[29 June 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s official - the great cinematic experiment known as the video game adaptation is an outright failure. There’s no denying it. Just look at the evidence. There have been so many bad examples of the attempted genre, weak-willed efforts like Hitman, House of the Dead, Max Payne, and the ridiculous Resident Evil franchise that the few noted successes (Silent Hill, umm….) barely make a dent in the discussion. Apparently, the inherent motion picture quality that most console titles come with just doesn’t translate over to big budget Hollywood hit making - or put another way, whatever made these immersive adventures successful in the first place just can’t survive the seemingly destructive Tinsel Town focus group process.
Just look at Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. In this proposed prequel to the popular Camcon classic, our heroine is raised as a pianist, learns martial arts from her mysterious businessman daddy, and then is devastated when he is kidnapped by corrupt corporate CEO (and moonlighting mobster) Bison. As she ages, she receives an ancient scroll that tells her to seek out a seminal member of The Order of the Web. His name is Gen and he was once a criminal compatriot of Bison. Now he plans on stopping the evil entrepreneur once and for all. With Bison’s plans to take over the ghetto district of Shanghai and turn it into one big upscale residential area, thousands of lives are threatened. Chun-Li trains with Gen while various heinous henchmen like Balrog and Vega protect the villian’s project. It seems the Order has its work cut out for them. Luckily, our heroine is a very fast learner indeed.
This sloppy second attempt at bringing the Street Fighter franchise to the big screen (the first being the Raul Julia/Jean-Claude Van Damme effort from 1994) violates one of the primary rules for any Playstation to motion picture translation - never mess with the mythology. Fans love these games because of the way in which legend is meshed with logistics to make the often difficult and time consuming game play that much more meaningful. Sure, in the end, something like Street Fighter is a mere set of remote moves tested against an opponent’s/computer’s competing motor skills, but devotees love their digital folklore. So when a studio takes the story of Chun-Li, one of the geeks most beloved female ass-kickers, and turns her into a superficial shadow of her formerly aggressive arcade self, you should be prepared for the backlash.
But this new Street Fighter goes even further. It screws around with all the characters. Bison is no longer a military man. Instead, he’s a suave and sadistic corporate weasel who uses his mob connections and regular crew of street toughs to enact his malevolent desires. Balrog is his sidekick, not a solid ex-boxing champ. For his part, Vega shows up late, gets his butt handed to him by a suddenly psycho Chun-Li, and then disappears from the narrative all together. That just leaves our heroine and Gen to pick up the slack and with no martial arts competition to support the story, what we wind up with is a lot of talking followed by some less than entertaining action scenes. Director Andrzej Bartkowiak has a lot to do with how incredibly lame the fisticuffs are. He’s been trading on the reputation of Romeo Must Die for far too long now. Here’s he’s too enamored with a sense of gritty authenticity to make the martial arts meaningful.
What’s even worse, we don’t really understand all the backstabbing set-ups and diabolic double-crossings. So Bison wants to drive all the people out of the waterfront shanty towns so he can buy up the property cheap and build his exclusive suburb. Aren’t their better ways of eviction than trying to beat up a couple hundred thousand people? The police seem as ineffectual as humanly possible, especially a visiting Interpol agent played with obvious contractual discontent by American Chris Klein. One look at his face and his pathetic performance posture, and you know he was hoping that his American Pie fame would lead to something other than this. Elsewhere, Neal McDonough makes a good villain, if a rather standard and manipulative baddie. Sure, we wince when he cracks a victims head open with his hands. But for the most part, he’s all gun pointing and pouts.
But the real problem, performance wise, is leading lady Kristin Kreuk. Smallville may be a good place for her rather limited range, but she’s not a convincing action hero. She comes across as sheepish and ineffectual, even as the CG-ed stuntwomen are giving her all the moves she needs. Even worse, her hobbled backstory is so blank, so “I love Daddy” oriented that her sudden decision to move beyond such motives seems silly. Bartkowiak obviously believed that if he took this material more seriously, if he toned down the cartoon and upped the angst, we’d get something akin to The Dark Knight. But the truth is, he should have handled the material like Corey Yuen did for DOA: Dead or Alive. Realism just doesn’t go with such over-the-top, male minded adolescent fairy tales.
Sometime, in the near future, when comic books have stopped being successful sources and big budget blockbuster bombast is again desperate for another saleable subject matter infusion, the video game will indeed get another chance. And perhaps someone like Timur Bekmambetov who more or less turned Wanted into his own personal Nintendo title, could enliven the material with their own unique cinematic vision. Until that time, we will be stuck with massive moviemaking disappointments like Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. Anyone who loved the game, either during daily visits to their local mall or in the privacy of their own basement bachelor pad, will more or less hate what is happening here. But movie mavens shouldn’t feel left out. For all its faux feeling of authenticity, this is unsuccessful cinema at its worst.