Had I not been stricken with the flu over the last two days, I was planning on catching an early Friday morning screening of “Street Fighter: The Legend Of Chin Li”. Now that I’ve read the reviews, I’m sad that I didn’t. Aside from the fact that it currently has a 0/20 on Rotten Tomatoes (could it equal or surpass 72 negatives out of 72 and take the “One Missed Call” perfect score award for 2009?), I can say that I haven’t laughed this hard while reading bad reviews since “The Cat And The Hat”, back in November 2004. So, instead of trying to sit through the new movie, I made some chicken soup and decided to check out the recent Blu Ray release of the 1994 “Street Fighter”.
Released over Christmas weekend to lousy reviews and break-even box office, the Jean Claude Van Damme vehicle has a certain infamy as it featured the last film work of critical darling Raul Julia. He took the role as lead villain M. Bison as a favor to his kids. Little did he know that he would die of a sudden stroke two months before the release date (he apparently was wheeled into the ambulance clutching the script for Robert Rodriguez’s “Desperado”).
However tragic that it may be that a great actor’s last work should be a lead role in a big budget video game movie, one must acknowledge that Julia looks like he’s having a blast during the entire film. And frankly, he’s still the best reason to sit through this colorful, campy, guilty pleasure. Decked out in a red military jumpsuit with a long, flowing red cape, M. Bison proves that if you’re going to have a villain say something like “Why do they still call me a warlord? And mad? All I want to do is to create the perfect genetic soldier. Not for power, not for evil, but for good,” then he sure as hell better be wearing a cape.
Raul Julia’s performance is full of choice nuggets like that. Whether explaining to a fellow villain that ‘Bisonapolis’ needs to expand the food court to allow all of the big franchises places to build, or using an arcade-style joy stick and six button set up to fire missiles at oncoming boats, M. Bison seems a pitch perfect parody of over-the-top scenery chewing (and stealing) villainy that become fashionable after “Die Hard” and “Batman”. Among the lines of dialogue that I will now try to work into every day conversation:
“Behold, the face of your destruction, and of my victory!”
“What’s the matter? You come to fight a madman, and instead find a god?”
You do not deserve the martial dignity of a firing squad! No! You shall be killed by a wild beast, a beast BORN of my own genius! Raise the incubation chamber!”
It doesn’t hurt that M. Bison is actually a menacing bastard, as he opens the film by snapping the necks of two of his hostages. You watch his performance, almost on edge, wondering what daffy, bat shit thing he’s going to say next. One of my favorite bits comes at the end, right as Colonel Guile (Jean Claude Van Damme) and M. Bison face off for their final duel. Guile rips off his jacket and exclaims: “Are you man enough to face me?” M. Bison replies “Anyone who opposes me will be destroyed!” Uh… right. Now, to be fair, those are the lines that the respective characters say when you select them in the original game, but what’s shocking is how not out of place Bison’s inexplicable response is in the context of Julia’s performance.
So, what about the rest of the film? Well, it’s pretty terrible, albeit in a train wreck kind of way. It’s written and directed by Steven E de Souza, who wrote three of the definitive action films of the 1980s (“48 Hrs”, “Commando”, and “Die Hard”). This is easily the brightest, lightest, happiest film ever made about murderous governmental regimes, UN hostage crises, and the slaughter of indigent people. There is a moment early on where Jean Claude and his team welcome a group of refugees, and they are easily the healthiest, happiest refugees I have ever seen; a few even have a skip in their step.
With the exception of Julia, Wes Studi (as crime boss Sagot), and Roshan Seth (as conflicted Dr. Dahlism), every other performance stinks to high heaven. Stilted line readings, awkward inflection, etc… you know you’re in trouble when Jean Claude Vane Damme is arguably the fourth best actor in the film. But the film does amazingly find a place for all sixteen “Street Fighter II” characters, and only a few (T Hawk, Captain Sawada – a rejiggered version of Fei Long) are mere cameos. The action is perfunctory and at no point does anyone, I dunno, fight on a street, for money. By the climax, the film has morphed into a live action “GI Joe” film (M. Bison’s henchmen even look like Cobra soldiers) and I defy you not the hum the “GI Joe” theme song as Guile’s boat makes its way to Bison’s fortress (yelling ‘Yo Joe!’ and ‘Cobra!’ at appropriate moments in optional).
As for the Blu Ray, Universal was nice enough to port over all of the extras from the standard definition release (deleted scenes, previews, commentary, featurettes, etc), as well as offering a handful of HD previews for the new video game: “Street Fighter IV”. As for the image, the picture falls into two categories. When the scenes are indoors and darkly lit, there is quite a bit of grain and what not. Fortunately, most of the film is shot either outdoors or in brightly lit interiors. And these portions look gorgeous. The image is bright, shiny, and abundantly colorful. Since I first saw the film in a second run theater, this is probably the best presentation I’ve ever seen of this particular movie. The packaging draws two complaints. First of all, Universal does that dumb thing where they put two actors side by side on the cover, and then bill them on the opposite sides. So you have Jean Claude Van Damme on the right and Raul Julia on the left. Yet Jean Claude Van Damme’s name is first billed (on the top left), while Raul Julia gets second billing (top right). Second of all, this special re issue is called ‘Extreme Edition’. C’mon Universal, have a sense of humor and call it ‘Championship Edition Turbo Hyper Fighting’.
Yes, by any rational standard, “Street Fighter” is a pretty lousy movie. But the sheer campy buzz, the cheerful exuberance (as opposed to the new film, which is allegedly dark, dour, and glum), combined with Raul Julia’s possibly brilliant performance, makes this one worth a glance.