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Junkfood Cinema: Street Fighter

By  · Published on June 11th, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema: the worst part of your weekend. Every Friday I assault your sense of cinematic decency by serving up some truly awful films. These are the movies you would happily leave at the bottom of the dollar bin at that truck stop in northern Iowa, but for which I harbor great fondness. I will breakdown exactly what makes these films so bad but also what makes them hurt so good. As if that weren’t enough, I will also select a custom snack food to complement the film and add to your waistline what I subtract from your IQ.

Last week I rambled about the dubious merits of Super Mario Bros. and the crazed performance of the recently departed Dennis Hopper. Beyond providing adequate catharsis for my mourning of Easy Rider, writing last week’s entry stirred my brain cauldron and left me pondering other video game film adaptations. Some may argue that mocking video game films is tantamount to pummeling the slow kid on the block; the one with the strange fascination with bread. Yet even as terrible tends to be their default, among the rank and file of inept game adaptations there is one that stands apart. Once in a generation does a film come along that redefines failure; that challenges our conceptions of unwatchable. For me, that movie is Street Fighter…and I love it!

What Makes It Bad?

This movie had little chance of bearing even a molecule of quality because it is conceptually flawed. As I mentioned before the vast majority of video game movies are bad, but amazingly there are one or two exceptions. Therefore it’s not to say that undertaking the adaptation of a video game is automatically a recipe for disaster; you could potentially even reach the heights of mediocrity! But what is an assured failure is adapting an arcade fighting game. When the entire basis of the cannon on which you build a screenplay is button-mashing, power bar-depleting, compartmentalized battles, mining character development and nuance becomes as difficult as defending against a barrage of shoryukens.

When the contests in the game are randomly selected, it falls on the screenwriter to create some sort of reasoning system for the various matchups in the film. But in true faithfulness to its source material, the writers of Street Fighter manage to make the fights seem as awkward and unsystematic as they were in the game. Sure, there is a facile attempt at creating a plot, but as it lifelessly limps from one weak story element to the next, you begin to long for the days when all you needed to do was select a fighter and a country (and that weird star level thing I never fully understood). Not only that, they manage to give the characters the exact same dimensionality as they had in the game…you know, where they were 2-D pixel people. They went out and found, for the most part, actors who could be just as flat and undefined as the characters in the game.

We cannot talk about casting snafus in this movie without casting a giant spotlight of shame on its star: Jean-Claude Van Damme. Let’s consider what we know of the character Guile. From his long-winded diatribes on campaign finance reform and his torrid love affair with the monster Blanka…oh wait no, he’s a mute, squat pixilated meat bag! The one and only thing we know about Guile from the game is that he is All-American. In the game, his specific character level is an American Air Force base and his hair cut is obviously the Japanese interpretation of the Elvis Presley pompadour. So who better to cast as this incredibly American hero than…unrepentantly Belgian Jean-Claude Van Damme? Though he does his best to kick, punch, and flex his nationality away, it is painfully obvious that our Col. Guile is about as American as the Eiffel Tower. And you can shove your massive bicep with the Stars and Stripes tattoo into the camera all you want JCVD, we’re not buying it.

This is another film that struggled to identify its audience. On the one hand, they take a juvenile video game and attach to it an international hostage crisis, blood-thirsty terrorists, revolution, to-the-death cage matches, and genetic engineering using the most violent subliminal programming imaginable. So clearly the aim was to take what is essentially a child’s toy and create a more mature action film, right? Yeah, no. Because the film is also peppered with broad stereotypes, brain-dead punchlines, and – I shit you not – cartoon sound effects! This thing is really all over the place. One moment we are learning the dark side of war wherein innocent children bear the brunt of the violence, and the next people are getting Nerf balls fired at them. One moment we see the tragic murder of one of freedom’s greatest protectors, and the next people are engaged in unsolicited group posing! The incongruity can make you feel as if you were just struck by a sonic boom to the brain.

Why I Love It!

My love for this movie is admittedly based on nostalgia. As a kid, I never owned the VHS. But I would spend the summer with my grandma and she had the best VHS collection ever (something I’ve come to appreciate even more as an adult movie geek). I would grab this tape off the stack, no idea why this one, pop it into the VCR, and sit amazed at how awesome it was. I can’t watch this movie now without thinking of eating Fritos and reenacting scenes from the film with G.I. Joe’s. I am fully aware that this fondness does not a good movie make, but what it does is create a subliminal foundation for my mindless enjoyment of this unmitigated garbage.

My absolute favorite thing about Street Fighter is Raul Julia. Julia plays the evil warlord Gen. M. Bison who has made it his mission to not only make life miserable for the A.N. (The Allied Nations, take a wild guess who they are representation of), but also to rule the world. Sadly, this was Julia’s last film before his death. Even more sadly, THIS was Julia’s last film before his death. Raul seems to be the only person completely unaware of just how stinky this film is because he goes all-out to bring Bison to life. It may be a testament to his prowess as a performer, but you can’t help but love his over-the-top greatness. He plays Bison as an old-school Bond villain…if that villain just received a vicious blow to the head. I defy you not to laugh, cheer, and/or slow clap when he triumphantly bellows, “gaaaaaaaaame ovahhhhhh!”

With a movie this bad, sometimes you just have to marvel at its ineptitude. Every time JCVD speaks, and it is horrendously evident that he is not American, as bad as it is I have to giggle. Yet no effort is expended even attempting to explain that disharmonious accent to the audience! And while I chuckle every time I hear Jean-Claude butcher the line, “why don’t you come from behind the curtain, you wizard,” the failure I find most amusing has to do with the fight choreography. This movie is based on one of the greatest fighting games of all time and, given the complete botching of every other possible aspect of the film, one would therefore assume the fight scenes would be pretty badass right? Sure, if by badass you mean generic and silly.

This may seem a critique more apt for the first half of this column but honestly, one of the best parts of the film is how hilarious mishandled the fight scenes are. Just to give you an example, when the character Vega is sent to prison, he loses his signature steel claw weapon. While inside, he decides to use an improvised version of that same weapon rather than just a basic shiv. He constructs an almost identical claw-blade out of what appears to be a wicker laundry basket and some soda cans, It could not look more moronic but it’s good to know that Vega shared a cell with Martha Stewart.

And of course, I could not possibly talk about the fights in this film without discussing the final shodown between Guile and Bison. It really isn’t any less silly than any other fights in the film, but something about it never fails to entertain. I think it’s because you have two actors who are larger than life playing outlandish characters and watching them kick the crap out of each other shakes loose a juvenile part of our brains and launches us into 10-year-old mode; by us, I of course mean me. I love Bison’s hover desk and the dues ex machina of the computer somehow being able to inject him with adrenaline and administer a defibrillator without ever touching him. And what is the one thing that can match Jean-Claude’s devastating high kick? Why, a flying Raul Julia with the power of electricity in his hands of course! It’s true that the end of the fight does seem a bit abrupt, but you have to bear in mind that Raul passed away during filming so much of it had to be cut and reshot with a stunt double.

Junkfood Pairing: Bison Burgers

Is this a terrible pun? Of course, but it perfectly complements the innumerable bad jokes in which Street Fighter is slathered. The bigger concern you should have is that bison meat is considered a healthy alternative to beef. Granted, it’s not as if I am recommending chomping on a big stalk of celery, but it is borderline responsible compared to my other snacking suggestions. Therefore, to counteract any accusations that I would ever advocate a balanced diet, I urge you to eat a dozen bison burgers before the end of the film. No seriously, I’ll be counting. If you stop at eleven, I will upside-down windmill kick your face.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.