To be clear upfront, Street Fighter is a mediocre film and you absolutely should not waste any time on it. If you have an opportunity to watch it then there is almost certainly something better and more worthwhile you could be watching instead. Director Steven de Souza was a successful screenwriter (48 Hrs., Commando, The Running Man, Die Hard), but he definitely didn’t become a successful director. Street Fighter fails as an action film, a fighting film, and as a videogame adaptation. This isn’t a “Street Fighter is actually good” piece. And yet.
The thing is, there’s a time and a place for most films, and Street Fighter occupies the ‘early Saturday morning action in between episodes of Power Rangers’ slot perfectly adequately, just as it does the ‘something to watch while brung low with a mild cold’ slot and the ‘I’m too tired to get up and find the remote to change channel so I’m just going to let this happen’ slot. That’s what Street Fighter is; it’s a film that sometimes just happens to you.
The film isn’t a disaster, either; there are worse videogame adaptations — Super Mario Bros. is the canonical worst — just as there are worse films generally, but there’s a flat mediocrity that runs through its core. It’s underwritten, miscast, under-budgeted and under-thought. Its narrative is coherent but shallow. It takes recognisable characters from the game and then re-writes them — Sagat is some sort of mob boss, Honda and Balrog are on Chun-Li’s news reporting team, Dhalsim is a scientist — but the rewriting misses the point of adapting those characters in the first place. Nobody wanted to see Dhalsim as a nebbishy scientist; they wanted to see him punch someone across the room and belch fireballs. They wanted to see Honda slap someone a hundred times, not make feeble jokes behind a ‘90s video camera. Ming-Na Wen, probably best known now as Agent May from Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., has a decent go at Chun-Li, and you can watch the film now and feel mildly pleased at recognising Agent May from Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but that’s about as good as it gets.
There’s a sense that not everybody knows what film they’re in, so Jean Claude Van Damme, set up as the star, has all the cheesy grinning bluster of a part that feels written for an American, by an American, and nowhere is this clearer than a fight between Ryu and Vega getting a lengthy build up — literally the sort of thing a Street Fighter fan would want and expect to see in a Street Fighter film — before being cancelled by Van Damme rolling in in a tank and arresting everyone. This reluctance to show any fighting happens more than you might expect from a film based on a fighting game, and what there is is about as good as you might expect from a cast of actors with minimal combat training, Van Damme aside; Kylie Minogue is not a Special Forces-trained kick boxer, and Wes Studi is not obviously well-versed in Muay Thai. The overall feel of Street Fighter is of a G.I. Joe script hastily repurposed. As an adaptation it has no point; as a film it has no function.
Street Fighter is a poor adaptation and a below-average action film. And yet.
All I want to do is rule the world, is that so much to ask?
This is what makes Street Fighter borderline watchable; while Van Damme definitely thinks he’s starring in a Van Damme film, everyone else knows they’re actually starring in a Raúl Juliá film.
Best known now for his pitch-perfect performance as Gomez Addams in The Addams Family and Addams Family Values, Juliá also had a solid career as a character actor who would always light up the screen even in the most average of films; he’s larger than life in the humdrum legal drama Presumed Innocent and his brief appearances in Tequila Sunrise and Havana put the assembled Hollywood casts to shame. Juliá also performed Shakespeare, had a long and distinguished theatre career, and gave passionate leading performances in character-driven films like the magnificent Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Juliá’s appearance in Street Fighter as Bison is incongruous, then, and he reportedly took the part simply because his children were fans of the game series. Nonetheless he entirely owns the role, given the most ludicrous over the top lines but playing them all straight, as loud and proud as the character demands.
Like Peter O’Toole in Supergirl or Ben Kingsley in Thunderbirds, Juliá gives Street Fighter a respectability it absolutely doesn’t deserve and in no way acts as if the film is beneath him. His straight-faced delight shines through as he convincingly delivers lines 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”. Everything he says is with the utmost sincerity as not only an insane megalomanic but as a detail-focused obsessive: “The temple above us was the wonder of the ancient world. Bisonopolis shall be the wonder of my world. But I think the food court should be larger. All the big franchises will want in.” And of course “But for me, it was Tuesday” is an unforgettable classic, and just a touch of eye-rolling knowingness from his henchman Dee Jay lets the audience know it’s ok to laugh along.
This was sadly Juliá’s last film; he was diagnosed with cancer during filming, and died the same year after a stroke. I’ve seen it said often that it was a shame his last film would turn out to be Street Fighter, but to me, his hilarious, poker-faced turn as Bison just underscores Juliá’s consummate professionalism and his talent. Maybe Street Fighter was an average film, maybe a forgettable film, but at its heart, it’s a Raúl Juliá film, and remains watchable for this alone.