confrontation wherein The Red Ninja ends up impaled on his katana John learns that The Red Ninja was in fact his ex-wife Lori. With her dying breath Lori sends John to the far future of 1998 (a staggering 12 years ahead from where he is now!) where Jenny is being kept…

1998. In the burned out arid wastelands of what used to be civilization John continues his quest to find his precious little Jenny. His first thought? “The Democrats must’ve taken over.” After getting his bearings Hunter is beset by a group of dangerous mutants. After killing their leader (Frederic Carriere, as Fred Stark) and his second-in-command (Ludwig Oblin) John finds himself at the mercy of a behemoth pig-like ogre (Baptiste Lecas) he can’t possibly defeat. From a distant hilltop a silhouette slays the ogre with a minigun. Collecting his wits Hunter is approached by a leggy, firm-bosomed Amazonesque archer in white overknee socks, fishnets, and the smallest denim booty shorts known to man. The bow-and-arrow babe introduces herself as Jenny Hunter (Charlotte Poncin), John’s nubile daughter of the future. Father and daughter are reunited at long last. Before long Hopkins reappears from an electric storm in a black 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. Jenny confides in John that the only way to bring Lori back and restore his own timeline is stopping the powermad The Colonel Kinsky in this time. Just as they’re about to embark on their trek the group is understandably disoriented when they find themselves in a side-scrolling Golden Axe (1989) styled 16-bit video game devised by The Colonel Kinsky. There’s only one question now: do John, Jenny, Hopkins, and Kowalsky have enough firepower to take down the dictator?

Commando Ninja is an absolute treasure trove of nods, winks, and references to eighties popular culture and action cinema. It’s 70 minutes of everything so lovingly observed, catalogued, and analyzed in The Ruthless Guide to 80s Action from popular satire site Ruthless Reviews. The Vietnam opening gambit is something out of a Cirio H. Santiago or Chalong Pakdeevijit action movie while the flashbacks largely borrow from the Jean-Claude Van Damme martial arts classics Bloodsport (1988) and Kickboxer (1989). The Vietnam opening chapter comes with a strong The Expendables (1988) vibe. The main plot obviously follows Schwarzenegger’s Commando (1985) and Stallone’s Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) with a dosage of The Terminator (1984) and Predator (1987) thrown in for good measure. The kills, often as gory as they are funny, during the Commando (1985) mass slaughter segment frequently border on early Peter Jackson territory, particularly his Bad Taste (1980). Extremities are severed, heads explode, guts pile, and blood sprays like fountains. The brief pool scene at Kinsky’s opulent mansion is all evidence one needs that Combes has seen the canon LETHAL Ladies from Hawaiian director Andy Sidaris, even though there are no French equivalents to Dona Speir, Hope Marie Carlton, and Cynthia Brimhall in congress. The evil red kimonoed ninja was a staple of Godfrey Ho cut-and-paste martial arts movies as well as the Cannon oeuvre.

The post-nuke 1996 closing act was obviously inspired by the likes of After the Fall of New York (1983), Exterminators Of the Year 3000 (1983), and Stryker (1983). Grown up Jenny in her sexy The Road Warrior (1981) attire is given an introduction the way leads were typically introduced in Argentinian, Roger Corman produced barbarian movies as Deathstalker (1983), Barbarian Queen (1985), and Amazons (1986). Liberally Combes sprinkles references and winks to Home Alone (1990), Die Hard (1988), Highlander (1986), Death Wish (1974), Star Wars (1977), Platoon (1986), Back to the Future (1985-1990), Knightrider (1982-1986), and (very briefly) even Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Oddyssey (1968). Judging by the splattery kills and his penchant for wanton dismemberment it’s entirely possible that Combes saw homebred splatter cult classics The Mad Mutilator (1983) and/or Devil Story (1985). That it concludes with an open ending is something straight out of Raw Force (1982) and the pastel-colored 80s fashion and big hair will give anybody flashbacks to Miami Connection (1987). Suffice to say, Commando Ninja matches both in terms of sheer brazen insanity. There’s enough big hair, bold make-up, velour, spandex and lycra, neon-colored leggings, stirrup-pants, leotards and bodysuits with legwarmers and headbands in the prerequisite fitness/aerobic montage to satiate anybody’s craving. Whether Commando Ninja will herald an 80s fashion revival is another matter entirely, but it's right on the money.

Of the largely amateur cast Eric Carlesi is probably the better known as for his work as cosplayer The French Wolverine. Cécile Fargues and Thyra Hann Phonephet have had some minor acting experience in small regional productions. Like Combes, Charlotte Poncin not only acts and models but is a filmmaker herself. Olivier Dobremel is a well known writer of comic books. Make-up artists Mzelle Bulle and Joana Boulay appear to have been doing various television productions. Among the extras pool babes Emilie Bedart, Océane Husson, and Stella Reig all are local models or beauty pageants. The synth-rock score from Thomas Cappeau is full of fretless bass guitar licks, electric guitar and even some sultry saxophone. During the first half hour to 40 minutes the score resembles the scores of bigger budgeted Arnold Schwarzenneger productions of the day while changing to the more hokey synth scores prevalent in Italian, Filipino, and Thai action movies of the day. Commando Ninja is clearly an intense labor of love from someone who loves the eighties, especially American and international trash cinema, dearly in all its different aspects. The deeper one goes in Commando Ninja the more the filmstock becomes more rough and has a greater amount of (artificially added) “scratches”, grains, and even the occassional overexposure. The dubbing is intentionally hilarious as a tribute to Italian, Filipino, and Thai action movies of the 80s that were known for their less than optimal and often quickie dubbing jobs. Commando Ninja is more than a simple tribute to Combes' favorites from eighties action cinema, it’s an utterly endearing and heartfelt valentine from a bunch of guys and girls who clearly went beyond mere adulation and shot their own epic.

Commando Ninja is the action movie we all wanted to make when we were 15 year old. It has everything a person could possibly want out of an action movie: commandos, ninjas, dinosaurs, swordplay, explosive shoot-outs, martial arts, and even the occassional pair of jiggling boobs. Combes’ directorial debut bounces in so many directions at once yet never becomes incoherent or hard to follow. Commando Ninja is probably better written than the very movies it was inspired by. A sequel is bound to happen and Commando Ninja 2: The Wastelands has been making the rounds as a potential working title. As a filmmaker Benjamin Combes shows extraordinary versatility in all three of the movie’s segments. We’d love to see what Combes could come up with for a Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) action-adventure like The Hunters Of the Golden Cobra (1982), The Ark Of the Sun God (1984), and Treasure of the Moon Goddess (1987); a LETHAL Ladies spy-action romp like Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987), a topless kickboxing movie like Naked Fist (1981), an urban action movie like Silk (1986), a goofy science-fiction yarn like StarCrash (1979) and Galaxina (1980), a post-nuke actioner like Raiders Of Atlantis (1983), or even an Italian or Spanish zombie potboiler like Burial Ground – The Nights Of Terror (1981) or Oasis Of the Zombies (1982).

In short, we’re excited about whatever Ben Combes does next. Whether it’s the expected (and anxiously anticipated) Commando Ninja sequel or a brand new genre piece. Commando Ninja is so good that it transcends its budgetary limitations and makes you wish half of what is churned out of supposedly professional production - and distribution companies The Asylum, TomCat Films and Kings Of Horror possessed even a fraction of innate talent that Combes showcases here. Mercenaries (2014) was a good enough exercise but it never quite captured the zeitgeist as Combes does with his own feature. Commando Ninja possesses a kinetic mad energy and has the kind of gusto and enthusiasm that few can muster. Anybody calling themselves a fan of 80s action, or 80s popular culture in general, can’t go wrong with Commando Ninja. Well done, monsieur Combes.