Plot: contraband runner opposes the mightiest corporation in the world
Among video game purists Tekken is reviled, and while that sentiment is understandable to a degree, it misses the bigger picture that it’s also one of better video game adaptations. Not that the standards have been set high exactly to begin with. It was inevitable that Namco Bandai Games’ popular fighting franchise would eventually get the Hollywood treatment. Tekken’s character roster contains enough interpersonal drama, tragedy, and plenty of colorful personalities to fill multiple features. As a textbook example of a post-The Matrix (1999) American martial arts movie it distinguishes itself with its increased levels of acrobacy, athleticism, and far more complex action choreography. At heart Tekken is closer to Street Fighter (1994) than it is to Mortal Kombat (1995) in terms of faithfulness. Tekken, for better or worse, took the Hong Kong lessons from DOA: Dead or Alive (2006) to heart and did something with them. Sure, Tekken took plenty of artistic liberties with the source material it was supposedly adapting but on the plus side it benefitted for the most part from taking said license. As far as these things go, you could do far worse than Tekken.
That Tekken turned out half as well as it did is something of a miracle considering some of the talent behind it. Director Dwight H. Little is your standard smooth Hollywood filmmaker who worked his way up from the dregs of independent cinema. His style is technically polished but fairly interchangable with people like Renny Harlin, and Simon West. He’s the kind of director ideal for work-for-hire features and soulless Hollywood sequels. Little lensed everything from Marked for Death (1990) (arguably the last good Steven Seagal actioner before his lamentable and steep decline into direct-to-video hell and worse), Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home (1995) (the inevitable sequel to a Hollywood blockbuster), and Murder at 1600 (1997) (back when Wesley Snipes actually had a career) to Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid (2004) (the sort of unnecessary sequel that would have benefitted from J-Lo’s legendary ass).
Worse still is the fact that Tekken was written by Alan B. McElroy, the kind of Hollywood hack who makes Akiva Goldsman, Steven E. de Souza, and Joe Eszterhas look like nuanced scribes in comparison. McElroy infamously penned the Kirk Cameron Christian propaganda piece Left Behind (2000) (given the Hollywood remake treatment in 2014 with a sufficiently bewildered Nicholas Cage neckdeep in financial – and legal woes); that other video game adaptation that nobody talks about, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002) with Lucy Liu, Talisa Soto, and Antonio Banderas; as well as Wrong Turn (2003) (wherein Eliza Dushku acted primarily with her tank top) and the thinly-veiled recruiting video for the American military-industrial complex better known as The Marine (2006), or where wrestler John Cena acted better than most action stars at the time. Where did Little and McElroy start? Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988), or the last good sequel in a franchise that never should’ve lasted beyond the original.
It’s bad enough that most of the cast consists of television actors and anonymous stuntmen. The only big names (if you’re feeling in any way charitable) present are the always entertaining Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Tamlyn Tomita, and Jon Foo. There’s actually one genuine star to speak of but one-time Hollywood pretty boy Jason James Richter is relegated to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit part that he’s easily overlooked. Richter, of course, was the kid in Free Willy (1993) and its sequels before being chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine. Tagawa famously was Shang Tsung in Mortal Kombat (1995), and Tomita debuted in The Karate Kid Part II (1986). Foo on the other hand was a League Of Shadows extra in Batman Begins (2005). For all the criticism that can be levied at Street Fighter (1994), Mortal Kombat (1995), and DOA: Dead or Alive (2006) at least they had the decency of a halfway recognizable cast. Unlike in the Far East (China, Hong Kong, Japan) where talent is cast based upon past performances and martial arts prowess, Tekken was cast by the old Hollywood adage that they first and foremost must be pretty, irrespective of their fighting ability. Holly Valance was, by far, the worst actress in DOA: Dead or Alive (2006) yet in Tekken the entire female cast is made up of nothing but talent exactly like her. Kelly Overton, Candice Hillebrand, Marian Zapico, and Mircea Monroe are as pretty as they come but couldn’t act their way out of a paperbag let alone pull off a convincing fightscene. For the ladies there are enough shots of the glistening chests of Luke Goss, Roger Huerta, and Jon Foo but since this is a respectable production Overton, Hillebrand, and Zapico never bare theirs, although there’s a brief instance of sideboob from Mircea Monroe. Not that Monroe is in any way vital to the story, but we’ll take what we can get…
2039. In the aftermath of the Terror War what is left of civilization, all divided into territories, are not ruled by governments but by autocratic mega-corporations. The American territories are ruled by Tekken, the mightiest and cruelest of the surviving 8 corporations. Tekken is run by Heihachi Mishima (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and his son Kazuya (Ian Anthony Dale) in the industrial hub of Tekken City. Annually the 8 mega-corporations - under the collective banner of Iron Fist - organize The King Of Iron Fist tournament as a widely televised event to placate and scare the masses into submission and servitude. In the impoverished, burned out slums known as the Anvil young contraband runner Jin Kazama (Jon Foo) witnesses the murder of his mother Jun (Tamlyn Tomita) and his partner Bonner (John Pyper-Ferguson) by the Jackhammers. Kazama vows retaliation against Tekken CEO Heihachi and, much against the will of girlfriend Kara (Mircea Monroe), enters The King Of Iron Fist tournament. After his surprise victory against disgraced combatant Marshall Law (Cung Le, as Cung Lee) in Open Call Jin is allowed to enter the tournament. There he immediately befriends capoeira fighter Christie Monteiro (Kelly Overton) and lands a sponsorship from boxer Steve Fox (Luke Goss). In short order Kazama wins the crowds, becomes known as "The People's Choice", and a conventient representative for the rebel insurgents. Defeating anything and everyone in his way Jin will soon to able to face the man responsible for his mother’s death, whether that is the person he has in mind is something else…
As can be deduced from the above plot summary, McElroy was never above stealing when it suited him and Tekken is a beautiful illustrative example of just that. In Tekken the world is ruled by rivaling companies competing in a televised martial arts tournament. During said tournament one of the lead’s allies is blackmailed into betraying him, and a potential love interest of the lead is abducted at one point. The lead character is a small and unimportant everyman who leads a group of insurgents against a despotic, in this case corporate, ruler thus defying the existing power structure. If all of this sounds nothing like the Tekken video games and more than a passing resemblance to Heatseeker (1995) by way of Gladiator (2000), then you’d be right because that’s exactly what it is. It’s bad enough when Hollywood starts ripping off Albert Pyun. The story might be typical underdog fodder and not faithful in the slightest to the video game franchise it is supposedly adapting yet there are more than enough shots of Candice Hillebrand’s pink leather corset and Kelly Overton’s toned ass to make forget you about such trivialities as story and plot. To dispense with the obvious, Tekken is the movie that Heatseeker (1995) always wanted to be. If they were going to take liberties with the source material they could at least have traded Anna Williams for the more interesting Julia Chang, King, Combot, or Ling Xiaoju. Alan B. McElroy actually sank low enough to rip off Hawaiian trash specialist Albert Pyun. No wonder Namco Bandai disassociated themselves from Tekken when it was released.
What really kills Tekken is not so much the story it tells, which is pretty standard Hollywood fare, but its apparently random throwing together of characters from the original game as well as those from the sequels 2 to 6. Characters are true to their in-game counterparts in appearance but little else. Where the adaptation takes the most artistic license is with the relations and subplots between all of the characters. In Tekken the video game Eddy Gordo (Lateef Crowder) mentored Christie Monteiro into capoeira (not so here); Nina (Candice Hillebrand, as Candicé Hillebrand) and Anna Williams (Marian Zapico) indeed are sisters-assassins but no mention is made of their rivalry or Nina being Steve Fox’ biological mother; a throwaway line confirms that Bryan Fury (Gary Daniels) is a cyborg but nothing is made of the fact beyond that; Yoshimitsu (Gary Ray Stearns, as Gary Stearns) is not an alien lifeform, but reduced merely to an “advanced swordsman”. Tekken even goes as far as to invent an unnecessary non-canon love interest for Jin in the form Kara, and then proceeds to do absolutely nothing with her. Kara does nothing what the plot couldn't have done with Christie Monteiro. The only thing that McElroy has kept is the animosity between Kazuya Mishima and his father Heihachi and that Jin Kazama is Kazuya’s son and rightful heir to the Tekken empire. From a narrative standpoint Jin Kazama is an understandable choice as he’s the most internally conflicted but a Paul Phoenix, King, Julia Chang, Combot, or Ling Xiaoyu wouldn’t have hurt. Tekken excels in including any number of beloved characters and doing absolutely nothing beyond fanservice to develop them. To make matters worse none of the characters fight in their respective disciplines. In short, Mortal Kombat (1995) or DOA: Dead or Alive (2006) this certainly is not.
The bar is set admittedly low for video game adaptations and Tekken is a lot better than it has any right to be. Tekken is far from the worst of its kind but could have been a lot more than what it ended up being. By trying to please everybody, Tekken ends up pleasing nobody instead. Everything is decidedly vanilla from the start and it never attempts to pay lipservice to the mythos it’s adapting. Some of the creative choices are understandable, others not so much. There’s plenty of beef- and cheesecake to be had and Tekken doesn’t shy away from blood when it matters. Like any post-The Cell (2000) production the color palette is gritty, and desaturated for the sake of “realism”. Tekken (as a video game) was memorable – just like Street Fighter II: the World Warrior before it – because of its rich, candy-colored costumes and arenas. Up until at least Tekken 4 the world was full of warm, deep colors as it became thematically darker. Neither Dwight H. Little nor Alan B. McElroy seem to have understood this. As such Tekken is stereotypical Hollywood product churned out without much care or love. Tekken unfortunately is nothing more than a sum of its various individual parts, and that’s a shame. This could have been so much more, or better, if somebody had cared.