Tuesday, May 27, 2014

(Not) Love Actually: Street Fighter

Christmas, 1994.  My mom took me to see Street Fighter at the same local theater where she had taken me to see Masters of the Universe 7 years earlier.  While SF wouldn't have the lasting impact on me as Masters did, I enjoyed the flick then and still do.  So what better way to cap off my weekend where I watched, read, played and wrote about Street Fighter than to take in the hugely hyped adaptation starring none other than The Real JC...VD, Jean-Claude Van Damme?  Much like the comic book adaptation craze we're currently experiencing, the early days of video games to cinema screens has been fraught with disappointments and failed expectations.  Street Fighter was one of the first of it's kind following the financial and critical debacle of Super Mario Brothers in 1993.  Having already boasted $1.5 billion dollars worth of quarters fueled revenue from arcade and home console gaming, Capcom was ready to take their next step: a big budget, Hollywood epic.  Independent producer Edward R. Pressman (Badlands, Conan, Masters, Wall Street) obtained the rights and immediately began accepting pitches as Capcom wanted the film released at Christmas of 1994.

Steven E. de Souza, a billion dollar writer with Die Hard, Commando, 48 Hours and many more titles to his credit landed a meeting with Pressman on the condition that he could direct as well as script.  Pressman acquiesced and de Souza went on a writing frenzy to finish his pitch in time to meet with Capcom executives.  Seeing the video game as simply fighting with no backstory, de Souza envisioned the film as a war story meets James Bond movie.  For the lead, Capcom had done a worldwide poll of gamers to determine who they wanted to play Guile, the American Air Force fighter known for his Sonic Boom and Flash Kick.  Jean-Claude Van Damme, the high kicking martial arts action hero hot off the success of inspiration for the game Bloodsport, Universal Soldier and Hard Target was the clear favorite.  de Souza and Pressman hit the studio trail to find a home and were quickly turned down by everyone in town due to Super Mario Brothers' lackluster performance.  Tom Pollack, long a Jean-Claude Van Damme supporter, brought Street Fighter to Universal and along with Capcom, financed and released the $35 million dollar production.  Scheduled for a 69 day shoot in Australia and Thailand, world kickboxing champion Benny "The Jet" Urquidez was brought in to train the actors, putting them through 3 workouts a day training cardio, martial arts and weights.  Legendary stuntman and 2nd Unit Director Charles Picerni would help train the cast and handle the big action sequences while 6-time Academy Award nominated cinematographer William A. Fraker would be on hand to assist the novice director. 

Van Damme was just finishing the time traveling action and romantic thriller Timecop for Universal and was about to move on to Sudden Death, a take on the Die Hard formula where a lone man takes on a group of terrorists, only this time in a hockey arena.  To fit Street Fighter into his tight scheduling window, Van Damme walked away with $7.2 million bucks, double his Timecop salary for just 6 weeks work in Thailand and Australia.  Raul Julia was the said first choice for mad warlord and dictator M. Bison while Mina-Na Wen was recruited to play revenge seeking journalist Chun-Li and The Last of the Mohican's Wes Studi came in to play gun runner Sagat.  Former actress and pop singer Kylie Minogue was a last minute addition to the cast, playing Guile's right hand woman, Cammy.  Young and fresh faced actors Byron Mann and Damian Chapa landed the roles of Ryu and Ken, the karate fighting stars of the video game, here turned into low rent operators that become spies for Guile's network.  The supporting cast of Dhalsim, Balrog, E. Honda, Vega, Zangief, T. Hawk, Blanka and Dee Jay were filled by the established and newcomer likes of Roshan Seth, Grand L. Bush, Peter Navy Tuiasosopo, Jay Tavare, Andrew Bryniarski, Gregg Rainwater, Miguel A. Nunez Jr. and Robert Mammone.  If you're keeping track, that's 15 characters from the video game appearing in the film.  The only character left out was movie star and Bruce Lee knock off/homage Fei Long.  Instead, a new character, Captain Sawada was introduced played by Capcom favorite Kenya Sawada.

Street Fighter starts quick, delving right into the world of the film with a nice use of the Universal logo turning into the movie title card.  Immediately we're thrown into a wall of international news broadcasts telling us about M. Bison, the self styled warlord of Shadaloo who has kidnapped a group of Aid workers and is holding them for a $20 BILLION dollar ransom.  Allied Nations Commander Colonel William Guile (Van Damme, with blonde hair and guttural "American" accent) has a personal vendetta to squash Bison as the warlord is a murderer and has now inadvertently kidnapped his buddy Charlie.  News reporter Chun-Li and her camera crew of Balrog and Honda are on the case, trying to get close to Bison while Ryu and Ken get caught selling toy guns to crime boss Sagat and his cohort Vega.  Sagat, Vega, Ryu and Ken all get picked up in an AN sweep at an underground street fight.  Guile learns that Sagat is running guns to Bison and hatches a plan to infiltrate Ryu and Ken into his gang, thus leading them to Bison's secret base.  With the location discovered and time running out, Guile and his troops stage a massive, seaside assault on Bison's fortress.  There's guns and rockets galore topside while below the surface, one on one bouts break out between Honda and Zangief, Ryu and Ken versus Vega and Sagat and finally, Guile comes face to face with Bison.  Oh, and Dhalsim is running genetic and psychological experiments on Charlie, turning him into man-beast Blanka.  Got all that?

To hype the film, Capcom digitized all of the cast to be part of Street Fighter III, which would use actors on green screen a la Mortal Kombat instead of the traditional, animated programming of the games up to that point.  Hasbro released a line of Street Fighter toys (repainted G.I. Joes) and there were trading card tie-ins, magazines, comic books and more.  Being Van Damme's first PG-13 rating, expectations were huge and it looked like Van Damme might break through to the next level of action hero appeal, joining the likes of Steven Seagal, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.  Hitting theaters on Friday, 12.23 on 1,671 screens, Street Fighter opened up at # 3 behind 2nd week champ Dumb and Dumber and 7 week old release The Santa Clause, earning $6.8 million on it's way to a $33 million dollar gross.  It was a crowded holiday weekend as Street Fighter topped 5 additional wide releases including Richie Rich, Little Women and The Jungle Book, which would all end up having more stamina and out grossing SF.  Domestically, SF lost the momentum of Van Damme's previous effort, the September released Timecop but grossed more than starring vehicles Double Impact, Hard Target and Nowhere to Run.  Internationally, the film would make it to $100 million, further solidifying Van Damme's global appeal.  However, the film was ravaged by critics and gamers alike who saw it as a botched interpretation of the game with it's straying from the core concept of street fighting, it's tongue in cheek humor and differences in appearance between characters in the game and movie.

Me?  I enjoy the flick.  It's big, fun and doesn't take itself too seriously.  Honestly, I think it was ahead of it's time.  I always say that this isn't a Street Fighter movie but it is the best G.I. Joe movie ever made.  If you look at the costumed army hordes of Hydra in Captain America or the Cobra troopers in G.I. Joe's two movies, you can see how Street Fighter did it first 20 years ago.  But being first out of the gate is always rough so Street Fighter was cast off as a piece of cheesy garbage that further proved you can't make a good movie from a video game.  Sure there's a lot going on but de Souza handles the multitude of characters pretty well.  X-Men 3 and Origins: Wolverine suffered from too many cameos and unnecessary characters whereas Street Fighter cleverly used the compressed availability of it's star to give the other roles more light.  Ryu and Ken get the most fight scenes in the flick while grouping Cammy and Tee Hawk with Guile, Bison with Zangief and Dee Jay, Sagat with Vega then Chun-Li with Balrog and E. Honda keeps them all fresh in our minds for the most part.  Sure, the use of Dhalsim and Blanka is a little thin but hey, there's 15 characters to keep track of here and to keep things running lean and mean, certain character building scenes had to be cut.  Action wise, there's a nice variety throughout with rough and tumble fist and feet fights, crashing trucks, gun fights, shootouts, explosions, destruction, military invading and the like.

Production values are still pretty impressive thanks to William Creber's (Planet of the Apes, Towering Inferno) design with huge sets for Bison's lair showcasing a wall of video monitors, a training facility and hostage pit while the exterior is a big, Thai style temple giving the film a vast, James Bond feeling.  The attention to detail is solid as well with Bison and AN logos posted everywhere, news casts playing in the background and random radio DJ and robot announcer telling us jokes and factoids throughout.  Graeme Revell's score gives the film a big, driving feel while the crammed in hip-hop infused soundtrack features a team up for the ages:  M.C. Hammer and Deion Sanders!  The bad troops are decked out in red tinged armored outfits with G.I. Joe style mask/helmets while the AN forces look sharp in their blue toned camouflage fatigues and old school metal helmets.  In this day and age where fanboys get upset nobody is in their comic book costume, Street Fighter should be applauded for getting EVERYONE into their video game duds by the end of the flick.  Guile and Ken's hair might not be spot on translations but come on, a big ol' flatop and Fabio style locks wouldn't have worked either.  Along with the costumes, many of the special moves from the game are included as well as dialog straight from the arcade console.  The film's sense of humor might have turned off some viewers but I think there's a nice balance between the laughs and action.  It keeps the tone light and the pace lithe as it's only 40 minutes into the movie and we're already prepping the invasion for the climax and conclusion.  Van Damme plays Guile tough yet amusing and makes jokes at his own expense, further showing his sense of self and even gets to deliver a rousing, pre-attack speech inspired by the D-Day invasion anniversary during filming and his families own struggles during World War II.  Raul Julia eats up the scenery in a fun performance as the power mad dictator while everyone on board does a good job of inhabiting their characters, even when some are written more absurdly than others.

While the film wasn't a huge success or failure, I'm sure it didn't live up to expectations from the studios.  Street Fighter marked the beginning of Van Damme's career slide as he fought with drug, alcohol and marital woes along with weak scripts and lack of professional focus.  Raul Julia was fighting stomach cancer during production and sadly passed away shortly after filming completed.  Steven E. de Souza would not be handed the reins to another big budget picture again and his writing efforts gave us the mangled Judge Dredd adaptation starring Sylvester Stallone (I'm a supporter though) and Van Damme's gonzo, Hong Kong action flick Knock Off.  Wes Studi still had Heat, Mystery Men and Avatar in his future while Byron Mann would work alongside the likes of Mark Dacascos, Richard Gere, Chow-Yun Fat, Mark Wahlberg, Steven Seagal and Halle Berry in film and TV roles.  Damian Chapa would become his own movie making factory, pumping out low budget DTV flicks.  Ming-Na Wen is one of the most recognizable Asian actresses in the game thanks to stints on E.R., Two and a Half Men and Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. while Kylie Minogue has sold something like 70 million records worldwide.

Cut to today and recent video game adaptation Need For Speed did middling business upon release while Mark Wahlberg, The Rock, Jake Gyllenhal and Jason Statham have all struck out in bringing video games to life.  Financially, the only series to make the successful leap to film has been Capcom's own Resident Evil but even that was derided for not being faithful to it's source material.  The man behind it, Paul W.S. Anderson, was also responsible for arguably the best video game adaptation movie, Mortal Kombat.  Released the summer after Street Fighter, MK stuck to it's simple formula of a fighting tournament with supernatural aspects and delivered a fast, fun and entertaining martial arts flick.  The sequel became a nonsensical, visual translation of the game and did half the business of the original.  Same thing with Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider where part I wasn't great and the sequel was released to little interest and less box office.  As for Street Fighter, a big budget reboot, The Legend of Chun-Li, was released in 2009 to poor reviews and an embarrassing box office take of $8.7 million clams.  Game over, indeed.

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