Monday, May 26, 2014

Street Fighter Sunday: Assassin's Fist

This whole Street Fighter weekend kicked off because web series Assassin's Fist dropped all 12 episodes onto YouTube Friday.  2010's fan film, Street Fighter: Legacy was an effort from SF super fan, martial artist and filmmaker Joey Ansah to make a faithful adaptation of the worldwide phenomenon following two less than well received big screen attempts.  4 years and 5 million views later, Ansah and company have completed their follow up, a 12 part prequel of sorts to the Street Fighter II storyline featuring video game stalwarts Ken and Ryu as well as their karate fighting, fireball throwing, dragon punching predecessors Gouken and Goki.  The short and series were given the blessing of Capcom, the company behind the Street Fighter franchise as well as games like Mega Man, Resident Evil, Final Fight, Devil May Cry and StriderAssassin's Fist attempted to go the crowd fundraising route via Kickstarter but private investors stepped in to finance the shindig.  Shooting in Bulgaria in the Summer of 2013, Assassin's Fist is being streamed online via Machinima with plans to combine the 12 episodes into 6 for television then re-edited into a television movie and finally a full, uncut version for DVD/Blu-Ray.  Phew!

Assassin's Fist comes on the heels of rival fighting franchise Mortal Kombat going the web series route after director Kevin Tancharoen made a purported $7,500.00 short film over a weekend to sell his idea to Warner Brothers.  A feature film was never greenlit but Tancharoen and company have produced 2 seasons and 26 episodes of Mortal Kombat for the internet and gaming audience while garnering 10's of millions of views. I don't think Street Fighter is going to reach those heights as Assassin's Fist is a noble effort and will be appreciated by hardcore fans but there might not be enough here to keep casual fans coming back.  Director, writer and co-star Ansah got his start as a martial artist/stuntman/fight choreographer best known for a fight scene with Matt Damon in The Bourne Ultimatum.  Teaming up with Christian Howard, a fellow with the same interests and fringe movie making credits, the duo set out to make the ultimate Street Fighter adaptation drawn from the lore of the video games and comic books.  While their intentions, passion and attention to detail are to be commended, I think they stuck a little too close to the games and comics and didn't let the concept breathe in order to be translated to another medium.

The story follows Ken (Howard) and Ryu (Mike Moh taking over for Legacy's John Foo), teenagers training karate in the remote hills and mountains of Japan.  Ryu was found wandering the woods as a child and is adopted by Gouken and taught the ways of the warrior and Ansatsuken (Assassin's Fist) style.  Ken's father knows Gouken somehow and following the loss of his wife, sends Ken to Gouken to straighten out while he fixes the family business.  I'm not sure if they go back to school in the fall a la 3 Ninjas but cut to 10 years later and the duo are strapping teenagers (played by 30 year olds) and ready to take their training to the next level.  The only problem is, the last guys who did Ansatsuken were Gouken, his rival Goki and their sensei, Gotetsu.  We learn that Goki tapped into the dark hado (spiritual energy or ki) and was consumed with harnessing it's power and becoming the lone master of Ansatsuken which transforms him into video game villain Akuma (Ansah with Lou Ferrigno Hulk like prosthetics and a red wig).  While Ken and Ryu are learning to use hado for their famous fireballs aka Hadoken, Ryu unknowingly taps into the dark side.

It's these two parallel story lines that make Assassin's Fist something special as well as alienating.  For fans of the video game or Mortal Kombat series, there is a distinct lack of familiar characters from the franchise involved.  Ken, Ryu and Akuma are staples of the SF franchise while Gouken and Gotetsu get their histories illuminated in the comic series.  There's a mention of future playable characters Gen and Dan but that's about it.  Surprisingly, much of the drama unfolds in the past with Gouken, Goki, Gotetsu (geez, like G's much, Capcom?) and the coming of Akuma.  These segments are all in Japanese with subtitles and if the lackluster performance of The Raid 2 has taught us anything, American's don't exactly love their action flicks with subtitles.  Especially ones who are most likely going to have this playing in a small window on their larger computer display as background noise.


Also, for a series called Street Fighter, there's not a lot of actual fighting going on.  Sure there's plenty of training scenes, quiet kata performances and introspection happening but the namesake action of the show seems to have been replaced by Batman Begins like needing to explain where everybody and everything came from.  Even when the two sneak into a local bar and participate in a street fight, we see Ryu dispatching one opponent with a kick in a distant long shot so it's a bit of a wasted opportunity.  I did appreciate Ken's casual outfit straight out of the Udon comics though.  The appearances of the characters are all derived straight from the comics and games which makes it seem like a bit of a live action cartoon.  I wondered how Ken and Akuma could fight with all the hair in their face.  Moh and Howard aren't exactly in the prime of their acting careers so performances are a little wooden at times but Moh does a good job of playing quiet, scared and uncertain as Ryu while Howard's Ken is likeable but arrogant.  Ruggedly handsome stuntman/actor Mark Killeen shows up as Ken's dad for two brief scenes.  At first I wondered if they considered B-movie action/martial arts hero Gary Daniels for the role but Killeen does a nice job of being imposing yet paternal while doing some boxing training in business attire.


When the fights do happen, all of the actors' martial arts prowess are put on full display with some nice punch combos and kicks of all heights and varieties being thrown.  Ansah could have cooled it on the slow motion though and just let shit fly.  Special moves like the fireball, hurricane kick and dragon punch all get their moments but lack a certain OOMPH and impact for some reason.  Maybe it's because the series tries so hard to be like the video game and cartoons but doesn't change it's style to accommodate live action where close ups, make up, slow motion and sound effects can be used to make audiences cringe and feel the impact of the violence happening on screen.  That knowing nod to it's source material helps keep the tone light when necessary and I cracked up when they were lifting weights to the 80's sounding synth electronic video game score and when the duo can't train one day because Ken receives a copy of Mega Man 2 for the NES from his dad.

Congratulations to Ansah, Howard, producer Jacqueline Quella and everyone involved for bringing their passion project to life.  Hopefully we get to a second season where they're provided more resources and a chance to have a little more fun.

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