March 6, 2009 4:00 PM | Matthew Hawkins
['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a not-so-regular column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that takes a look at movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with a focus on the obscure and the misunderstood. This week’s entry takes a slightly closer look at the new movie Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li, which includes spoilers, beware.]
First off, as mentioned above, there will be spoilers in this particular review/recap. Apologies if you haven't see the movie and still wish to. To those people, I'm certain there's plenty of good stuff around here that you might have missed, so I implore you to check the Cinema Pixeldiso column archives for starters!
Though the rest of you probably don’t give a damn; neither of you have seen the movie and perhaps never will. Maybe because of what's been said, which has been not so positive. Most of which supports what many have assumed, which again is a less than stellar motion picture.
Look around, primarily at any gaming blog or news site, and you'll be hard pressed to find anyone saying anything positive about the movie. For the most part, they are correct; The Legend of Chun Li is indeed remarkably lackluster and lame. Obviously, many comparisons have been made to the first Street Fighter movie, which was exceptionally bad in its own right, but many have jumpted to its defense in light of this new piece of crap, by stating "at least that one was so bad that it's good!"
But the first Street Fighter movie also managed to get some things "right" in retrospect; when I went to see this latest film earlier this weekend with a friend... the only friend I managed to drag along with me... there was this scene in which Vega first makes his appearance, and said friend noted: "You know, at least they got his costume right in the original."
As this column has tried to illustrate in the past, movies centered around video games can be good at times, perhaps even exceptional, provided that the approach to the subject matter is sensible and inventive. Simply following their storyline is usually neither; most video game plots, if there is one, are generally paper-thin, both the good and bad ones. Even those celebrated for featuring a strong narrative are often too close to those found in popular movies or television shows, in this particular writer's opinions of course.
It's almost the exact opposite problems with most book to movie adaptations, where there's just too much to fit in an hour and half narrative. Plus certain events and actions we simply accept in the context of a game, mostly because we're all too busy fulfilling it's objectives or trying to stay alive, to notice them, including how dumb they might be. Hence the need to change things here and there, to have it all makes sense outside of the context of the source material. But there is a point where a film can steer too far away, and Legend of Chun Li is an example of this.
The very basic tale of Chun Li's origin, as depicted in the original Street Fighter II arcade game, is of how her father dies at the hands of the malevolent M. Bison, and her attempt at vengeance. Whereas in the game, father was an undercover cop and his daughter follows in his steps of law enforcement, in the movie, daddy is... well, to be honest, I can't recall what daddy did exactly. While daughter becomes... a concert pianist? Already, a rough start. Why couldn't the filmmakers simply stick to what basically worked? Who knows.
Right from the onset, we are introduced to Chun Li at a very young age and watch her grow, while also learning the ways of kung fu, courtesy of Papa. Time to talk about casting: many people went "huh" when they learned that Kristin Kreuk would be playing the lead role, mostly because she's not... well, you know... very Chinese.
So I personally found it hilarious that the youngest version of Chun Li was extremely Chinese looking, and as she got older, the girls marking the passage of time became more and more Caucasian. Though in Kreuk's defense, as if any is really necessary, she's perfectly cast as an individual that's half white/half Chinese, as she is in real life. It's also worth noting that Kreuk is far and away the best part of the movie, a more than competent actress that does what she can with the material she has.
Anyhow, while still at a very young and tender age, Balrog and M. Bison breaks into Chun Li's residence (which is a mansion; the only thing we know about her dad is he's a very rich dude) to kidnap her father and get the story rolling. Now, one of the many noteworthy things about the very first Street Fighter movie was how crammed in as many of the original World Warriors as possible into the thing.
Here we have just a few, and they're not exactly how you remember them from the game. Michael Clarke Duncan plays the boxer, and looks fairly close to the original, sans the ridiculous haircut of his video game counterpart, while Neal McDonough is the evil mastermind of it all, though this time he's Irish and has done away with the traditional red jumpsuit/big silver shoulder pads combination.
While I initially applauded the attempt at doing something a bit different, as time went on, I became more and more hopeful that the aforementioned goofy dictator garb would make an appearance, and alas, I left the theater sorely disappointed. We get Bison's origin of course, because every bad guy it seems needs one, despite the fact that they are completely unnecessary 99% of the time. Guess saying a person is evil and leaving at that is no longer good enough.
Back to the story: with no dad to continue her kung fu lessons, I guess mom enrolls Chun Li in piano classes in their place. After a big performance, she gets a gift from a mysterious stranger... an ancient and very goofy looking mystical scroll! A hunt for clues as to what it all means leads her to an old lady in the poor part of town, who explains that to find answers to all of life's mysteries, Chun Li must leave her life behind. And what better time to start anew, since mom around this time also kicks the bucket, due to a terminal illness.
So off she goes to Bangkok, to meet Gen... yes, that Gen, the guy who was her father's mentor in the video game, as mentioned in Street Fighter Alpha 2. So those savvy to the source material already knows what's up... Which is by no means a bad thing, by the way.
In fact, sometimes you have to give the audience what they want, with the failure to do so often leading to disappointment, even disaster. It could be argued that one should always keep the audience on their toes, but in this instance, tossing aside what already makes sense to pull the rug under a very small segment of the audience is rather foolish.
Speaking off... cue Charlie Nash as an Interpol agent. Yup, Guile's best friend, the one that bites it due to Bison (but of course), and the reason he enters the foray of Street Fighter 2 in the first place. Chris Klein plays the part, and is best known for his role in American Pie and other assorted teen comedies over the years since. Can't say I'm a fan of the guy's work, nor do I recall him sucking, but man, the dude is absolutely wretched in this particular flick.
Klein basically comes off as a wannabe Christian Slater, a piss-poor one at that, and is almost immediately unlikable. Yet at first I figured it was part of the act, since his character is supposed to die. Much like in most classic horror films, we all know whose number will be eventually up, so the annoying shtick will make it all the more satisfying. But like the lack of the goofy Bison threads, yet another point of disappointment was in the waiting, as well as another opportunity to ponder what any of this has anything to do with the source material.
Anyway, Chun Li slums it for a while, living on the streets of Bangkok and endearing herself to the poor folk by coming to their rescue when they get pushed around by bad people. till she eventually crosses paths with Gen. It's revealed that he used to work with Bison, a fellow petty thief at the time whose aspirations became too much for Gen to handle, forcing him to rethink his own less than noble ways.
Oh, and naturally, he's also the key to helping Chun Li fighter her inner demons, provided that she manages to control them herself. Gen by the way is portrayed by Robin Shou... yup, the same guy who played Liu Kang in the Mortal Kombat movie (which for the record is a prime example of a video game movie that sticks closely to its source material, and as an end result, succeeds brilliantly).
What follows is fairly by the numbers: with Gen's tutelage, Chun Li manages to dig deeper into the mysterious operations of Bison's, while also attracting the attention of the police investigators that also wish to take him down. Though there's a part where Chun Li tries to get vital info from one of Bison's closest associates at a dance club, by doing a seductive dance. Given that said associate is female, yes, we get some light lesbianism. Okay!
And when she ends up spilling the beans on his secret plans, Bison unmercifully tortures her. Which isn't shown, but still, man on woman violence perhaps illustrates best that the world of game inspired cinema isn't quite the thing of kids that it once used to be. Okay, maybe not. And believe it or not, the just mentioned violence pales in comparison to what Bison apparently does during his formative years.
But it's the fight scenes that most people will are interested in hearing about. First off, there wasn't an absurd amount of action, like the aforementioned Mortal Kombat, which was nothing more than FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT!!! Which again, worked out quite splendidly for that movie. Yet there's still plenty of fisticuffs this time around so the viewer is never entirely bored.
As for the quality of the action, for the most part, fairly decent. It's mostly rooted in realism, which made the occasional game-inspired move feel rather out of place. Though who didn't see the final blow being a fireball, right? Overall, fairly satisfactory... Kreuk in particular did a commendable job... yet the showdown between Gen and Vega (played oh so briefly by Taboo, of the group Black Eyed Peas?) was quite abrupt and anticlimactic.
Either that or it was something spectacular, but was either too long or too gruesome for theatrical release. Not helping was the overall goofy appearance of the bladed one, with a mask that was simply HUGE. Perhaps it's for the best that Bison never got his suit on? But back to the positives: the action actually takes place in the streets and isn't restricted to the goofy sound-stages that it's predecessor primarily featured. Much of Thailand provides a colorful backdrop that lends the proceeding the right kind of atmosphere and credibility, if that makes any kind of sense.
The film ends with Bison supposedly out of the picture and Chun Li, enjoying a life of peace at least, being tempted back into action via an invite to a street fighting tournament. Which obviously leads to a sequel, where one would have to assume is where Nash finally bites it. But why?
While I again applaud the decision to not cram the entire film with all 700 characters, at this rate, getting to everyone will take maybe twelve other installments, if that's the plan. Perhaps killing Nash would have ruined the narrative flow, but who really cares about such things with something like this? Perhaps its better to simply stick to the source material... exactly who is this film for, anyhow? Which is something I had to ask myself as the credits rolled.
Well, cynics might claim that the question is rather simple, as confirmed by recent statements by Capcom's own Senior Director of Corporate Communications Chris Kramer: it's Capcom. Street Fighter is simply another one of their cash cows, and the movie is just one component of their overall strategy.
Despite the fact that it didn't set the box office on fire, The Legend of Chun Li did well enough, and will more than likely be as profitable on home video and cable television as its equally panned older brother. Back to the subject of sequels: will there be any? Undoubtedly. Though more than likely in a direct to DVD format if anything else.
Still the questions remain: should a movie based on a game try to stand on its own legs and try to be a real movie at risk of denying its heritage? Or should it stay true to its roots, no matter how ridiculous the outcome might be? In this particular film's case, it leaned more towards the former's train of the thought. So what you get is something that's fairly pedestrian, and as a result, eschews any potential for standing out and being unique, much like its much-maligned predecessor. Whether that's good or not is entirely subjective.
[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]
Categories: Column: Cinema Pixeldiso