Action Heroes – Van Damme: Street Fighter

In case you were living in a cave in the 1990s’ (or perhaps weren’t born), Street Fighter was an incredibly successful series of beat-em-up video games. Indeed the game was so ubiquitous that it has the dubious honour of being one of the few games I have ever actually played. In fact I spent a large portion of 1997 bunking off of college to sit in a friend’s living room drinking cans of Carling and playing it with very little skill.

Street Fighter 2 was such a success that it remains Capcom’s biggest selling video game to date.  Of course, with success at that level, it was only a matter of time before a movie was put into development.  The Mario Bros. film, based on the successful video game of the same name, had been released the previous year, not to great reviews, but to reasonable commercial success. With the creation of new games platforms, there must have been a buzz around Hollywood that here, finally, was risk free way to ensure a good box office return. The audience was already there and all the studios needed to do was to exploit it.

The problem, of course, with basing a movie on a video game is that more often than not, plot is scant and the characters unrealistic or just downright silly. In the case of Street Fighter that is absolutely it’s biggest failing.  The game itself is simply a martial arts tournament featuring a group of characters with one line back stories. You choose your avatar then work your way through the rest of the characters to get a chance to fight the four big bosses.  Naturally each character had a signature move and a “winners” stance.  To flesh the simple premise and one note characters out enough to make a believable and entertaining hour and a half film would require a degree of finesse and a lightness of touch to prevent the film from falling into high camp and pantomime. 

Sadly, writer/director Steven E. de Souza doesn’t appear to have realised this. It’s not as if I can even accuse him of not being a talented writer, he co-wrote Die Hard for heaven’s sake, but his heavy hand on both script and camera feels like a deliberately attempt to make unsophisticated film, simply because he expected it to be watched by an unsophisticated audience. The reality of this is that it makes the film a complete waste.  Its attempts at being knowing are laboured and ultimately the audience is left floundering in a plotless wasteland, wallowing in a sea of ennui.

In common with pretty much every other action movie of this era, we open in the middle of a war in south-east Asia.  Usually it’s Vietnam, but in Street Fighter the war being fought is in the imaginary land of Shadaloo. Clearly de Souza was keen to play up the parallels with Vietnam and he did that in the incredibly heavy-handed way of having a Robin Williams impersonator shout “Gooooooood Morning Shadaloo!”. Dreadful, just dreadful.

Shadaloo is being terrorised by former drug lord General Bison, played with scenery chewing ham by the late Raul Julia. Bison has taken a number of “Allied Nations” relief workers hostage, and threatens to kill them unless his ransom is met.  His demand for $20 billion was delivered with such high camp that it was immediately reminiscent of Dr Evil’s “one hundred million dollars!” I half expected his pinky to come up to the side of his mouth as he said it.

Bison; hell bent on world domination, plans to create a race of super soldiers.  At one point he pouts; “All I want to do is to create the perfect genetic soldier!”. By that point, all I wanted to do was to turn off the TV. Julia’s portrayal is pure pantomime and it’s actually quite upsetting that this was his final role before his premature death. There are people out there right now who only know him for this and that’s a real shame.  It’s a cautionary tale that as an actor you can spend your entire career building up a body of work in which you deliver skilful and nuanced performances time and time again, only to have it steamrollered by one real stinker. I appreciate that it can’t have been easy to create a believable character when it’s written to be one note, but still, I would have expected more from the actor.
That’s our villain, enter our hero: Colonel Guile (Van Damme) leader of the Allied Nations peacekeeping force in Shadaloo. Guile is leaden with self importance and unshakeable belief in his own righteousness; it can’t have been much of a stretch for Van Damme and yet his portrayal is so devoid of charisma and nuance it’s practically unwatchable. Guile’s a man on a mission to bring peace to Shadaloo by taking down Bison, without reference to his orders to the contrary.  Moreover he has a personal vendetta against Bison, as best pal Charlie has been kidnapped and is being used as a test subject for those super-solider experiments. Naturally there is a glitch in the system and poor old Charlie ends up looking like a Lou Ferringo era Incredible Hulk with Rihanna’s hair. Even the “monster” is camp and ridiculous.

Inspite of his complete lack of charisma, Van Damme somehow inspires his troops to disobey orders and attempt a rescue.  I have a couple of points about that 1) they are peacekeepers they are not supposed to intervene in the internal politics of other countries 2) in doing so, Guile is in violation of a direct order from a superior officer and would have been immediately court marshalled 3) it beggars belief that Van Damme could inspire anyone to follow him into battle. In any event the scene is set for the final confrontation as Guile and his troops (with the help of a rogue TV reporter on a revenge mission and a couple of mercenaries) infiltrate Bison’s lair to rescue the hostages.
As you would expect, things descent quickly into a succession of martial arts fight scenes.  Of course, the action has been so sanitised to secure a 12 rating that it’s terribly dull to watch. People are knocked out, only to wake up a moment later unharmed. No-one is killed or injured; this is not what you want from an action movie. The flights are incredibly slow paced. Perhaps I’ve become so used to jump cuts in fight scenes that when none are used every blow and counter blow seems unnecessarily strenuous. The way these scenes are filmed, in combination with the fact that there is no real jeopardy, manages to suck any excitement out of watching them.  

And it’s not helped by the sound effects.  There’s a lot of “Ahhhhhh” when someone goes in for a punch or kick, which is obviously taken straight from the video game. While that works in a games setting, seeing a living person shout it as they kick someone is a bit like watching Miss Piggy “Hi-Yah” Gonzo across the room. I like to think that that’s the point; de Souza trying wink at the audience, which would certainly explain the homage to Godzilla that takes place in one scene apropos of nothing. However, rather than being a charming tongue-in-cheek interlude, this scene in particular left me feeling bored and resentful.

Another complaint is that the fights are completely mismatched.  How can it possibly be believable that tiny little Kylie Minogue can kick the ass of men four times her size?  I don’t care how skilled you are in martial arts; your physical strength will always be relative to your size (unless you are Buffy of course).  Perhaps I’m expecting too much realism from a movie based on a video game, but dammit, if I’m going to invest an hour and twenty minutes of my life in something, I would at least like it to stop insulting my intelligence and actually be engrossing and engaging.

The climactic battle between Bison and Guile is especially dull to watch.  There are some puns and a volley of kicks from Van Damme.  It’s obvious to everyone that Guile will prevail, least of all because Raul Julia looks so ill.  Eventually Bison is finished off with a succession of three roundhouse kicks (or was that one kick shown three times?) which is Guile’s finishing move in the game.  After Bison’s defeat, Guile rendezvous with his troops and all the game character strike their “winners” poses as if to remind us that it’s based on the video game –as if we could forget!

One thing for sure, the game may have been addictive but you can certainly see why the film made Time Magazine’s Top 10 worst Video Game Movies list.

Suzanne King

Share this!