The two biggest fighting game franchises of their time (and ours) were adapted into feature films one after another: first Street Fighter in 1994, then Mortal Kombat in 1995.
The question is, why did one work and the other didn’t?
The first and, I think, the most important factor is how the two films are structured, particularly with regard to their characters.
Mortal Kombat has eleven characters drawn from the first two games of the series, plus two cameos (Jax and Shao Khan). Street Fighter has fifteen characters from its game’s roster, plus one who is sort-of based on the sixteenth. On paper, that’s not a huge difference (a matter of two to five, depending on how you want to count), but consider how they are deployed.
In Mortal Kombat you have a structure that looks like this:
We have our three protagonists: hero, secondary hero, heroine. These three join forces pretty early in the film and from then on they spend almost all their non-fighting screentime together. There is a fourth hero in the form of their mentor, Raiden, and a fifth in Kitana, who is kept in the background for most of the film for plot reasons. We see almost the whole story through the eyes of those three characters. If they need to talk with someone, they talk with each other, meaning that when Johnny Cage has some dialogue, Liu and Sonya naturally get some development as well by dint of being the ones who have to react to him. The rest of the cast are aligned with the villain and serve as his henchmen or tools to challenge the heroes.
The structure is thus designed to maximize each character’s role by putting them as close to the center of the story as possible. It’s clear and easy to keep track of. Some of the characters still get marginalized, but everyone has a purpose and often more than one. You couldn’t really cut anyone, even Scorpion and Sub-Zero, without damaging the story.
On the other hand, Street Fighter’s structure looks like this:
Rather than the two camps of the other film, here we have five or six (depending on whether you want to count Dhalsim as separate from Bison). The main heroes are Guille, Chun-Li, and Ryu and Ken, but of those four only Ryu and Ken spend any degree of screen time together. Guille and Chun-Li each have their own duo of supporting characters to talk to, except that said duos are both almost completely extraneous to the story and receive little to no development, meaning that those scenes basically do nothing except to move the plot around and sort of develop the leads, but without the reinforcing feedback of working off of another relevant character. Each of the protagonists, therefore, more or less exists in their own little story independent of the others and has to develop more or less on his own. And since they only rarely interact it creates a disjointed and extremely shallow effect.
This structure is designed simply to shove as many familiar names in as possible, without necessarily providing them an actual role in the story. If Balrog, E. Honda, T. Hawk, Dee Jay, and/or Cammy were cut, nothing whatsoever would change, story-wise. The same could be said of Blanka (though he at least personalizes Guille’s motivation somewhat), Dhalsim, and Zangief.
One partial solution might have been to keep Chun-Li’s game background as an interpol agent rather than a journalist and have her partnered with Guille, allowing them to build off of each other and form a genuine relationship. That would have left no clear role for Cammy, Honda, T. Hawk, or Balrog, but, again, they don’t really have a role in the film to begin with except giving the protagonists someone to talk to, which would have been better served by having one of the other protagonists filling that role.
Another issue is how the characters are deployed in each film. In Mortal Kombat, we have eleven characters, but they’re not all present throughout the story. They are all established by about the half-hour mark, but then Goro and Reptile remain off-screen ‘in reserve’ for most of the second act while Kano, Scorpion, and Sub-Zero are eliminated one-by-one. Only once they’ve been removed from the story does Goro take an active role. Reptile, meanwhile, is established in two scenes: one where Shang gives him his assignment and one where he performs it by ambushing Liu to prevent him from making contact with Kitana. The point made (that the heroes can’t just go up to her and ask for help or vice-versa), he disappears from the film until it’s time for his fight scene. This also serves to keep Kitana largely ‘in reserve’ until close to the end, after Raiden has dropped out.
This makes sense given the nature of the story and characters: it’s a tournament, so characters will be eliminated and other characters will be waiting until they’re ‘called up.’ This keeps the active cast to a manageable level, even when there are actually a fairly large number of characters in the film, because at any given time we only have about five or six whose actions we have to keep track of.
On the other hand, in Street Fighter, every character is active and ‘on the board’ at all times in the story, meaning that the audience has to keep track of what every one of the fifteen characters is doing. They are all established as quickly as possible and then by and large just sit around contributing nothing for the rest of the screen time until it’s time for one of them to punch out a random goon, like freeloaders camped out on the couch. The result is an inescapable impression of empty bloat.
Again, a solution might have been to simply have some of the characters come and go throughout the film: have them fill temporary roles and then drop out of the story once the role is completed to make way for another character. So, you could have T. Hawk play a role in the beginning, get killed off or invalided out and replace him with Balrog (or something).
Mortal Kombat kept to a very simple, straightforward plot based on a venerable movie template that fit closely with what story the game had. In this case, it’s Enter the Dragon with fantasy elements: there’s a martial arts tournament that will decide whether an evil emperor from a dimension of magic will be allowed to invade the Earth. The premise is goofy, but imaginative and makes a certain intuitive sense (evoking the idea of trial by combat). Each character has a clear, simple reason for being there and taking part in the plot. Most importantly, it’s easy to grasp and to follow and it provides for a lot of martial arts duels.
Street Fighter took on a much more convoluted plot featuring a civil war against a power-mad dictator in a fictional country that superficially resembles Vietnam. There’s a hostage plot that doesn’t really affect anything except to provide a ticking clock (except that all the characters are already motivated to go after Bison, so…what was the point?), a plotline of Bison wanting to create an army of super-soldiers, which sort-of personalizes the battle for Guille, but otherwise only exists to create Blanka (and again unnecessary since Guille’s already motivated to go after Bison), a plot of Ryu and Ken going undercover with a local crime lord to try to find Bison’s hideout, and a plot of Chun-Li trying to get revenge on Bison for her father’s death. Of these the only ones that really tie together are the Guille’s and Ryu and Ken’s (since he’s using them to get to Bison), and none of them have much of a payoff. Chun-Li’s quest for revenge is simply forgotten about after she ambushes him and gets re-captured. The hostage plot again, doesn’t actually affect anything one way or another, and Blanka doesn’t do anything except electrocute one guard and look sad before apparently dying (why not have him join the fight against Bison to save Guille from the villain’s sudden-onset superpowers?).
At any point it isn’t really clear just what Bison’s resources and capabilities are: we’re told he has high-tech weapons that he uses to make up for his comparatively few troops, but we never see them. He has a bunch of faceless henchmen, but then so does Sagat. It isn’t clear why Guille needs Ryu and Ken at all, and the plot as a whole has very little weight to it.
Mortal Kombat had eleven characters to adapt: the seven playable characters of the first game, the two boss characters, one hidden character, and one character from the sequel. They solved this by choosing to focus on the three most heroic, relatable characters as their three protagonists, casting another character in a mentor role (which simultaneously serves to temper what should be his overwhelming power), and working the remaining three in as supporting antagonists to allow for the kind of duels one would see in the game. The two boss characters of course play the main antagonist roles, while the remaining two – Kitanna and Reptile – are worked together as a potential ally to the heroes and the monster assigned to guard her, respectively. You also have one more character – Jax – in a cameo role, and another – Shao Khan – as an unseen presence and then as the ‘stinger’ to end the film. This meant that some of the characters – especially Scorpion and Sub-Zero – got far reduced roles, but it gave more time to focus on the three leads and the plot with the villain.
Street Fighter had fifteen characters to adapt, since the studio insisted on including the enitrety of the game’s large cast. Trouble was that, as noted, the film’s framework didn’t intuitively allow for that many characters, so they were squeezed in to whatever roles there were or could be made for them. You have of course Guille as the hero, Bison as the villain, and Chun-Li as the heroine. So far so good. Though this leaves the two protagonists of the game, Ryu and Ken, without a place, so they become supporting characters and comic relief. Sagat as a secondary villain allied with Bison makes sense, as does having Vega as his subordinate. Likewise Zangief as Bison’s enforcer and Cammy as Guille’s second in command. But then we start running off the rails: we need an excuse for Blanka. He’ll be an abortive super-soldier experiment. That means we need a scientist, so Dhalsim becomes Dr. Dhalsim. Chun-Li’s a reporter now, so she can have a film crew. Shove E. Honda and Balrog in as her sidekicks (no, we don’t care that Balrog was a villain in the game). T. Hawk can be another soldier under Guile. And Bison needs a computer guy, so make that Dee Jay because Theo worked in Die Hard.
See, in the latter they’re pretty much just dropping names into whatever roles they have available or that they can force into the story, like they’re casting a play and need everyone to participate, while in the former, the characters all fit the story and serve it.
Ironically enough, though it follows the game much more closely, Mortal Kombat is much less dependent upon it. People can (and do) enjoy it without knowing anything about the game (I know this for a fact since I first saw it with almost no prior knowledge of the game, on the recommendation of a critic who likewise knew nothing about the source material). Street Fighter is almost wholly distinct from the game in every way, but a good chunk of its cast only exists because they were in the game. Someone who had never heard of the game would watch that movie and find himself wondering why half the cast even exists and why it makes such a point of letting us know who they are (not to mention wondering why it’s called ‘Street Fighter’).
This makes sense when you think about it: these characters were originally designed for a certain context. The closer you can stick to that context, the more sense they will make, while the further away you get, the more you have to struggle to justify them.
Raul Julia’s M. Bison is an over-the-top caricature of a mad dictator; truck-loads of fun to watch, but utterly unconvincing as a threat. He lets Guille bait him, gets outwitted or put on the back-foot more than once, and even his own allies and subordinates seem to regard him as little more than a lunatic most of the time. Julia was no martial artist, requiring a lot of strategic camera and editing tricks to allow him to fight Jean-Claude Van Damme, and even then he’s on the ropes for most of the fight, and that’s after he gets thoroughly trounced by the heroine half way through the film.
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s Shang Tsung is played on a more restrained, if still hammy note, conveying an air of sophistication and chess-master-like control of the situation. He rarely loses his cool, covers almost every base he can, and is convincingly dangerous throughout. He’s able to get away with taunting a god and successfully outwits and manipulates the heroes on more than one occasion. His underlings, even the monstrous Goro, treat him with fearful respect. Tagawa is fairly big and well-muscled, and he’s skilled enough to go toe-to-toe with Robin Shou in the climax with some very fast and fluid martial arts. Before that it’s made very clear that none of the others have a chance against him, and he in fact tries to take advantage of this by challenging first Sonya and then Johnny to the final bout.
Their introductions provide an illustrative point of contrast. Both villains are introduced killing minor characters: Bison takes out two random soldiers in a stiff, blatantly staged manner, snapping their necks in two moves (though accompanied by the great line, “You came across the world to fight me, soldier. Now is your chance!”). He then sees Guille on a news broadcast giving him an off-color hand gesture and is infuriated into challenging him directly.
Shang has a nightmare fight with Liu Kang’s brother, delivering smooth blocks and bone-breaking blows to illustrate his legitimate skill and power (as well as being more emotionally effective – seeing a young man being beaten to death while calling for his brother, instead of two randos dying with little fanfare – despite the hammy acting). He then tells Liu “Your brother’s soul is mine! You will be next!” before transforming into a skull and ending the dream.
The Bison scene is fine in concept as a way to establish his ruthlessness and physical prowess as well as to set up the conflict between the hero and villain. Though it falls apart in the execution and again, I don’t like that he lets himself be rattled so easily. And the interaction between Bison and Guille is both unnecessary (Guille’s whole mission is to fight Bison and so he is already motivated to take him down) and ridiculous (that Bison can somehow talk to him through a television camera).
The Shang scene is cheesy, but effective, again establishing the villain as a dangerous and brutal opponent, while also setting the hero’s motivation, as well as suggesting right at the beginning of the film that Liu doesn’t really believe he can defeat Shang, as shown by Shang turning into a skull right after promising to take his soul. So, right there we have “the hero must fight the villain, but he doubts he can triumph.”
Even apart from the execution (for all his acting talent, there was no way Raul Julia would be as convincingly dangerous a fighter as Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the Street Fighter scene makes Guille and Bison equals at best: Guille can rile Bison, and Bison can taunt him right back (I really wanted to find something that rhymed with ‘Bison’ there). Guille clearly isn’t the least bit intimidated by Bison, which means there’s no tension regarding the outcome of their battle. The Mortal Kombat scene portrays Shang Tsung as literally Liu Kang’s worst nightmare, to the point that he sees him as his own death incarnate.
The former tries to establish the credentials of both the hero and the villain at the same time. The problem with this is that it means the villain can’t be allowed to overshadow the hero, so we aren’t really worried about whether the hero can prevail. The latter focuses entirely on establishing the villain as a dangerous threat and setting up the hero’s motivation, trusting that a). they have the whole rest of the film to establish Liu’s badass credentials and b). the audience will naturally assume he’s a badass once they see him (writing short-hand again: “you know you’re watching a martial arts film. Here’s a handsome, muscular young Asian guy. You can do the math”).
Both films are based on fighting games, but as noted, Street Fighter has very little fighting in it: the action is mostly fairly generic, underwhelming gun fights, explosions, and standard war / action movie fare. What fights it does have are mostly filmed in quick close-ups (partially to disguise the lack of training in key cast members – most notably Raul Julia – and partly because the film’s chaotic schedule meant that many of them had to be improvised or choreographed on the fly).
Mortal Kombat has quite a few showpiece fight scenes, including a sequence of four or five in a row mid-way through the film. The fights are mostly filmed in fairly lengthy long-shots interspersed with close-ups, allowing us to clearly see the actors performing extended sets of fast and fluid martial arts. Most of the cast are trained martial artists of one description or another, and it’s clear the fights were a high priority for the filmmakers (the release date was actually pushed back to allow new fight scenes to be filmed when test audiences didn’t think there was enough of it).
(The one exception, as noted, is Bridgette Wilson as Sonya, whose few fight scenes are filmed more in quick individual cuts, where they filmed her doing one or two moves at a time and edited them together. By contrast, almost every fight in Street Fighter, including every fight involving the main villain, is done this way. What is a sparingly-used expedient in one film is the norm in the other).
The result is that Street Fighter’s action is mostly forgettable boilerplate stuff when it isn’t laughable (e.g. trying to pass off the ravaged Raul Julia as a master fighter on par with Van Damme). There are a small handful of decent fights, but all pretty short and not filmed particularly well. Mortal Kombat boasts some really solid and excellently filmed martial arts, as well as having much more of a distinct ‘style’ to its action scenes.
(As a point of contrast: Guile and co spend as much time running around with guns as they do engaging in martial arts. Sonya’s the only one who uses a firearm in her film, and her gun gets almost contemptuously destroyed as soon as the main plot gets going, leaving bare hands and simple weapons the only recourse for the rest of the movie).
There are also some interesting points of similarity and contrast in how their respective studios and filmmakers approached the movies, and how the shoots went. A few of which include:
- Both films had fledgling directors, though Stephen de Souza had worked in the industry and built up a stronger track record than Paul Anderson at that point. De Souza had written some of the biggest action hits of the past decade (this is one of the guys who wrote Die Hard, for goodness sakes!). Anderson had only made a low-budget crime film.
De Souza explicitly had no interest in making a martial arts or tournament film, instead opting to base his script off of a storyline he had seen being considered at Capcom for future entries, involving M. Bison as a dictator trying to take over the world. He figured he could re-cast the game’s colorful lineup of characters into an original action-sci-fi film, rather than a straightforward adaptation of the game.
De Souza wanted only seven characters, and initially Capcom agreed (persuaded by his argument that audiences can only really follow seven characters at a time). But then, as pre-production went on, Capcom kept insisting he add more characters to the cast. Then more. Then more. Until by the end he had exactly the problem he had warned them about.
Mortal Kombat had at its helm not just Paul Anderson, but more importantly producer Lawrence Kasanoff. Kasanoff, upon discovering the Mortal Kombat arcade game, immediately saw the potential in the premise. The blend of martial arts and weird fantasy, he thought, was potentially a billion dollar franchise, extending to movies, books, TV, anything you cared to name. Kasanoff fought hard to get the film made and enthusiastically promoted it all the way, keeping in close touch with Ed Boon, the game’s co-creator (and voice of Scorpion in the movie) to make sure they were matching the spirit of the game.
In short, the people behind Mortal Kombat really believed in the potential of the property and meant to translate it to the screen. The people behind Street Fighter saw it more as a jumping-off point for an idea they thought would be more interesting.
- Ironically, Universal and Capcom loved Street Fighter and were very enthusiastic about it, while New Line frankly hated Mortal Kombat and had very little faith in it (Kasanoff tells a story of the studio head yelling at him for an hour about how much he hated the script before concluding “go ahead and make it”). This actually might have helped things, as Kombat didn’t have the problem of the studio trying to force changes upon the production (other than the PG-13 rating) or demanding an early release date. Street Fighter was forced into a rushed production to be in theaters by Christmas in order to push the merchandise that had been enthusiastically churned out for it, no doubt exasperating the films myriad other problems. Studio enthusiasm isn’t always a positive.
- Much of Street Fighter’s $35 million budget went to hiring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Raul Julie (Van Damme alone cost $8 million: over a fifth of the film’s entire budget!). Van Damme, then at the height of his stardom, addicted to cocaine, and coming off of a very bitter divorce, was by all accounts a nightmare to work with, refusing to rehearse, showing up late to the set (if he showed up at all), and being an absolute diva when he did. This on top of demanding an expensive private hotel room for his own use (Julia on the other hand was a consummate professional respected by everyone on the set and often accompanied by his children).
Mortal Kombat had a budget of $20 million, part of which went to hiring veteran star Christopher Lambert. Money was so tight that they originally thought that they’d only be able to use him for a few days of shooting on an LA soundstage and resort to long-distance body doubles for the Thailand shoot. Lambert, however, liked the role and wanted the film to succeed, so he volunteered to pay his own expenses to come down to Thailand and film more scenes. There he helped keep the production going smoothly with his laid-back, helpful, professional attitude, setting the tone for everyone else (he also proved himself an absolute mensch by buying a wrap party for the cast and crew out of his own pocket when filming concluded with nothing left in the budget).
- As noted, Moral Kombat cost $15 million less than Street Fighter. Yet they clearly spent the money much more wisely, focusing on the elaborate sets and any necessary special effects (e.g. Goro) over hiring big name actors. The cast was mostly relative unknowns, with veterans Christopher Lambert and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa filling in the heavy lifting. Some characters were simply played by stuntmen since they wouldn’t have any lines anyway.
Street Fighter spent a good chunk of its budget on its somewhat-bizarrely strong cast: in addition to Van Damme and Julia, we have veteran dramatic actors like Wes Studi, Roshan Seth, and Grand L. Bush, not to mention Australian pop sensation Kylie Minogue (who, incidentally, was very well liked by the rest of the cast for her sweet, professional behavior on set and supportive attitude off it). Since the film also included a lot of extras, numerous locations, and a fair number of special effects and explosions, the remaining budget ended up being noticeably stretched thin, with the result that the film looks considerably cheaper than Mortal Kombat, despite costing almost twice as much.
The short version of all this, it seems to me, is that Mortal Kombat is a much more focused film: the filmmakers knew what they were aiming to achieve, knew what the particular appeal of the film would be, knew the effect they were trying to create. They concentrated all their effort on the things that would contribute to that effect and tailored the story and characters to the film they meant to make.
Street Fighter seems to have been cobbled together from multiple conflicting visions, not only different ideas of what would happen in the film, but even what kind of film they were making. The most basic elements – the fighting and characters – are mostly done half-heartedly in favor of large dollops of shallow plotlines and out-of-place action scenes. Half the crew seems under the impression they’re making a comedy (e.g. the goofy reactions to the impending truck bomb), the other half thinks they’re making a serious action movie (e.g. Guille contemplating the home videos of his friend, Blanka).
Kombat succeeded on a combination of faith in the material, solid writing, a wisely-spent budget, a cooperative cast, and a clear sense of priority. Fighter failed on a blend of doubt in the material, weak, haphazard writing, a poorly spent budget, a chaotic shoot on a hard deadline, and a general failure to prioritize.
Some of these things are just a matter of bad luck (it would have been hard to predict Van Damme’s absurd diva behavior for instance), but there are a lot of things here for those who are writers to try to keep in mind: understand what you are trying to achieve and what i necessary to create that effect (and what isn’t: do you really need a first-class dramatic actor as the generic scientist in an action movie based on a fighting game?). Consider the structure of the story and character interactions and whether it uses them efficiently. Keep an eye on what each scene is doing and what it says about each character (e.g. is a character who is supposed to be intimidating being undermined?). Ask what role each character plays and whether the story really needs them, or needs them to be present at the moment. Ask how many characters the audience has to keep track of at each given moment and whether there is a way to shuffle them around to keep the active cast down to a manageable level.
And above all else: have faith in the material you’re working with and commit to it.