Big-Screen Pixels: Street Fighter (1994)

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Big-Screen Pixels: Street Fighter (1994)

Big-Screen Pixels will look at the uneasy relationship between video games and movies. Every instalment will look at different movie adaptations of video games and discuss what worked or what did not work, through the lens of a gamer.

By 1994, video games were a rising presence in pop culture, finally recovering from the major cultural slump they suffered when Atari crashed and burned in the early ‘80s, so it was only a matter of time before Hollywood tried to cash in. They had already tried with Super Mario Bros in 1993 (and I am sure we will get to that one day) but, at this point in history, there was really only one game dominating the minds of young gamers with money to burn: Street Fighter 2.

The iconic cast of characters, the simple but captivating stories being told, and the dynamic action, it all lent itself so perfectly to a movie adaptation.

So why did we end up with this?

The concept behind this movie is a curious one; transplanting the cast of Street Fighter into what amounts to a Bond movie. Why this was the agreed-upon approach is beyond me. The Street Fighter tournament is not remotely a factor in the movie’s story, this is a story about averting world domination, which massively overcomplicates a simple and perfectly cinematic story. Do they seriously expect us to believe a pseudo-Bond storyline is a more appropriate fit for the franchise than following the framework of Enter The Dragon? Is Roger Moore really a better direction over Bruce bloody Lee?

This change naturally necessitates a lot of huge changes to the character roster. I will say upfront that all of this was incredibly dispiriting to an adolescent Andrew, who had invested so much time and passion into these characters and their backstories. Character roles and motivations are completely altered; Ryu and Ken are now a pair of con men rather than dedicated students of the martial arts.

Additionally, core rivalries are swapped around for no clear reason. Why is Ken paired off against Sagat when the one-eyed Muay Thai machine is famously the nemesis of Ryu, forcing Ryu to square off with Vega for no real reason. That is mere fanboy nitpicking, and I acknowledge that, but there is no defending how Chun Li was handled. She was somehow downgraded from a gutsy INTERPOL agent out for revenge to a gutsy news reporter out for revenge. Why did they think a reporter would fit into this story better than a cop? How did that improve the story? All it seemed to do was give a hugely important female protagonist an ill-fitting role, forcing her participation to feel shoehorned in rather than absolutely vital. It did a disservice to her importance as a character and her place in pop culture history. This is the one change that actually annoys me far more today than it did on release, and I was already pretty annoyed about it on release.

It is hard to believe that a movie with such a rotten reputation could come from Stephen De Souza, one of the co-writers of Die Hard, arguably one of the greatest movies of all time. De Souza suggested that elements from the games were changed or left out of the film to avoid repeating the mistakes of the Super Mario Bros movie. Yes, this is definitely an accurate assessment of what went wrong with the pseudo-cyberpunk Super Mario Bros movie; it was simply too faithful to the source material.

This refusal to embrace what worked about the games not only neutered the simple but compelling personal stories driving these characters, it also, unfortunately, means Street Fighter’s greatest selling point, the visually dynamic superpowered fight moves, is nowhere to be seen. This movie is very mundane feeling in terms of action. We get gunfights and slow-paced fistfights rather than the frenetic explosions of colour that blessed arcade cabinets and 16-bit consoles around the world. Nothing that made people fall in love with Street Fighter is present in this movie.

Most of the performances are terrible, although some are endearingly bad like Andrew Bryniarski’s Zangief (who delivered the funniest line in the movie: “Quick, change the channel!”), but one performance almost makes the entire thing worthwhile. Raul Julia received much acclaim at the time of release for his final performance on film, even receiving a posthumous Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Saturn Awards. You could be forgiven for fearing critics were being gentle to the recently departed, much-beloved actor but even today his performance is a rare delight. He knows exactly what sort of movie he is in, where other actors may try too hard to play it straight, Julia has tongue devilishly lodged in his cheek.

Unfortunately, though, even the raw magnetism of Raul Julia was not enough to save this movie. As a young kid and a massive fan of Street Fighter 2, experiencing this movie was one of my first great letdowns. I was too young to know why it did not work or why it made me so mad as a fan, beyond the tangible details, but I knew something was wrong. As an adult, with a deep and abiding nostalgic bond with Street Fighter 2, this movie makes me even more annoyed. It should have been so easy. A series of well-choreographed fights, bolstered by a decent FX budget, using a basic tournament structure to support each character’s personal story. Stories don’t need to be busy to be good, it’s a lesson Street Fighter 2 taught me from an early age, and it’s something too many writers in Hollywood apparently never learned. As a gamer and as a film fan, Street Fighter is a 90-minute hit combo of disappointment.

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