Last week we looked at a video game movie that worked. This time we’re tackling one that…doesn’t. At least, not in the way the filmmakers probably intended.
1991’s Street Fighter II was one of the most popular and influential fighting games ever made, laying foundations that the genre has built upon to this day. As video game movies began to take off, it was a natural consequence that it would get an adaptation. People were still excited about video-game movies at the time, and while they had no idea how to go about it, they hadn’t yet realized the fact.
Capcom and Universal were thrilled at the idea of Street Fighter movie. They got Steven de Souza, writer of Die Hard, Commando, and 48 Hours to direct and write the screenplay, and cast white-hot action-star Jean-Claude Van Damme as the lead. Everything seemed set for an action movie classic.
The phrase “this was a brilliant idea on paper,” springs to mind.
In the southeastern nation of Shadaloo, civil war is raging against the megalomaniac General Bison, whose forces are armed with high-tech weaponry to compensate for their smaller numbers. The ‘Allied Nations’ (AN) forces are led by Colonel Guille, an American officer with a comically thick Belgian accent, as well as his second-in-commands Cammy White and T. Hawk.
The plot is kicked off when Bison kidnaps a group of aid workers and ransoms them for twenty-billion dollars, threatening to execute them after three days (his control room helpfully has a huge digital countdown). He also captures Guille’s friend, Charlie Blanka, and starts to turn him into a supersoldier under the supervision of the idealistic, but cowed Dr. Dhalsim. Bison’s troops also include Jamaican computer wiz Dee Jay and dim-witted Russian strongman Zangief.
At the same time, ne’er-do-well conmen Ryu and Ken attempt to rip off the dangerous underworld boss Sagat, only to be found out and pitted against his chief henchman Vega before all of them are arrested. Guille recruits the two to work undercover to find Bison’s lair.
Meanwhile, hot-shot reporter Chun-Li is also working to track down Bison to avenge her murdered father, with the help of her news crew, Hawaiian sumo-wrestler E. Honda and boxer Balrog.
Unlike Mortal Kombat, I had not seen this movie all the way through before watching it for this series, though I had seen parts of if and of course knew many of the story beats and lines. Having now seen it, it’s…a very strange movie.
We’re adapting the world’s most famous fighting game. Let’s structure it as more or less a Jame Bond movie, only set during a fictionalized version of the Vietnam War. The all-American hero will be played by a thickly-accented Belgian, the 7’ Thai kickboxer bad guy by a 5’10” Cherokee, and we’ll also throw in an Australian pop star and one of the supporting cast of Gandhi.The game’s protagonists will become comic relief, we’ll include a lot of goofy sound-effects and odd jokes, the villain will be plotting to take over the world with a race of green-skinned, fright-wigged super-soldiers, and to play him we’ll cast a classically trained dramatic actor who has zero martial arts experience and who is currently terminally ill.
It’s hard to know where to begin with Street Fighter. It is such an odd, stupid, ill-conceived mess that you could talk about all that’s wrong with it for hours. To begin with, as indicated above, the plot is all over the place. We have the hostage crisis. We have the war plot. We have Bison wanting to make a race of atomic supermen to conquer the world. We have Chun-Li’s quest for revenge. We have Ryu and Ken going undercover with Sagat. And all the while it’s not clear just what Bison’s position even is: is he the rebel or the ruling power? If the latter, how come Guille can’t find him? Just who is fighting him apart from the AN? Is there a Shadaloo government? Or if Bison is the government, is there a local rebellion? Where are they during all this? We never see them. And why is Colonel Guille apparently in charge of the entire American Expeditionary Force, and why is he such a public figure that he gets his face on the cover of Newsweek as Bison’s arch-foe?
Even apart from the many plot holes, the whole premise of the film is just a weird choice. So, you’re making a movie out of a fighting game. Indeed, the top fighting game in the world. What basic plot structure do you employ? A tournament film? A crime film? Something like the classic Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan films? Maybe a revenge plot? No, apparently you make a sort-of James Bond movie crossed with a Vietnam War flick (complete with a radio anchor beginning his broadcast with, “Goooood Morning, Shadaloo!”).
This is such a strange decision. Who looks at the game and thinks ‘pseudo-Vietnam War’? (My own suspicion is that this entire plot exists to justify Bison’s military garb by making him a would-be tin-pot dictator).
But the problem is not just that this is completely unrelated to the plot of the game, such as it was. Like most if not all fighting games of the time, the plot to Street Fighter II was very thin, though certainly enough to build something interesting on. No, the problem is that this set up really doesn’t allow for – indeed, almost precludes – the kind of one-on-one martial arts duels that were the entire point and appeal of the game.
(To be fair, this is still less weird than the Blade Runner-aesthetic adopted for the Super Mario Brothers movie of a year earlier).
That’s really the point on which the film collapses (well, one of many, but perhaps the most fundamental): there’s very little actual fighting in this movie (and nothing at all that could be called ‘street fighting’, leaving the title bizarrely out of place), and most of what is there consists of the characters dispatching a random goon with one or two moves before moving on to the next one. At one point Ryu faces off with Vega in a cage match clearly inspired by Vega’s stage in the game. There’s a long build up and then…Guille bursts through the wall and arrests everyone just as the fight’s about to begin. Who the hell thought that one up?
Most of the action consists of gun battles and explosions. There are only a handful of real one-on-one fights in the film, and not only are they all pretty short, but the vast majority of them are crammed into the final ten-fifteen minutes and inter cut with one another.
Now, it is just conceivable that the film could work without the fights if they focused on making full use of the game’s large cast of colorful characters. The trouble is (and this is the other – or an other – big problem) that almost all of them are either completely irrelevant, all-but-unrecognizable, or both.
We’ll talk more about the fighting, such as it is, and the characters, such as they are, later. For now, back to the plot. So, Bison kidnaps a bunch of AN aid workers and holds them for a twenty-billion dollar ransom. Then Guille offends Bison with an off-color arm gesture, which enrages Bison so much that he somehow hacks into the TV signal to turn it into a two-way video chat, where each can see the other and talk (just what Guille is looking at when he talks to Bison through Chun-Li’s television camera is a mystery. This happens twice in the film, by the way, making me question whether the filmmakers understood how television works). Upon learning that one of his captives is Guille’s friend, Bison decides to use him as the test subject for his super-soldier program.
Except that, according to his later statements, the race of atomic supermen was Bison’s main goal in the first place, but I guess he wasn’t going to begin his experiments until Guille annoyed him and he found out one of the captives was his friend? Was he just waiting to get started on his world-domination plot until he got hold of one of Guille’s buddies? He was all set to execute the guy a minute earlier.
Meanwhile, Guille wants to go after Bison, but can’t pinpoint his location except the general area. Apparently, Guille has no surveillance planes or satellites or, heck, helicopters on hand to conduct reconnaissance. Otherwise he might not have needed to send a couple of con-men undercover with Bison’s supplier to find the giant temple crawling with uniformed guards and surrounded by radar dishes. But then Ryu and Ken (the protagonists of the game, by the way) would have had even less reason to be in this film, and God knows they don’t need that.
Speaking of which, we meet Ryu and Ken trying to swindle Sagat by giving him nerf guns instead of real guns. Now, in the first place, it’s incredibly stupid that they ever thought that would work (did they think no one would so much as touch the weapons before paying?). But then there’s a bit where Sagat ‘tests’ the duo by having his men aim the weapons at them and fire, saying “Surely you’re not afraid of your own weapons.” Does Sagat think that a real firearm is so enchanted that it would never harm the man who sold it?
(This is just one example of the sometimes nonsensical dialogue in the film. At another point Sagat asks Ken “Are you with me or against me?” to which Ken quips “Is this multiple choice?” Uh, yes, it is. He gave you two choices. How is that even a joke?)
Sagat punishes the duo by subjecting Ryu to a cage match with his henchman Vega, promising Ken that he’ll be next. But just when we’re daring to hope there might be some fighting in this movie, Guille bursts through the wall in an armored truck and declares everyone under arrest. Later, still fuming about his inability to find Bison (again, have you tried searching the area you know he is in?), Guille notices Ryu and Ken fighting some of Sagat’s men in the prison yard and decides to recruit them to go undercover in Sagat’s organization. I don’t know, I can’t really see Sagat trusting these two idiots, even if they help him escape. More likely he’d dump by the side of the road and call it even because he didn’t kill them.
Their escape also involves hijacking the prison truck while it’s still parked in the middle of an army base, instead of waiting for it to drive them outside the city. I mean, it was a set-up, but still.
Though I will give the film credit that it at least shows refugees, people being hurt by the war, and uses the sight of them to justify Ryu and Ken’s accepting Guille’s offer. That was a good touch.
I also like Chun-Li’s infiltration of Guille’s headquarters. Security is much too light, of course, but she gets some good moves, like where she watches from a staircase as a guard passes by, then flips over the railing as he goes up the stairs behind her.
Later on, there’s a scene where Bison and Sagat are having an arm’s deal, and Chun-Li and her crew plan to assassinate him with a truck-bomb (which is kind of dark for a heroic character: apparently she doesn’t mind blowing up any servants or entertainers present). The trio run into Ryu and Ken, and the film then plays it as if the plot was foiled and the trio captured because the two con-men were trying to save their own skins (after they wandered into a Mexican standoff between Bison and Sagat because they somehow failed to notice either the screaming servant girls running past them or the two large groups of men pointing guns at each other. Also because they somehow thought it was a good idea to go back to the place they were just told is about to be the target of a bombing).
But the thing is, Chun-Li was the one who decided to send Bison another two-way television message gloating over his impending fate. Even then, it still might have worked had she had waited to do so until after she’d set the bomb, or at least if she hadn’t provided live footage of the approaching truck (no, I don’t know how she has that), giving ample time for everyone to escape even after standing around gawking for a bit. I mean, what did she think was going to happen?
Though the scene does feature one of the funniest (intentional) jokes in the film, where Zangief sees the truck coming on the television screen and shouts, “Quick, change the channel!”
We also learn in this scene that E. Honda and Balrog are after Bison because he ruined their sumo and boxing careers, respectively. So, a drug-lord / dictator in southeast Asia really thought it worth his time to wreck the sumo wrestling career of a guy in Hawaii? I mean, petty as he was, I can’t picture Mao spending the time or effort to sabotage the career of, say, Barbara Ann Scott, the champion figure skater, so thoroughly that nothing was left to her but to seek revenge (though if anyone cared to make a movie about that…).
Also, as noted the above scene features Sagat’s men turning their guns on Bison in outrage after he tries to pay them in ‘Bison dollars’, and Bison’s men responding in kind. The very next scene, they’re working together harmoniously once more. Why on Earth would Sagat continue to do business with Bison after that? He knows he’s not going to get paid in anything worthwhile. Or why would Bison trust Sagat to the point of bringing him into his secret headquarters? Actually, why would he do that regardless if secrecy is so important to him? Sagat could easily sell the information to Guille for anything he liked, and he obviously has no personal loyalty to Bison, so…why? Apart from the need to get all the villains in the same place for the climax, I mean.
Chun-Li and her crew are captured off-screen after that, and she’s put into something like her classic costume (though inexplicably red instead of blue) by Bison and sent to his chambers, where she recounts how he murdered her father. This is a legitimately pretty good scene, by the way, and prompts prompts probably the best line in the film. Chun-Li lays out the full story of her father’s heroic death, her voice dripping with hatred and contempt as she throws his crime in Bison’s face…only for him to spoil the whole thing by admitting that he doesn’t even remember the event. “For you,” he says, “The day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me…it was Tuesday.”
(I love Julia’s performance here, by the way: he isn’t taunting her, or angry, or disturbed in any way. He’s just mildly interested in the story of the genuinely long-forgotten incident).
Chun-Li then breaks out of her restraints and proceeds to kick the crap out of Bison, giving us one of our rare one-on-one fights. Well, sort of: it’s not so much a fight as it is her mercilessly kicking him for a minute or so before the other good guys rush in to rescue her and he takes advantage of the distraction to escape.
Turns out Bison’s private chamber has a switch just outside the door that seals the entrances and releases sleeping gas. He’s apparently very confident in his minions’ loyalty and the integrity of his security. Not to mention the good will of the guy who was ready to shoot him about two scenes before.
Meanwhile, Guille is ordered to pull out by what may be the most cartoonishly smarmy bureaucrat ever committed to film. Instead he delivers a stirring speech about freedom and justice and promises to go up river and “kick that son-af-a-bitch Bison’s ass so hard. That the next Bison wannabe. Is gonna feel it.”
Again, this does lead into a handful of decent jokes, like when the bureaucrat reports to his superiors that not all Guille’s men have left, at which point we cut to a morose-looking cook in an otherwise empty base. The bureaucrat himself is such a ridiculous caricature that I found him hilarious.
We then get what fans of the game really wanted to see: Guille’s invisible boat riding through a minefield and blowing up radar stations (did the filmmakers play the wrong game at the arcade or something?). During this, Bison uses a control panel modeled directly after the arcade cabinet to direct his defenses. Nice idea in theory, but looks laughably out-of-place in what’s supposed to be a piece of military hardware. Maybe Bison just likes the bright colors. He blows up the boat, but Guille, Cammy, and T. Hawk escape and sneak in on foot (Guille chooses the moment when they’re literally crawling directly under the noses of some of Bison’s guards to ask T. Hawk about his headband).
During this time, Dr. Dhalsim has secretly switched out the software meant to condition Blanka into an unstoppable killing machine for software apparently meant to make him nice. The former consists of non-stop war newsreels, while the later is a mix of happy stock footage (and why did they even have that?). That’s all it takes to re-program a brain, I guess. In any case, this results in Blanka escaping and electrocuting his guard.
Guille gets in and is ready to euthanize Blanka, but Dhalsim stops him with some cartoon-level platitudes about choice and so on. There’s a big assault on Bison’s base and we finally get a few actual one-on-one fights: E. Honda vs. Zangief, Ryu and Ken vs. Sagat and Vega, and, of course, Guille vs. Bison (which happens after Bison has clearly already lost), while the other characters dispatch a goon or two in passing while hustling the hostages out of the fortress. During their escape, Chun-Li pauses to question Cammy’s hair-style, and she responds in kind.
At about this point, Ryu and Ken have the standard “temporary break up because one is idealistic, the other is practical.” The entire thing, from the disagreement to the reconciliation, takes place over the course of about five minutes. It ends with Ken giving Sagat the gold statue he was going to loot from Bison’s headquarters saying, “if I hadn’t met you, I might have become you.” Uh, at what point was Ken ever tempted to be like Sagat?
(It occurs to me it might be a reference to Sagat’s early comment about how the last kickboxing champion “Retired and became me.” I like that line, but again, nothing in Ken’s storyline indicates that was a possibility for him).
Guille defeats Bison, but he’s revived by his suit, which is then powered up to allow him to fly and shoot lighting (why would I make that up?). He beats Guille up a bit with his new powers (“You came here to fight a madman and instead you found a god!”), then Guille kicks him into a wall of screens and he dies again. Then the building blows up, but more or less everyone escapes and delivers their victory poses from the game.
I guess this is as good a time as any to talk a bit more about the fighting. Again, there’s very little actual martial arts action going on here: a few quick group shots and individual moves against random goons making up the bulk of it. There are almost no wide, long shots of the actors going at it: the fights are generally filmed close-in, with numerous cuts, presumably to better help disguise the lack of training among the participants. There are also a number of ill-conceived bits of choreography, the funniest of which occurs when Cammy jumps on a guy’s back, snaps his neck, flips him over, and then punches him out.
The fight between Zangief and E. Honda is a cool idea on paper (and Honda becomes one of the few characters to actually use one of his moves from the game), and is at least fun to watch, but it has zero stakes and mostly involves them simply wrestling around a bit until Honda just declares the fight over and runs off with his friends.
To be fair, Zangief is as confused and disappointed by this as we are.
Ryu and Ken vs. Sagat and Vega is probably the most competent fight in the film, since it’s the only one where most of the participants seem to have a respectable level of skill (I don’t think Wes Studi was a trained fighter, but he’s at least athletic enough to fake it). Bryan Mann as Ryu and Jay Tavare as Vega in particular get to show some decent athleticism (Vega is possibly the best realized character in the film, which isn’t saying much since he’s basically just a henchman here, but he at least looks and acts right). It also includes what might possibly be Ken’s famous ‘Shoryuken’ move…but also might just be a normal uppercut.
By the way, the fight takes place in a locker-room / gym. Ryu defeats Vega by opening up an incinerator door and using it to heat up his metal mask.
Why does the locker room have an incinerator?
Probably the most embarrassing fight of all is Chun-Li’s attack on Bison. Yes, it’s kind of cool to see the First Lady of Fighting Games cutting loose and proving her metal on screen, but the fact that she so thoroughly trounces him and is only prevented from outright killing him by circumstances kind of undermines him as a threat (as if we needed that given Raul Julia’s wan face and evident lack of martial arts training).
Then there’s Guille vs. Bison, otherwise known as ‘Jean-Claude Van Damme beats up a 52-year-old cancer patient.’ It’s as awkward and unimpressive as you can imagine, with many, many cuts to try to disguise Julia’s lack of fighting ability (including one bit where it looks like they under crank the film to make him look faster than he is). They then give up and just give him superpowers, which involves hanging him on wires and running him into Guille again and again (this was never foreshadowed or set up, by the way: it just comes out of nowhere to give Guille an actual challenge).
On that note, let’s talk about the characters. As indicated above, the film is hampered by the studio-mandated need to feature every single one of the game’s sixteen fighters (they ended up excluding exactly one, Fei Long, though the character of Captain Sawada seems more less based on him). And not just in cameos, but present throughout the film. However, for the most part they only vaguely resemble their counterparts from the game and have nothing of what made them memorable. Only a minority even have anything that you could call a personality trait.
The script is visibly struggling to include all of them, which results in odd things like the aforementioned ‘Bison ruined E. Honda’s sumo career,’ or the fact that the names ‘Dee-Jay’ and ‘Dhalsim’ are pretty much just penciled in over completely different stock characters (arguably, so were ‘Ryu’ and ‘Ken’). This is also a likely cause of the film’s bloated, convoluted plot: the super-soldier element, for instance, pretty clearly exists solely to justify Blanka’s existence, as it ties into nothing else.
Many of the characters are just names: T. Hawk could have been cut out and no one would have noticed. Balrog likewise contributes nothing apart from the fact that Grand L. Bush (best known as one of the Agents Johnson in Die Hard) is utterly unconvincing as a boxer. He’s a good actor, as seen in his other work, but he’s not particularly big or muscular (middle-weight at best) and has a professional, intelligent, sophisticate kind of screen persona that is the polar opposite of Mike Tyson-avatar Balrog.
Kylie Minogue is cute as a button, and though not a great actress has good charisma and comes across as just incredibly sweet on screen, which makes her nothing short of ridiculous as Cammy, whether talking the game version or the film’s supposed special-forces soldier (I actually wish she’d done more movies, to be honest: she’d be a great fit in a romantic comedy. Not so much an action film, or at least not an action role). She pretty much just exists as someone for Guille to talk to, as she likewise contributes nothing to the plot except being charming.
E. Honda is at least big enough (there’s a funny moment early on where he squeezes past Balrog while they’re all crammed in the news van) and he comes across okay as far as he goes, though he spends most of his time driving Chun-Li’s van around and of course bears little resemblance to his game counterpart. Again, Dhalsim and Dee-Jay are names and ethnicities and nothing else, and they’re otherwise just the ‘scientist cowed into working the villain’ and ‘evil computer guy’, respectively (though Dee-Jay does get a few laughs, like when he responds to one of Bison’s grandiloquent pronouncements with a thoroughly disinterested, “okay”).
Wes Studi as Sagat looks like he’s wondering just what the heck he’s doing there most of the time, though to be fair that fits the character as envisioned in the film. He’s obviously nothing like the towering Muay Thai giant he was in the games, in fact if anything he’s shorter than most of the other characters, meaning he really only has the eye patch and the scar – visible precisely once – in concession to the role. Though he is at least authoritative enough to be convincingly dangerous nonetheless. It’s funny to think that one year later he’d be part of the acting all-star game that is Heat.
(On that note I have to say how weird it is to see great dramatic actors like Raul Julia, Wes Studi, and Roshan Seth trading this Saturday-morning-cartoon-level bad dialogue back and forth).
Ryu and Ken are all-but unrecognizable, being reduced to bumbling comic-relief con-men, though as noted they at least get a decent fight in at one point, which puts them ahead of most everyone else. Blanka is pretty much just a plot point, spending most of the film sitting in a booth being programmed and then a few minutes running around a dark stage in really bad green make-up and a wig, looking more like a troll doll come to life than the ape-like wildman from the games. Captain Sawada, the Fei Long stand in, is…well, the thing there is that Ken Sawada, the actor playing him, was originally cast as Ryu, until it was discovered that his English was terrible and so he was recast in a minor role that only kinda-sorta existed in the game and then just pops up once in a while. He’s dubbed in the role, but I don’t know why they bothered with this, since I almost have to believe that any performance he might have given would have been better than that of whoever did his dubbing.
On the other hand, Andrew Bryniarski as Zangief seems to have simply walked out of the game, and though he doesn’t get much to do and his fight with Honda is pretty lackluster compared with what it might have been (Bryniarksi had been a professional wrestler, but he doesn’t really get to show any wrestling moves here), he’s still one of the best things in the film for his dim-witted antics (“You got…paid?”). As noted, Vega is likewise one of the best realized characters, as far as he goes.
The only other character who more or less comes off intact is Chun-Li. Ming-Na Wen isn’t as bubbly as the character seems to be in the games, but she otherwise fits the role pretty well, and legitimately has the charisma to pull off such an iconic character (no small compliment, given that Chun-Li is considered one of the classic video game beauties). She also actually gets a plot-line and some characterization and even a handful of decent action scenes. I don’t know if she’s a trained fighter, but she’s athletic enough to not be absurd at least.
And yes, I do love the fact that Chun-Li later became the voice of Mulan.
What about the two leads?
I have to admit, I haven’t seen any of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s other movies (unless you want to count Kung Fu Panda 2), so I don’t know if he’s always this bad or if it was a result of his well and truly not giving a damn while being coked out of his mind for the whole shoot. But, yeah, his performance is the stuff of legends, and his thick Belgian accent is hilariously distracting in what is supposed to be an explicitly all-American character (the guy has the flag tattooed on his bicep, which gets a helpful close-up at one point).
Otherwise, he’s just Jean-Claude Van Damme, since I’m not sure Van Damme could play any other roles (actually, judging by this film, I’m not sure he could play that one): your straight-up American military badass maverick from a thousand other 80s-style action films. That’s fine as far as it goes, and is a perfectly acceptable interpretation of the character (not withstanding the accent), though attempts to play him up as an inspiring leader and hero fall laughably flat. And again, his position doesn’t make a lot of sense: why is a special forces colonel the public face and military commander of apparently the entire war?
As for Raul Julia as Bison, he exists beyond criticism. Like Jon Voight in Anaconda, what we have here is a genuinely great actor cutting loose and going full-bore pulp-film ham on a role. You can’t call the performance either good or bad: it simply is. This is really the chief reason to see the movie, and every moment he’s on screen is a treasure of bizarre, whole-hearted entertainment. Bison is a gloriously over-the-top character, the kind for whom the phrase ‘delusions of grandeur’ is far too tame. He does things like paying Sagat in ‘Bison dollars’, which he assures him will be worth five British pounds after he’s kidnapped the Queen. He just tosses that off causally, as something that of course he’ll be able to do once he gets around to it. Or there’s a bit where he’s planning his capital city of ‘Bisonopolis’ and comments that the food court is too small, since “all the big franchises will want to get in.” Right down to the pettiest points, he not only assumes himself superior, but assumes everyone else will agree.
As I say, Julia was a great actor and it’s pretty clear this is not him mocking the film, but legitimately how he thinks the role should be played. He apparently did a lot of research into dictators and crime lords to inform his performance and, yeah, you can definitely see that: that sort of absolutely self-assured, narcissistic perspective combined with an almost childish impracticality. Bison’s a cartoon, but an accurate cartoon. And again, he’s just a joy to watch as he sweeps about the sets with Shakespearean authority, delivering his gloriously cheesy lines with seemingly boundless energy (“Keep your own God! In fact, now would be a good time to pray to Him!”). It’s all the more impressive when you remember the man was actually dying at the time, yet he still dives into the role with so much gusto that apart from his thin face you would never know it.
(For those who don’t know the story, Raul Julia was suffering from stomach cancer at the time the film was being made. He knew it was likely going to be his last performance, so he let his kids pick which role he’d play. They were big fans of the game and so picked M. Bison, and he pulled out all the stops to give them a performance they would enjoy – as well as taking a hefty paycheck to ensure their support. He died not long after filming wrapped, two months before the movie’s release.
I could never fault Julia taking the role, and have nothing to complain of in the result, but I do have to wonder who thought of him in the role in the first place).
That said, Bison is fun, but he isn’t exactly an impressive villain. One of the first things we see him do is lose his temper just because Guille makes an off-color hand gesture to him on a news report (though later completely unfazed when Chun-Li calls him a coward to his face). His ridiculously over-the-top speeches and grandiose plans come across as simply goofy (the fact that many other characters, including his underling Dee-Jay, clearly don’t take his pretensions very seriously doesn’t help), and there are several points where he lets himself get placed in positions of weakness through either incompetence or neglect, from which he only escapes because his enemies are as incompetent as he is. And of course, the second time we see him in a fight, the female lead walks all over him.
None of this is exactly out of character – again, he’s a petty dictator with extreme delusions of grandeur – but it doesn’t really do much to make him a convincing threat or up the stakes any. Heck, by the time he and Guille have their showdown, his base has been found out and mostly conquered, meaning he’s already lost the main plot (not to mention that the AN troops only need to shoot him for the film to be over).
The thing about the characters in general is not so much that they are different from the games. Again, it isn’t like the games had much characterization. Rather, it’s that you have this great roster of colorful characters representing an insane gamut of different types, and you turn them into a group that wouldn’t look out of place at a PTA meeting and you spend most of the time just having them stand around doing menial work (watch E. Honda drive a van! Watch Cammy chair a meeting! Watch Dhalsim use a computer! Watch T. Hawk…which one’s T. Hawk?).
For instance, in the game, E. Honda is a sumo wrestler who wants to prove that sumo is a legitimate martial art and so enters the wold tournament to pit his brand of sumo wrestling against the best fighters in the world. That’s not deep characterization, but it’s at least original. Here he’s a fat Hawaiian guy who drives a van and is mad because his promising sumo wrestling career got scuttled by a power-mad dictator. Oh, and at one point he demonstrates a high pain tolerance, which isn’t set up by anything and which never comes into play again. That’s it.
It isn’t that it’s different, it’s that it’s so much less interesting.
So, the plot is a mess, the characters are mostly flops, and the action is lame. What else?
Well, what surprised me was how cheap the film looks. The sets are adequate, but by and large, look to me like they might have come from a decently-budgeted TV show. Dhalsim’s lab in particular wouldn’t be out of place on something like The Man From UNCLE. Bison’s command center is nothing much to look at: just a rather cluttered Bond villain lair copied by someone with half the budget. I don’t know whether this is because they’re actually cheap, or just over-busy and ill-shot. Most of the rest of the film takes place in board rooms or generic Asian city streets (though no fighting in those streets). Bison’s holed up in an ancient temple, but we don’t get many shots of the exterior and, again, the interior’s just a bog-standard villain lair. The sets often feel rather small and cramped somehow, like a stage set where the environment is compressed to fit into the available space, and the fight scenes mostly take place in these cramped, dull locations.
I do love how Bison has a dedicated ‘hostage pit’, complete with automated announcement related to it on the intercom. Apparently, the situation really does come up that much in his life. and all that said, there are some creative details sprinkled about. I especially appreciated the propaganda posters lining the walls in Bison’s hideout, depicting the AN forces as evil claws gripping at the nation. Someone did their homework there. Another set detail I appreciated was that the reclining Buddha statue from Sagat’s stage in the game appears as part of the décor in his club.
Bison’s private chamber likewise has some amusing touches, like the Napoleon-style self-portrait and the John Wayne Gacy-style abstract painting. Though again, these are amusing, but not really anything else: they’re too broad and obvious a joke and don’t really make sense taken together (if they were going for a Hitlerian artistic taste, it should be nothing but classical-style art: the Gacy painting is jarringly out of place for that). It’s pretty much just an ‘I understood that reference’ joke.
That is another thing, the film at times feels like a parody of itself. There are odd jokes, like the bit where a Godzilla roar plays over Honda and Zangief’s fight for no reason, or Bison’s intercom reminding his troops that their benefits depend on their performance, or the aforementioned gag of Ryu and Ken trying to sell nerf-guns to Sagat. Bison’s winged skull logo shows up everywhere in his hideout to the point of absurdity, even in places like the backs of chairs and topping his martini stick! There’s also the fact that Bison is never once shown without his hat, and has a set of differently colored ones for various occasions.
I don’t know what they were going for here, because the film isn’t structured like a comedy but it often plays like one, and not just unintentionally. It’s as if part of the crew thought they were making an action film and the rest thought they were making a spoof of action movie.
Now, all that having been said, as bad as this movie is – and it is a very bad movie – you really can’t dislike it. It’s so stupid, so ridiculous, and so cartoonish that it becomes rather charming. This is one of the classic bad films of its generation, like The Room or Plan 9. In any case,it’s definitely not boring. Between Van Damme’s incredibly distracting accent, Raul Julia’s performance, and the spectacle of futilely trying to cram so many characters and plot-lines in, it’s frankly hilarious. And again, some of the jokes do land: “change the channel,” “I’d love to, but some idiot just canned me,” or Bison’s (ad-libbed), “I guess you didn’t see that!” taunt directed at Sagat. There are, honestly, some decent things here, though mostly superficial: Chun-Li and Zangief surviving the transition to the screen, a few individual moments, some decent lines, and again, Raul Julia, who really can’t be mentioned often enough as by far the best thing in the film.
Besides all that, there’s just something downright charming about the film. It’s a bad movie, but it isn’t malicious in any way, and the filmmakers are clearly really trying to give the audience an entertaining ride.
All things considered, I definitely would recommend seeing it at least once for the sheer entertainment value, and for one of the most memorable final performances ever committed to film.