Street Fighter DVD Review
26 January, 2009
The 1994 Van Damme version is back, and it's just as craptacular as you remember.
Bad movies come and bad movies go. They're in the theater one week and on DVD the next, destined to linger in the bargain bin until they're forgotten even (maybe especially) by the people who worked on them. But spectacularly bad movies, the ones that fail on a grand scale, now that's the stuff of pop-culture legend. Take the 1994 live-action adaptation of Street Fighter (not to be confused with the animated feature or the new upcoming live-action film Legend of Chun Li). Starring a laughably miscast Jean-Claude Van Damme as all-American Army colonel William Guile and a frail Raul Julia in his final role as mad dictator General M. Bison, the film attempts to be clever, unexpected and thrilling. And while it ends up being none of those things, at least it's a somewhat enjoyable disaster.
Guile and M. Bison are joined by the rest of the lineup from the second game in the franchise, Street Fighter II. Over the course of the film, we're introduced to Chun Li (Ming-Na Wen -- before she dropped the Wen), Balrog (Grand L. Bush), E. Honda (Peter Tuiasosopo), Cammy (Kylie Minogue), Vega (Jay Tavare), Ken Masters (Damian Chapa), Ryu Hoshi (Byron Mann), Sagat (Wes Studi), and eventually even Blanka (through a scientific experiment on a captured soldier). At the beginning of the film, many of the characters appear to be nothing like their game counterparts (Chun Li is a reporter, Ken and Ryu are con men pretending to be arms dealers), but by the end of it, they all more closely resemble the source material.
Set in the fictional Southeast-Asian city of Shadaloo, the story (such as it is) kicks off when Bison announces on TV that he has kidnapped a group of workers from the Allied Nations and is holding them hostage for a ransom of $22 billion. Col. Guile and his AN forces mount a rescue attempt, while at the same time, Chun Li attempts to infiltrate Bison's lair to resolve her own personal vendetta, and Ken and Ryu act as double agents within Bison's organization. There are a number of plot threads weaving in and out of each other, but none of that ultimately matters when all you're waiting for is the fighting to start. In the meantime, there are broad speeches, corny jokes and moments where you just want to shout at the screen (like when characters just stand in a room looking around while it fills up with toxic gas). And once the combat starts, the story is basically put on hold as everyone fights their way out of Bison's compound.
Julia has some of the best lines -- when speaking about his model city Bisonopolis, he says, "I think the food court should be larger. All the big franchises will want in." -- and leaves no scenery unchewed, despite his clearly failing health (he died before the movie was released). His skeletal appearance wouldn't be so problematic if he didn't have to square off in hand-to-hand combat with Van Damme by the end of the film. As the big boss, you want to believe that Bison poses at least some kind of threat to the far more agile and muscular hero, but watching Guile just wail on him almost makes you have some sympathy for the man. Almost. The fights (none of which actually take place in a street, as the title would seem to suggest) are very stagey, incorporating familiar moves from the game, making no attempt at realism or true jeopardy for the characters.
Writer-turned-director Steven de Souza makes his directorial debut here, after scripting some pretty successful films including 48 Hours and Die Hard. His inexperience behind the camera is evident in the low production values, cheesy costumes, flimsy sets and uneven tone that ventures too often into the realm of slapstick. It's rarely funny when it's supposed to be, and often unintentionally hilarious when it's not. But to be fair, that's not all de Sauza's fault. Some of the dialogue might have been funny had the punchlines not been botched by Van Damme's awkward accent and flat delivery.
I'd argue that De Souza owes a debt of gratitude to Uwe Boll, who showed the world just how atrocious straightforward videogame adaptations can be. Compared to a waste of celluloid like Alone in the Dark, Street Fighter looks like a work of artistic genius. That doesn't excuse the film's many, many flaws, but it's not an excruciating mess either. Finally, there's the incalculable nostalgia factor for those of a certain age who saw this as teenagers during its original theatrical run. There's bound to be some warm feelings of association there, and those feelings may have little to do with the quality (or lack of same) of the film itself.
Video and Presentation
The 2.35:1 widescreen picture is far less dated than anything in the film itself. The biggest problem is the middling contrast, which leaves a lot of scenes looking muddled, as though they're steeped in a misty fog. You won't find any deep blacks or blinding white here, but at least the transfer is relatively clean and free of blemishes. Some scenes are more vivid than others, like the ending, which unfolds under a robin's-egg blue sky. It's not a perfect image, but there are plenty of more recent films which don't look half as good.
Languages and Audio
The audio on this disc is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound in English, French and Spanish. There are also optional subtitles in Spanish, French and English SDH. Street Fighter has a distinctive sound design, utilizing overly exaggerated and stylized effects inspired by the videogame. These come across well in this mix, without crowding the dialogue or musical score. The are a lot of directional effects and nearly constant activity in the surround channels. The bass is a little underpowered and probably won't be shaking your walls or floors, but overall it's not a bad presentation for an older title.
Extras and Packaging
This single-disc "Extreme Edition" comes in a standard black case with new cover art featuring portraits of Van Damme and Julia and a couple of action scenes from the film. It still looks pretty amateur, but maybe that's the look they were going for.
The full list of special features includes:
- Street Fighter IV Game Trailers
- Street Fighter IV Anime Trailer
- The Making of Street Fighter
- Deleted Scenes
- Storyboard Sequences
- Videogame Sequences
- Feature Commentary with Director Steven de Souza
The special features section doesn't shy away from the film's videogame roots, though it makes no mention of the new Street Fighter film due out this year. There are two trailers for the next Street Fighter game and a trailer for the anime series (all of which have been previously released).
The "making-of" segment is a vintage piece narrated in a style that's become a little dated these days. The actors give interviews on the set or in their dressing rooms, talking about their characters, the stunts they performed and the general experiences making the film. There's also behind the scenes footage so you can see them at work.
There are two deleted scenes here. The first one shows Ming-Na arriving in Shadaloo, dressed up in a wig, scarf and sunglasses and meeting Balrog and Honda. Her appearance in this scene is more sophisticated than any of her other looks in the film, but it does slightly undermine the surprise reveal of her true motivations later on. Ming-Na also appears in the second scene, along with Minogue. They have a brief fight, which is really something to behold. It's a shame this one didn't make it into the film.
The storyboards cover two sequences in the film -- the board room and the prison break. This feature is basically a slide show of rough drawings mapping out the shots so the director had something to go by when making the film. There's no music or sound to accompany the images, but they pretty much speak for themselves. But be warned that there are a lot of them, and they get boring pretty quickly.
The videogame sequences are taken from Super Street Fighter II and the Street Fighter Movie Game. This feature is pretty self-explanatory, but the footage is briefer than you'd expect. The first one shows just under half a minute of an in-game fight between Guile and Bison. The second has the same two characters (this time using the likenesses of Van Damme and Julia) and runs about 45 seconds. Don't run to the kitchen or bathroom while these are playing or you might miss them entirely.
The outtakes section features about three more minutes of footage of the actors on the set filming scenes that were cut from the film. You can see Van Damme choreographing fights behind the scenes and de Souza giving direction on the set. The material here isn't from the film itself, and probably could have been folded into the making-of segment.
The enigmatically titled "Cyberwalk" offers a training manual of sorts for recruits to Bison's army. It includes motivational posters, which are kind of cool looking, and some translations for the language Shadoti, which is allegedly spoken by all of Bison's troops (it's actually Esperanto). There's a lot of text to read in these features, but there are handy translations for phrases like, "Am I late for the book burning?" ("Cu mi malfruas por bruigi libron?"). There's more legitimate humor in this segment than anything in the film.
In the archives, you'll find publicity stills, another game trailer, concept drawings, more interviews from the set, ad campaigns and information about trading cards and toys based on the film. What you won't find here, and it's a big disappointment, is the film's original theatrical trailer. For some reason it was omitted from the features, though it was the first thing I went looking for when I started digging into them.
In his commentary, de Souza talks about the film with such complete earnestness you have to wonder if maybe he does take himself a little too seriously (though the film itself is evidence to the contrary). Based on some of his comments (like the fact that his videogame Cadillacs and Dinosours had just come out), it seems as though this commentary was not recently recorded, so it's hard to say whether time has given him any insight on the project. He talks about the logistics of the production (which was shot in Thailand and Australia) and some of the challenges of adapting it to film. Apparently, his directive was to include all 16 characters from the game, which was no easy task.
Along the way, he rants against those who have accused videogames and movies for inspiring violence, but there is no open defense of the film or any indication that he's aware of any of the widespread criticism or general mocking the film has received since its release. Among the tidbits he does share is the fact that he wrote the inspirational song for Bison's troops in Esperanto and that Van Damme delivered his motivational speech (shot in one take) on the 40th anniversary of D-Day. It's not a boring track, to be sure, but there are some gaping holes in the discussion and it's not quite as satisfying as it could be.
Also missing is any recent input from any of the actors involved, from Van Damme on down. It would have been cool to hear what they think of the film and its cult status now, and whether they still stand by it 15 years later.
Jean-Claude Van Damme