Apparently it’s the Street Fighter movie’s 25th anniversary this year. It’s hard to imagine it’s been 25 entire years (a quarter century!) since such a gem was introduced to the public. Once maligned as one of the worst video-game movies ever made, it’s now still maligned as one of the worst video-game movies ever made.
It’s not a high bar. The Super Mario Bros. movie is, at best, a bizarre sci-fi film that uses a few names from the game and barely anything else. The Tomb Raider films are more or less second-rate National Treasure films, which themselves are more or less third-rate Indiana Jones films. I saw Prince of Persia and Assassin’s Creed in theaters and genuinely couldn’t tell you one thing about them other than the fact that Jake Gyllenhaal made it just under the wire of not being called out for playing a person of color.
Sure, there are some pretty good video-game movies. Silent Hill is a decent screensaver. Mortal Kombat is fun. Detective Pikachu is surprisingly well-made. And none of this addresses the solid anime adaptations of games such as Pokémon and Street Fighter itself. Okay, nerds? I mentioned anime; don’t fill my mentions telling me I didn’t. It’s right there.
This is all to say that video-game movies are hated for good reason: They fail to capture the feeling of playing the game while also failing to tell a decent story to viewers who might not know or care about shit like canon.
The Street Fighter movie, however, does not care about what you think. It’s not trying to be a good video-game movie or a good movie or a good story or literally anything. It’s a bizarre wreckage, the molten remains of an airplane crash that has — as if by a miracle of God — turned into the most beautiful sculpture you’ve ever seen.
Street Fighter: The Movie is good, actually.
Even the opening credits are perfect. After the soothing tones of the Universal Studios opening, the logo for the movie slams onto the globe! Dramatic music, the names Jean-Claude Van Damme and Raul Julia appear, and then, with dramatic whooshes, “STREET. FIGHTER.”
Smash cut to an international broadcast with reporter Chun-Li (Ming-Na Wen, back when Scarlett Johansson was too young for the part) talking about a battle between M. Bison (Julia, in his last major role) and the Allied Nations. Why Allied Nations and not United Nations? I don’t know, maybe the license was too expensive. There’s a whole political thing involving a civil war in the fictional Asian country of Shadaloo, but that doesn’t matter. None of it matters.
What matters is our first scene with M. Bison in his overproduced villain base. Does it have goods in uniforms? Why, yes it does. Does it have a large TV screen made up of a bunch of smaller CRT televisions? How could it not? Despite an entire civil war happening in his country, Bison is somehow willing to personally fistfight any opposing soldier who wants to.
Bison quickly snaps one soldier’s neck and mutters, “Pathetic.” It’s … beautiful. Raul Julia is an actor and he acts the shit out of this movie. Like superhero movies, video-game films often have a villain problem. The heroes are fun, but the villains are caricatures of evil meant to be overcome. Here, it’s the opposite. Bison is just so likable and charming that you need him on the screen.
Backing up a second, let’s remember that Raul Julia was dying of cancer when he made this film. He knew he was sick, his family knew he was sick, and he reportedly only took the role because his kids were fans of the game. (Julia died of a stroke two months before the film premiered in theaters.) He even brought his family with him to the set so they could spend more time together. Yet under the circumstances of terminal illness and a production that just didn’t go off the rails but never had rails to begin with, Julia turns in one of the most fun villain performances in movie history. He acts the shit out of it.
Take the most famous scene in the movie.
You don’t need much context for it, because nothing in the Street Fighter movie has any actual, discernible context. But just to paint the picture for you, Chun-Li turns out to be secretly plotting revenge against Bison, which leads to her being captured by Bison, and them doing that weird prisoner hangout thing that heroes and villains do in movies for some reason. Not important.
What’s important is that Street Fighter flips the script. Rather than Bison getting a long monologue, Chun-Li gets the monologue. And rather than Chun-Li getting the badass line, Bison does. Why am I writing more here? Just watch the greatest scene in cinematic history:
You could put that scene on the stage tomorrow and it would be perfect. The melodrama of Chun-Li’s story, the way Bison casually changes into pajamas, the weird drink he makes while listening, and then that line: “For me, it was Tuesday.” That one scene gives so much in so little, and it doesn’t even give a fuck.
Speaking of not giving a fuck, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Guile is fascinating. According to writer-director-auteur Steven de Souza, Van Damme was, and this is a direct quote, “coked out of his mind” while shooting the movie. And guess what? It shows! Van Damme’s all-American hero with a thick Belgian accent is sweaty and desperate. His opening speech through news cameras is just as corny as you’d expect. When Bison (who I guess sort of hacks into the camera system to respond, question mark?) says, “You will choke on those words,” Guile responds, “Anytime, dickhead.”
It’s this batshit nonsense tone that would have made this an amazing Adult Swim original movie. The first time we see Ryu and Ken, it’s set to a song in which the words “Street Fighter” are sung, because of course they are. This is the ’90s, and every action movie needs a song that makes sure you know what movie you’re seeing. Oh, and Ryu and Ken are con men pretending to sell weapons. Sure.
Between all these stories is another story about Guile’s best friend Charlie being mutated into Blanka, whom if you remember from the games … is Blanka. If you’ve read this far and haven’t played Street Fighter II, I don’t know what to tell you. Dhalsim, once a questionably problematic Indian guru, is now a British scientist that keeps Charlie trapped in a metal tube with neon bags attached. Those bags, in very normal fashion, say, “DNA MUTAGENS,” just so the scientists know.
Maybe that’s what makes the Street Fighter movie so good: It doesn’t just feature clichés, it is clichés: The pre-9/11, pre-rise-of-white-supremacy concept of terrorists selling missiles on an open market. The for-comedy-purposes-only henchmen ditching their boss because the audience likes them and they should. The lead female character disguising herself as a dancer to break into the enemy base.
Oh God, and let’s not forget Bison naming his money “Bison Dollars” and promising to kidnap the queen of England for the sole purpose of setting an exchange rate of one Bison dollar being worth five British pounds.
The Street Fighter movie isn’t so bad that it’s good; it’s a movie that doesn’t care that it’s bad, which makes it good.
As big as ’90s nostalgia is right now, it’s almost entirely focused on the end of the decade: Y2K, the Spice Girls, AOL. Those are major defining moments, but they leave out the wackiness of the early ’90s. We sort of have this weird view that action movies jumped from Die Hard to The Matrix, but that isn’t really true. Coming off the hyperserious, hyperviolent Cold War–era films of the ’80s, the action movies of the early ’90s leaned into slapstick comedy and goofiness.
Street Fighter is the embodiment of early ’90s action-comedy. Forget the actors — the entire movie chews the scenery. Every scene is lifted or mutated from something you’d seen before. When Guile finally sees Charlie, now turned into the monstrous Blanka, his old army buddy nearly kills him — that is until Guile says, “I’m your friend,” and Blanka mutters, “FRIEND?”
In its own way, it’s also an accidental deconstruction of the video-game movie. Street Fighter is a game about fancy-kicking someone else in the face. Do you really need a story? Does it matter why Bison is fighting Guile if they’re fancy-kicking each other in the face? At the end of the day, it’s all set dressing. So if you’re going to make a movie about fancy-kicking, why not make up your own reasons and have fun with it? Add quirky dialogue, give everyone whatever motivations seem fun.
And that’s the thing: Street Fighter is fun. Fun because none of it makes sense and your brain dies a little trying to stitch the story together. Fun because each performer acts as if they’re in an entirely different movie from the others. Fun because the movie understands it’s weird as hell and leans in. It doesn’t care. The movie never tries to justify its existence — it just is, a Venus born from an oyster.
Even better, the movie apparently had full oversight from Capcom, the creators of the game. Capcom financed most of the movie themselves. They’re the ones who wanted Jean-Claude Van Damme as Guile, and they’re the ones who were willing to pay him $8 million for a film in which most of his scenes are cocaine sweating, mumbling, and fancy-kicking. As much of a mess the movie is, it’s also Capcom’s fault, and that’s deeply wonderful. Even the company that made the game didn’t understand it.
Watching the Street Fighter movie is a class on everything that can go wrong with a film, and how all of that failure adds up to something truly special. It’s a type of tentpole movie that probably couldn’t be made today, an honest-to-goodness piece of shit that’s proudly put out for the public’s consumption.
Mike Drucker is a stand-up and television writer. A staff writer at Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, Drucker just received his fifth Emmy nomination, which he will lose again to John Oliver.