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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: martial arts instructor investigates the disappearance of her reporter sister

Naked Fist (released in North America as Firecracker) is an American-Filipino production helmed by producer duo Roger Corman and Cirio H. Santiago starring scandily-clad platinum blonde exploitation wonder Jillian Kesner. Derivative to the point of exhaustion Naked Fist not only is a barely disguised remake of TNT Jackson (1974) – its entire reason d’etre hinges upon the fact that it extends one scene from the earlier Santiago production into a feature length presentation. Dubbed “the world’s first erotic kung fu classicNaked Fist is neither erotic, nor a classic… It remains a prime example of Filipino exploitation cinema at its best.

For the first time, and certainly not the last, prolific Filipino director Cirio H. Santiago – a specialist in low budget Vietnam war movies, women-in-prison flicks and post-apocalyptic Mad Max (1979) ripoffs – remakes his earlier TNT Jackson (1974). Filmed from a screenplay co-written with co-star Ken Metcalfe, Naked Fist recycles the plot from TNT Jackson, and Robert Clouse infinitely superior Enter the Dragon (1973). Not content to riff on better movies Naked Fist lifts most of its music from Shogun Assassin (1980), and the trailer is set to a bootleg rendition of B-52’s ‘Planet Claire’. Santiago would plunder the same well a third time with Angelfist (1993) replacing Jillian Kesner with late shampoo heiress Cat Sassoon.

Keeping up Santiago’s tradition of female-centric actioners Naked Fist stars former model Jillian Kesner (who holds a B.A. in business from Colorado university). Kesner appeared in Happy Days as Fonzie’s girlfriend Lorraine, The Rockford Files, T.J. Hooker, and Mork & Mindy. Kesner was married to cinematographer Gary Graver at the time of Naked Fist and Raw Force (1982). Graver, who directed adult features under the alias Robert MacCallum through the 1980s, was a cinematographer who collaborated frequently with Jim Wynorski lending his talents to Alienator (1990), Sorceress (1995), and many others. Both tried restorating the unfinished Orson Welles film The Other Side of the Wind. Following Graver’s passing in 2006, Kesner continued work on the preservation of Welles’ cinematic legacy. Kesner passed away from staph infection, a complication from leukemia, in 2007.

Naked Fist claims that Kesner was the 1981 “grand prize winner at the Black Belt Olympics”, but nothing seems to substantiate that claim, neither are there any indications that she had any training in the field of martial arts, or any experience in hand-to-hand combat. For all intents and purposes, Kesner is and was no Moon Lee, Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Khan - and certainly no Angela Mao. Naked Fist was released through Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, who ordered the filming of two extra scenes to capitalize on Kesner’s attractiveness. Director Allan Holzman was brought in to helm said two scenes: a warehouse brawl that has Kesner gradually loses clothing, and the second a not particular riveting simulated sex scene. Despite having the absolute bare minimum in terms of plot Naked Fist frequently stalls, when not coming to a complete standstill, whenever Kesner is required to shed fabric, engages enemies in combat, or does both at once.

Martial arts instructor Susanne Carter (Jillian Kesner) travels to the Philippines to investigate the mysterious death of her reporter sister Bonnie (Carolyn Smith). No sooner has Carter entered her hotel in Manila and she’s accosted by two robbers while wearing nothing but her knickers. A scene that was first seen in earlier TNT Jackson, and one that Santiago would reuse once more in Angelfist (1993) with Cat Sassoon and the breathtaking Melissa Moore. The screenplay never bothers to establish whether the two hotel thugs were working for the drug ring, or whether it was just a random encounter. Judging that the same thing happen to Keith Cooke in Albert Pyun's Heatseeker (1995) one concludes that this sort of thing is typical in the Philippines. In the San Francis Bar Carter meets barman/owner Pete (Pete Cooper, as Peter Cooper) and Rey (Rey Malonzo, as Raymond King). For no apparent reason a brawl breaks loose. Having meted out swift punishment to all that assail her, Pete and Rey agree that Susanne is “all right”. Deciding to investigate Chuck Donner (Darby Hinton) after obtaining a picture of him on her sister’s camera, Rey suggests Carter uses wanting to learn Arnis as a front for her investigation. Ever so eloquent, Susanne calls Arnis de mano “the thing with the sticks” when talking to Rey’s master while visiting his training camp in the nearby jungle.

At a legitimate martial arts venue Carter initiates contact with Donner under the pretense of looking for a place to work out, and to make money to pay for her travel expenses. “She’s good. Too good,” one character observes, “she’s a martial arts teacher. 6th dan black belt," one that "owns her own dojo in L.A.” In the opening fight on the theater stage Omar Camar, one of the most senior Aikido instructors in the Philippines, is seen dishing out punishment. Watching a master at work Carter simply shrugs it off as “this kid’s stuff” and assures Donner that she’s up for it, “if the money’s right!” Erik Stoller, Ken Metcalfe in a role he inhabited once before in TNT Jackson, urges Chuck to remain vigilant, but he’s soon smitten with the high-kicking hottie. In Angelfist, Santiago’s second reiteration of TNT Jackson, Metcalfe has but a minor role. Meanwhile Erik’s girlfriend Malow (Santiago regular Chandra Romero) has her reservations about the way Stoller conducts his illicit business.

In a stunning error of judgment that will ultimately spell his demise Donner decides to show The Arena, a venue for high-stakes clandestine underground death matches that was seen earlier in the Cannon produced Enter the Ninja (1981), to Carter. While continuing her investigation into the circumstances surrounding her sister Bonnie’s death Susanne bones up her Arnis de mano knowledge at the training camp of Rey’s master all while doing some boning of her own to keep Donner at bay. Not letting sleeping dogs lie Carter is soon accosted by a number of police thugs, led by one Tony (Tony Ferrer) warning her to stay away from Donner and the drug cartel, Carter continues her investigation despite the obvious level of resistance. The thugs soon get a first-hand experience of Carter's Naked Fist.

Having catched her breath Carter is then accosted by Grip (or Griff in some prints, Santiago regular Vic Diaz) and his thugs, who come armed with a cobra and what he calls “truth serum” and want to know her true motives. In a scene later recreated in the John Woo directed Jean-Claude van Damme actioner Hard Target (1995), Carter punches Grip’s snake out cold and throws it in Grip’s face. Chuck happens upon the aftermath of the fight, and decides to take Susanne to a training camp for The Arena combatants. After partaking in one of the matches Carter leaves disgusted, and is followed yet another group of thugs. Fighting off goons one by one Susanne is forced to take off her dress and heels before slipping into a nearby warehouse. It is here that the first of two Allan Holzman directed scenes are spliced in. During an economic chase through a hallway, and for no apparent reason other than to be included in the promotional trailer, Carter bends over alluringly doing a “come hither” finger-wag while looking seductively at the camera. Moments later Susanne kicks one thug into a running circular saw in a scene later refurbished in the Andrew Davis directed Steven Seagal actioner Under Siege (1992).

A thug in a Hawaii shirt lunges at Susanne dangerously with a sickle slicing her front-fastening bra open - and miraculously not hurting her in the process - while remaining sturdily in place. Carter discards her bra and Naked Fist then recycles the brawl from TNT Jackson wherein Playboy model Jeannie Bell engaged in topless kung fu. In what must be the movie’s most clever sight gag the topless fight is situated in front of boxes labelled Rack Master. Whether this particular sight gag was envisaged by producer Corman, or directors Santiago and Holzman, was never disclosed. In what is either a brilliant piece of reverse psychology, or alternatively a display of Carter’s obtuseness – as she has pieced together clues that Erik (and Chuck) are responsible for her sister’s death at this point - she beds Donner in a drawn-out, über sleazy, neon-lit 4-minute sex scene that includes foreplay with knives, that was helmed by Allan Holzman at behest of Roger Corman. During the sex scene Kesner says, in a line scribbled straight from an adult feature, “I can feel the blood pulse inside your head” – she never specifies which head. At this point Malow has informed Susanne that she’s a deep undercover narcotics operative, and that it was Erik that ordered Chuck to kill Bonnie. Carter confronts Donner in The Arena for a match to the death killing him by dual ocular impalement.

Naked Fist (or Firecracker, depending on your preference) exists merely by the grace of its leading actress. Jillian Kesner was a beautiful, athletic and curvaceous woman that acted reasonably, and held her own in a variety of roles. While Naked Fist sold itself on the dubious merit as “the first erotic kung fu classic” it was hardly erotic, or a classic, despite the ample amount of nudity. Why Kesner never ended up working with Hawaii action guru Andy Sidaris is a question for the ages. Next year’s genre-hybrid Raw Force allowed Kesner to flex her muscles both as an actress and as an athlete. Completely relentless as far as pace is concerned Naked Fist excels neither in the martial arts department, nor in its daft attempts at eroticism. Jillian Kesner is frequently in various stages of undress, but that alone isn’t enough to keep attention to what otherwise is a pedestrian but high-octane chop sockey action movie. Not remotely intelligent or thought-provoking by any stretch of the imagination Naked Fist has all the brawn, and none of the brain. What it does have is boobs, and Kesner is not afraid to flaunt them when it matters.