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.