It’s not every day that Jean Claude Van Damme gets some marginal level of redemption. The original 1994 Street Fighter film took the classic arcade fighting game and took it as seriously as possible, which meant it was incredibly silly. Van Damme was Colonel Guile and entrusted to rescue hostages from the evil dictator, Bison (Raul Julia). The big screen adaptation rewrote entire characters but managed to keep the stuff fans really care about, like catchphrases, costumes, and super moves. God forbid that audiences see Cammy (Kylie Minogue, yes that Kylie Minogue) make the wrong victory pose. It’s always the unimportant things that somehow matter the most to execs. Street Fighter is a campy blast. How could you despise a movie that has its villain say, “For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me… it was Tuesday.” Though the movie does have the depressing distinction of being Julia’s last film before he died. Let this be a lesson to all actors looking to take a paycheck role. Years later, in the wake of a writer’s strike, the execs at Fox thought they could pump new blood into a Street Fighter franchise. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li purports to tell the back-story of one of its most popular fighters, the diminutive fireball-tossing lass with Princess Leia’s haircut. This movie proves that you don’t need a Van Damme to make a boring and mediocre action movie.
Chun-Li (Kristin Kreuk) is trained to be a master pianist and also a master martial arts warrior. You don’t realize the kinds of dangers classical pianists constantly run into. Her father is kidnapped by the crime lord Bison (Neal McDonough) for some reason or other. Three years later, a mysterious scroll falls into her possession. She travels to Bangkok to find her father. Bison has the ingenious plan of buying waterfront property, introduce high levels of crime, and then making money on lowered property values, which is simultaneously confusing and stupid. Bison has a few evil henchmen, notably the giant boxer Balrog (Michael Clarke Duncan) and the masked warrior Vega (Taboo from the Black Eye Peas), who help wipe out his criminal competition. In Bangkok, Chun-Li is mentored by Gen (Robin Shou, who played Liu Kang in two Mortal Kombat movies) and together they attempt to thwart Bison and his dastardly real estate scheme.
For a movie about streets and fighting, well there’s a clear shortage of the latter. Much of the movie is structured around Chun-Li conducting her own private investigation and achieving some level of inner peace. She decides to try and make it on the streets of Bangkok. There are forgettable training exercises with forgettable platitudes disguised as wisdom (“You’re hurting me,” “No, you’re hurting yourself”). There are a handful of lackluster fights and chases, some of them through streets even, but the movie has a scarce amount of action until it revs up for a climactic showdown. The action is also poorly shot and poorly edited, distracting the senses and making it downright impossible to understand. The choreography is nothing special. When the movie suddenly introduces a supernatural element the other characters don’t even bat an eye. Screenwriting neophyte Justin Marks has too much revenge-seeking father drama and real estate scheming and not enough brawling. The Legend of Chun-Li has zero respect for the intelligence of its audience. It has flashbacks to flashbacks that just aired minutes earlier. How hard would it have been to just actually base a Street Fighter movie on a fighting tournament?
Director Andrzej Bartkowiak (Doom, Romeo Must Die) shoots the movie in such a dull manner that the fight sequences fail to even elicit any interest. There’s one scene in the middle of the film that serves as a testament to the lack of care put into this movie. Chun-Li has battled a Bison henchwoman in a women’s bathroom. The bathroom set design includes partition walls with portholes. Chun-Li is on one side and the henchwoman tries to punch her through the porthole. Chun-Li grabs the woman’s arm and squeezes. The camera angle is from the side of the actresses, so it would make the most sense to have the henchwoman’s right arm caught, that way her expression could be seen. Nope. Chun-Li is gripping the woman’s left arm, meaning that her raised arm and shoulder block any view of the woman’s face, and yet she talks through this scene. How difficult would it have been to just switch arms? Why purposely obscure an actor’s face, especially in a scene that doesn’t require a stunt double?
Here’s a curious item. Chun-Li has always been a full-blooded Chinese woman in the history of the video game. When we see her as a child, baby Chun-Li and child Chun-Li are very obviously Chinese in features. Flash forward a few years and she’s transformed into looking like Kreuk, who is half-Chinese. Apparently, one of the less common side effects of trauma is becoming less Chinese looking as you age. Along these same strange ethnic lines, we’re told that Bison was the child of Irish missionaries and was left behind in Bangkok. And yet, the child grown up completely in Southeast Asia manages to sport an Irish accent. Anybody want to explain that particular linguistic loophole?
Kreuk (TV’s Smallville) is one of the film’s biggest handicaps. The script saddles her with great amounts of pointless voice over, to the point that half of her performance is listlessly explaining what is literally happening on screen. Kreuk is a dead-eyed robot in this movie; she displays some glimpses of human emotion, like sadness and rage, but they never feel remotely credible, like someone who only knows the definitions of emotions and not proper application. Her lesbian seduction dance is a small moment of absurdity. She thrashes on the dance floor and her “dancing” reminded me more of a bird’s mating dance without the excessive plumage displaying. Kreuk can run and flex well enough, which is also a nice benefit for a martial arts action flick.
The acting is terrible but there is one bright spot in a most unexpected location. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the best worst performance of the year, brought to you by Chris Klein (American Pie). Klein plays Interpol agent Charlie Nash who is conducting a parallel investigation into Bison’s Bangkok activities. He’s partnered up with a local gangland homicide detective (Moon Bloodgood) who takes extra care to showcase her cleavage thanks to work outfits with plunging necklines. Klein is awful to a powerful degree but here’s the thing — I’m fairly certain it’s one hundred percent intentional. Being a conosoire of trashy cinema, I feel that I’ve adopted the skill of being able to deduce when an actor is hopelessly serious or just goofing off. Klein comes across like a self-aware man; he knows this is a crummy movie with crummy dialogue, so he’s going to have as much fun as possible. His performance is all forced swagger, from the way he constantly swivels his head to the way he cannot purposely walk in a straight line. He overemphasizes lines, chewing over the faux hard boiled detective talk and spitting it out in a singsong delivery. He grimaces and furrows his brow, widens his eyes to comical levels, and when he crouches in a gunfight the man spreads his legs as far apart so that he looks like he could have effectively doubled as a backup dancer in an MC Hammer music video. It’s obvious that Klein has given a staggering performance, but the observant will note that this is not an inept performance. This man knows exactly the kind of movie he’s in. I always tabbed Klein as a wooden actor that came across like Diet Keanu Reeves, but I must credit him for making a bold acting choice to knowingly dig deeper when it comes to being bad.
Hero of this movie, Chris Klein.
Readers know that I am skeptical and dismissive about the prospect of a good movie ever being born from a video game adaptation. Games call for interactivity and movies passivity. But if you’re going to make a movie called Street Fighter than stick to the script. This borefest wants to be a gangland drama with a tacked-on buddy cop side plot. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is an awful work partially redeemed from the sheer amount of unintentional hilarity. Kreuk is extremely miscast as a warrior woman. The acting is bad, the direction is bad, the writing is bad, and Chris Klein tries to outdo them all in badness, and I admire the chap for trying something different in an admittedly abysmal movie. To be fair, I was never a big fan of the original video game. The special moves always seemed much more tricky to pull off. How many different incarnations of Street Fighter II were there before they eventually mastered basic math and released Street Fighter III? These are the things I was thinking about wistfully whenever Klein or Bloodgood wasn’t on screen.
Nate’s Grade: D