Street Fighter the Movie: A True American Hero

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By Rob Horsley

(As we pause to remember our fallen heroes on this post-Remembrance Day week, we at Push Select find ourselves reflective of the nature of war, and why its continued depiction, especially in the ever-popular medium of video games, is important to how we honour our past and present veterans.)

While 1994’s Street Fighter film may not initially strike you as a film of militaristic implications, much can be made of its depictions of military combat, as well as its implications of interventionism in modern war settings.

The purpose of this essay is not to dishonour those brave souls who gave their lives for the freedom of our respective nations, but to point out the troubling implications that come along with not taking the realities of war seriously.

Context for Street Fighter (1994)

Following the failure of 1993’s Super Mario Bros, the video game world was itching for a successful movie adaptation it could rally behind. What followed was the 1994 release of Street Fighter, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Raul Julia (in the final entry to his acting-career before succumbing to stomach cancer) and Kylie Minogue, among others.

In a 1994 interview with GamePro magazine, director Steven E. de Souza said that he wasn’t interested in making Street Fighter into a conventional martial arts movie, despite the combat orientation of the game series. He also stated that he did not wish to “shoehorn” elements from the game franchise into the film, citing the previous year’s Mario Bros movie as an example. While one can understand the director’s artistic integrity, the results speak for themselves.

It’s also worth pointing out that Gulf War efforts had occurred only three years prior to the making of this film, a war in which U.S.-led Coalition forces intervened on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

By contrast, the year 1994 was also the year of Rwandan Genocide, in which more than 800,000 were killed. It was a conflict that occurred while most of the international community stood silent, choosing not to intervene on what was largely seen as a “local conflict,” by those who could have offered their assistance. It was an event that history will recognize as one of its most tragic examples of non-action by those with the capabilities, and perhaps more notably the reputation with which to do so.

A brief list of cinematic failures

From a purely cinematic perspective, there are a plethora of gripes and bones to pick with Street Fighter. First and most notably: is its leading man, Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Though a skilled martial artist and the perhaps the biggest name in the film, it’s inexplicable why anyone charged with making decisions for this film would have thought Belgian-born Van Damme could make for a convincing Colonel Guile, the American protagonist of the film. I’m not even sure he could pass for a convincing Belgian, given his piss-poor and inscrutable-at-times delivery. Though by all accounts, his performance is somewhat status quo when measured with his supporting cast.
Such is but one of the many shortcomings begging to be examined by a pure cinematic eye.

Included:

-Unacceptably poor special effects (anyone check out that Blanka makeup? It was like Lou Ferrigno’s B-team was holding tryouts)

-Sloppily-edited combat sequences, and more importantly, a noticeable lack of combat sequences given its roots as a combat game franchise

-Several characters who are given next to nothing to do (Dhalsim, Blanka, Dee Jay, Cammy, T. Hawk, and even main-man Guile, oddly enough)

As a movie, Street Figher seems to suffer from a crippling case of “genre confusion.” Simply, the Street Fighter game franchise has been hijacked and converted from a combat title to that of an action film, a transition that seems to disservice the legions of fans who wanted something more than that god-awful Zangief vs. E. Honda slap fight sequence. (Honestly, check it out on YouTube—it’s an abomination)

Guile: a more plausible protagonist?

In terms of story, Street Fighter is also noted for its odd choice of casting Guile as its main hero, despite the focus of the game series being largely on Ryu and Ken, who are given supporting roles in this film. Why pick Guile to be the main character of Street Fighter?

All Van Damme-related critiques aside, an alternative rendition of the film, in which Ryu and Ken take on a more central focus, could theoretically pose significant problems to the telling of this story. I’m not about to argue that Street Fighter made a lot of good choices, but let’s examine what might have happened in an alternate movie universe.

If Capcom/Universal were to make the choice of having Ryu and Ken as the film’s main heroes, it begs the question of how one would go about making a movie with essentially two main characters as opposed to the more streamlined, singular choice of Guile.

In essence, a Ryu/Ken narrative would arguably be hard-pressed to tell an effective story without it being, to some extent, a “buddy movie.” How does one go about making Grumpy Old Men with just Jack Lemmon? What is Abbott without Costello? It poses a significant challenge to make Ryu the main character without offering Ken a fair chunk of the screen time. It’s hard to see how the Starsky and Hutch route would be much better.

Second, Guile offers a more fitting opposite to Raul Julia’s performance as M. Bison. Bison is a more fitting villain, and Guile seems a natural opposite for tyrannical dictator-type villain. Ryu/Ken vs Sagat just doesn’t seem to carry the same type of weight, and thus Guile makes more logistical sense.

But third, and probably most importantly, Guile presents a strong, independent figure that happens to be an American. Maybe the studio thought that American audiences would be unable to get behind a Japanese protagonist and his bleached-blonde buddy, and thus decided on Guile, a more traditional, chiseled, “soldier-boy” hero. While understandable, this raises a number of significant issues, which is where our discussion now turns.

The moral implications of an American Street Fighter

In the Street Fighter film, Colonel Guile is the leader of the Allied Nations (AN) multinational military force (a fictitious play on the United Nations peacekeepers that we know in the real world). After a series of events leading up to the film’s climax, the AN storms General Bison’s base, at which point a heavy gunfight ensues.

Though the AN forces are not specifically American, the whole sequence has an idiotically obvious “good guys and bad guys” feel to it, one that seems a little too convenient. It’s not convincing in terms of realism, and it’s because of this surreal nature that the viewer is never given a true sense that anything could go wrong.

Obviously, Street Fighter isn’t a movie with the intentions of presenting a War is Hell or Saving Private Ryan depiction of what it means to be a soldier. But the fact that the AN forces never suffer a single casualty seems a tad distasteful to the real men and women who gave their lives fighting real evil in real wars throughout the years.

But even more disturbing than that is the lead up to that final battle itself. Colonel Guile receives a direct order from an AN Security Council representative, telling him not to march out against Bison’s forces for the sake of rescuing Bison’s hostages. The AN has conceded to the General’s demands and will pay the ransom of $20 billion. Defiantly, Guile shrugs this off, and, with a rousing speech before the AN troops, proceeds with the invasion, full steam ahead.

Now, no one is suggesting that the right course of action is to negotiate with terrorists, and give in to their demands (thereby validating the actions of said terrorists). But this defiance is troubling in a 21st Century context.

Thoughtful modern audiences are likely to be reminded of the Bush-era invasion of Iraq and its subsequent prolonged occupation, despite a lack of evidence from UN investigators, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s later comments which declared the invasion as “illegal” when examined under the UN Charter.

While situations like this provide no clear-cut solution, it is profoundly troubling to view the actions of Guile through a 21st Century lens. It’s troubling to consider any one nation above the laws agreed upon by an international group of countries, especially if the intention is to maintain some semblance of world order. It creates a “World Police” type of scenario, which inevitably leads to the question of “Who will police the Police?

The choice of Guile as the prime hero of Street Fighter seems very much to imply that without American intervention, a collection of allied nations is impotent in its ability to fend off evil. This is not to say that America is not needed or appreciated as an international ally, but merely calls into question the mindset that America is the only remedy to a world full of evil.

In the final fight with General Bison, Guile delivers a devastating uppercut, showing off his rippling muscles and (true to video game form) an American flag tattoo on his upper deltoid. In possibly the most ham-handed moment of the movie, evil is given a “knuckle sandwich” and the American hero flexes for all the world to see.

Conclusion

If I sound like I’m picking on America, I don’t mean to. Let me say again, I am not unappreciative of the American heroes who gave their lives so that they, as well as their allied countries, could enjoy the freedom we so often take for granted today. But do allow me to say one thing regarding the legacy of war, and how history will remember our veterans.

The wars of recent years (Iraq, Vietnam, etc) have not earned as hallowed a place in the history books as those of the World Wars, the American Civil War, the War of 1812, the American Revolution, and so forth.

Perhaps this has much to do with the fact that war is documented in greater detail than it was in earlier eras. Perhaps the wars of later years failed to provide as clear-cut cases of evil as the wars that came before them.

What I’m getting at is that it’s important that we work hard at creating a world in which war is pursued reluctantly, as a last resort, and for reasons of justice, and not ulterior motives.

Street Fighter presents a protagonist willing to defy international policy and charge headlong into a battle based on internal validation and an “I know better than the bureaucrats” sense of self-righteousness. Again, these are difficult moral scenarios—and as such, they demand solutions that are more thoughtful than Street Fighter is willing to present.

If we turn war into a means for economic growth, it actually serves to dishonour those who willingly entered into battle, many never to return, for the sake of preserving the freedom of which we so easily lose sight. Like a strike followed by two gutter balls, what we do now actually serves to tarnish the good works of those who have come before us, should we allow ourselves to fall prone to self-motivated acts of aggression that can all-too-easily pose as heroics.

The acts of our forefathers are actually worth less, should we follow their good deeds with those that are morally suspect.

War is never the ideal. Let us honour our veterans by striving to preserve the peace they died for, and seek justice with same type of selflessness that they so graciously gave for us.

 

8 Responses

  1. Zachery Oliver

    November 16, 2012 12:17 pm

    Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I think a Ryu/Ken protagonist makes for a much more interesting film.

    In Street Fighter lore, Ryu’s main opponent isn’t anyone in particular – rather, it’s simply his desire to conquer himself and become a better fighter as a result. That’s why he participates in the Street Fighter tournament (notably absent from the movie, obviously). He wants to become the master of himself first and foremost.

    Ryu and Ken aren’t “buddies” so much as they were training partners under Sheng Long/Gouken. The man who kills Sheng Long (or now, apparently so)? Akuma. I got a little confused looking this up, but the story at the time was as such. However, Ryu doesn’t seek revenge so much as Akuma seeks out Ryu, trying to transform him into a “true” warrior who dominates and kills his opponents (embracing the “Satsui no hado”). Ryu refuses to do this. Thus, they fight and Akuma tries to pervert him onto a different path than his of self-mastery. That’s quite an interesting premise. Ken’s really a side character at best. And Sagat? Well, Sagat wants revenge, but that’s certainly NOT the central conflict of the games from Ryu’s perspective; it’s almost identical to the Guile/M.Bison subplot, as M.Bison kills his partner Charlie.

    I guess this would be more in line with Street Fighter Alpha (which came out around the same year as the movie), but Akuma and his backstory were surely already established. Even Akuma’s in the Street Fighter Movie game.

    Not that any of this would ever be made into a movie, but food for though, I suppose.

    • Rob Horsley

      November 25, 2012 9:30 pm

      Hey Zachary, thanks for the reply. And thanks also for your perspective on the backstories of the Street Fighter characters. Just out of curiosity, where did you gather this info? All the places I looked at seemed to suggest that the movie omitted a fairly significant rivalry between Ryu and Sagat, while at the same time calling Ryu and Ken as “best friends.” Maybe “buddies,” as I described them, was too casual a term to use. But they did some to have a repertoire more than that of mere “training partners.” But I’d be interested in checking out the sources you looked at…mostly to broaden my own perspective. :)

      I think that Ryu makes for a way better hero, but M. Bison is definitely the better villain, which I think is almost more important in movie terms. If someone could write a movie that effectively links those two elements together convincingly, I’d be pretty pumped for that.

  2. Robyrt

    November 20, 2012 11:09 am

    The Street Fighter storyline (such as it is) is essentially two non-overlapping tales. In one, Guile, Chun-Li and Cammy have both professional and personal vendettas against M. Bison and his terrorist organization. In the other, Ryu stands in for the player in search of training and self-improvement, supported by a bunch of rivals with very similar fighting styles (Ken, Sagat and Akuma). While Ryu is definitely the titular hero of the franchise, Guile’s side of the story makes for a much better dramatic arc with more closure and more variety.

    • Rob Horsley

      November 25, 2012 9:19 pm

      Exactly. Street Fighter as a movie doesn’t lend itself well enough to a “Ryu vs himself” more introspective type of narrative, even with the rival figures that you’ve mentioned. In order for a movie like this to theoretically work it needs a compelling villain.

      I’d say the key work in this case is “theoretically,” given what we’ve now come to see as the finished product. Thanks for the reply man!

  3. M. Joshua

    November 20, 2012 3:12 pm

    This was an unexpectedly thorough analysis of that movie. Bravo.

    As for telling a better story with the same license? Artistically, it would have been much more interesting to tell Blanka’s story. Focus on what he is and where he came from. How the whole Street Fighter mess made him that way. How it’s corrupt. How he brings it all down on it’s knees. And of course then how he ends up something like Mickey Rourke’s Wrestler character, shunned by society living in a van down by the river.

    • Rob Horsley

      November 25, 2012 9:41 pm

      Thanks! Reviewing bad movies is somewhat of a fun interest for me. Some people are into self-flagellation, some people like watching bad movies. Diff’rent strokes, as they say…

      I think that that Street Fighter handled the Blanka storyline was probably one of the worst aspects of the whole film. Sooo underdeveloped and zero payoff. Although I did have to chuckle when Guile was about to give him the old mercy-kill in that one lab scene—it was probably the only time I could actually empathize with one of the movie’s characters.

      “Boy, I sure wish someone was here to put me out of my misery.”
      -Me watching Street Fighter the movie

      But yes, I think a Blanka movie could be pretty interesting. Although you’d be hard pressed to do it in a way that doesn’t just turn out to it being a poor-man’s “Hulk.” Maybe Ang Lee would like another crack at it….

    • Rob Horsley

      November 25, 2012 9:50 pm

      Hey Matt.

      I’ve gotta be honest, I never saw that Chun-Li movie. Truth be told, I hadn’t seen THIS Street Fighter movie since I was a kid, and probably wouldn’t have seen it again had it not been for this review. But I’d be curious to see how The Legend of Chun-Li compares.

      Maybe Street Fighter should take a similar approach as The Avengers. You could have a Ryu/Ken movie with Sagat and Akuma, a Guile/Cammy/Chun-Li vs Bison movie, a Blanka movie, etc with an epic team up at the end. It could work…maybe?

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