Monday, March 16, 2009

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li

As a staunch defender of the 1994 Van Damme Street Fighter movie, I have always regretted that I never went to see it in theaters. As a child who took his fighting game characters a little too seriously, I'm sure I would have hated it back then. In fact, I did hate it the first time I saw it on television a few years after its release. But, many years and many viewings later, I've come to realize that it was actually a fairly well-scripted movie, full of humor that was, more often than not, entirely intentional. The filmmakers clearly knew what they wanted to do. The problem was that they knew little about the game or its fans, and ended up producing a campy yet entertaining G.I. Joe movie for kids, when most fans probably would have preferred something more along the lines of the Mortal Kombat movie, even if it would have meant a weaker product by more discriminating standards. Still, I consider it essential viewing for franchise fanatics, and I'll always wish I had that story and that memory of having gone and seen the live-action Street Fighter movie on the big screen.

Now, in the year 2009, how fares the new live-action adaptation of my favorite video game? Well, no surprise, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is terrible and definitely far worse a film than the Van Damme Street Fighter, yet, being as big a fan of the franchise as I am, I am happy that it exists and that I saw it.

In contrast to the colorful and comic 1994 film, this new script channels older American martial arts flicks in its urban aesthetic and surprising violence (Chun-Li flat out executes more than one bad guy). There is still no tournament, and, on the whole, it features few of the characters and almost no plot taken directly from the game. And no crazy costumes this time, as it attempts to adapt the material to an ostensibly more realistic setting, featuring crime syndicates, cops, and a secret order of vigilante heroes to the slums. Ironically, this time around, when his skills might actually have been put to good use, there is no Van Damme nor any star of equal caliber.

Kristin Kreuk is cute, yes, and it's probably good for her that she finally escaped that coffin of a role that was Smallville's Lana Lang, but the simple truth is that she's not a very good actress. She has neither the personality nor the physicality to carry an action flick. In the iconic role of Chun-Li specifically, she just doesn't have the right look. She is half-Chinese, I know, but I wonder how many full-Chinese actresses the producers even considered before they decided to go this misguided route. Perhaps she's not the very worst thing in it, but, as the headliner charged with carrying the movie, it is her weak presence that dooms the film right from the first shot. And her "sexy dance" scene in a club with another female must be seen to be believed.

As for the supporting cast, Taboo as Vega probably is the worst thing in the movie. It is completely beyond me why on earth they decided to cast the third most famous member of The Black Eyed Peas, a guy who is neither an actor nor a martial artist, nor any physical resemblance to the character, in a minor role where he has maybe three lines and his ugly face is almost never seen anyway. To be fair, considering how little he's given to do, it's hardly his fault that this particularly grotesque interpretation of Vega sucks so bad. Chris Klein, as Interpol's "Charlie Nash," meanwhile, gives a performance that feels like one of those caricatures of bad acting that you see in other movies when actors play actors and want to make sure the audience can spot the performance within the performance. But Klein's effusive face-acting and constant posturing toward the camera may just be the real thing. Again, I don't know how much he could have been expected to do with dialogue that consists entirely of snide streetwise cop clichés, but he seems to give it his all and maybe more, and his nostril-flaring, squint-eyed intensity gradually becomes one of the movie's endearing aspects. Michael Clarke Duncan seems a little more self-aware as a gun-toting Balrog, and one of the film's most memorable images is his guffawing as he makes his early entrance by punching out the glass door of Chun-Li's mansion. Robin Shou, much older now than when he was Liu Kang in Mortal Kombat, has now achieved the trifecta of performances in movie adaptations of arcade fighting games, having apparently also had a small part in DOA: Dead or Alive. As Gen, he's the only one out of the main performers with any martial arts ability, but the film instead decides to have him casting fireballs, which Gen shouldn't even be capable of.

As in the 1994 film, the best thing in this new movie is its M.Bison, this time played with an Irish accent by Neal McDonough. No Bison will ever equal Raul Julia's performance as one of film's all-time great megalomaniacs, but McDonough's take works well with the way this incarnation of the character is written. Whereas Raul seemed to relish every line, McDonough favors a "less is more" approach (or maybe just "less is less"). As a deadpan psychotic, his delivery consistently transforms rubbish dialogue into the hilarious yet chilling speech of a convincingly deluded lunatic. The best scene in the entire movie involves Bison working out with the help of a "tough lady" subordinate, and McDonough's dry reading of the scene is classic.

Finally, for those that question whether the writers knew anything about Street Fighter going into production, I would direct them to a key subplot in the film surrounding a mysterious "package" called the "White Rose." In the games, "White" is Cammy's last name, while "Rose" is, well, Rose. The wacky genealogy that links these two characters to M. Bison is not commonly known nor understood even among fans of the games, and, while I at first considered that "White Rose" might have been a coincidence, by the end, the film not only proves its familiarity with obscure Street Fighter lore, but actually offers a more elegant explanation than the games ever provided, even kind of clarifying (by slightly rewriting) at last a relationship that has long baffled and disgusted me. (Well, okay, the "White" part may just be a coincidence.)

I can't call it a good film by any stretch of the imagination. Whereas the Van Damme Street Fighter was a mix of good and bad elements, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is more a combination of plain bad and so-bad-it's-good. Even so, I was able to have fun with it, and I find myself hoping that it will perform well enough on video to justify a "Legend of Ryu" followup.

For now, however, at least there's still Dragonball: Evolution and G.I. Joe to look forward to later this stellar year.


Czardoz said...

“Taboo is in this movie?” I yelled out when I saw the name in the opening credits. Taboo . . . I confused him with Tattoo! The ingratiating midget from Fantasy Island. That’s the one I was expecting. Man, is my face red. Could you see Tattoo playing Vega? The only thing worse would be Taboo playing Vega . . . oh, right.

Tragic. Tattoo was a suicide. Blew his brains out. Very sad.

Riyuu said...

Why not just torrent the Dragonball movie? You really want to waste money watching that crap?

Riyuu said...

Mind you, I also think torrenting the movie is a waste of time and computer space.

Henry said...

What is this "BitTorrent" you speak of?

Riyuu said...

I never said "BitTorrent". Where did you possibly get that from? All I said was torrenting.

Czardoz said...

Yeah, dude. She never said "illegal pirated downloads." Where do you get this stuff, testork?