Wrapped In Plastic: JCVD's Street Fighter
Updated: Feb 12, 2022
"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.”
So says villainous dictator M. Bison whilst describing the imminent construction of his garish mega city in the now notorious video game adaptation, Street Fighter (1994). Over two decades later, America witnessed a cartoonish buffoon (not to mention wannabe despot) serve McDonalds out of the White House to athletes in peak condition. Writer/Director Steven E. de Souza obviously couldn’t predict this preposterous historical parallel - he was, after all, adapting a silly arcade beat ‘em up - but, as we're locked into '22, Street Fighter feels like a hilariously prescient warning of how stupid things were going to become. Oh, and it’s a damn good movie, too.
Funded almost entirely by Capcom and written in one night (if you believe de Souza), Street Fighter was yet another Hollywood attempt to ride the wave of video gaming’s exploding popularity. Sandwiched between Super Mario Brothers (1993) and Mortal Kombat (1995), the three have long been held up as key examples as to why attempting to convert pixels to pictures is a fool’s errand. Though Kombat has slowly been reassessed as a joy of a film and true to the games, and some will go to bat hard for Mario, Street Fighter often feels forgotten.
To be frank, Street Fighter's lasting legacy exists almost exclusively via memes or GIFS of Raúl Juliá’s M. Bison shouting “Of course!” or “For me, it was a Tuesday!” In fact, Juliá is probably the only person involved in the production who's operating on the film’s hyper-specific wavelength. In one of his final performances, Juliá demolishes scenery, relishing the honey-baked ham he's delivering in a role he only took because of his children. To stop with him, though, is to discount a work of cinema bursting at the seams with ideas and personality.
Watching Street Fighter in '22 is like devouring twenty pounds of candy and then coasting on a sugar high for days. Immediately, you’re struck by the plasticine sheen and vibrant costumes. Your mouth gapes upon being struck with the sight of Jean-Claude Van Damne’s glistening muscles and hideous blonde dye job. Pop star Kylie Minogue totes a bazooka bigger than her. At first, the silliness is jarring, but almost immediately gives way to something else: yearning. Somewhere in the twenty-plus years since Street Fighter's initial flop of a release, Hollywood forgot that this shit is supposed to be fun.
Crippled by every studio’s desire to chase the shared universe dragon, we’re stuck in an endless loop of self-important lore that sets up ten more movies, all destined to be defined by ho-hum grayscale visuals. It’s not enough to see wacky freaks of nature on screen, it has to be taken deathly serious too. There’s an air of fear around acknowledging the goofiness of source material in modern genre works; be it comics, video games or otherwise. Street Fighter suffers from none of this. Make no mistake, this isn’t just exhaustion with current film trends speaking - it’s impossible to overstate how the earnestness on display feels like a salve with the benefit of hindsight.
Plot, if it matters at all, is thin. Something about Allied Nations soldiers (a UN stand-in) being kidnapped by evil General M. Bison, who has designs on taking over fictitious southeast Asian country, Shandaloo, and is demanding $20 billion in return to help fund his Bisonopolis venture. Mixed in amongst the chaos are con artists Ryu (Byron Mann) and Ken (Damian Chapa), reporter Chun-Li (Ming-Na Wen) and a veritable who’s who of fan favorites from the games. All inevitably coalesce at Bison’s secret base and come on, you know the rest. It's James Bond snorting Pixie Sticks until he's in a diabetic coma with Blofeld sawing off one of his now swollen appendages.
Through sheer force of will, Street Fighter transcends something as antiquated as narrative structure. From almost every creative standpoint, de Souza makes all the wrong choices (which is kind of crazy, seeing how he helped design two perfect bits of mayhem in Commando  and Die Hard ). Casting superstar Belgian Jean-Claude Van Damme (who, by some accounts, was doing up to 10g of coke per day) as the All-American Hero, Guile. Hiring Benny “the Jet '' Uriqudez to choreograph the fights and then barely focusing on them (the fights are terrific when they decide to show us anything). Training the cast on their stunts the night before they were to film them. It’s a recipe for disaster.
OK, look, it is a disaster. Still, it’s a haphazardly mixed tonic that, despite misunderstanding the game itself, captures the full on excitement and explosion of color that video games provided in the first place. Sets dripping with detail fill the frame, each another level for you to explore, as Graeme Revell's score becomes a bombastic death march. It’s an optical and aural adventure, like you’ve been shunted into a 16-bit land of possibility. The refreshing earnestness mixed with de Souza’s dependably dry cynicism creates a swirling miasma that hasn’t really been replicated since. M. Bison is a shockingly modern creation. Obsessed with his brand and reformatting the news to fit his image, his goal isn’t just to take over the world, it’s to turn it into a goddamn shopping mall. He’s a strongman without depth, the kind of guy to paste his face on dollar bills and whose mecca is in the shape of a literal skull.
Like most men eyeing a capitalistic takeover, there’s no “there” there. He’s silly as hell with his red cape flowing behind him, a fool’s idea of “cool”. He’s a troll with an army of devoted morons ready to take a bullet for him. Morons like Zangief (a pre-Leatherface Andrew Byrniarski), who aren’t being paid to do so and hadn’t even thought that was a possibility. It's simply blind devotion for these bullies. In some ways, M. Bison feels like the tacky precursor to an equally tatty twat like Elon Musk, what with his legion of fans ready to defend him on Twitter at the drop of a hat
You get the feeling de Souza is taking stock of the fallout of consumerist excess of the 80s, throwing his hands up and using Street Fighter as a means of working through it. There’s a deep creative rot to a video game company hiring you to adapt their product as quickly as possible. Intentional or not, Bison’s childish pursuits feel like an extension of that. It’s a textual stretch, to be sure, and the film’s commentary isn’t particularly salient, but something’s here, something sinister. If all goes well, Bison and his army will have an entire country where the only currency is made up of dollar bills with his face on them. His goals are hilariously infantile, but is the idea of “owning” your own money as some kind of brand IP extension all that different from NFTs? Nothing like the powder-fueled daydreams of Street Fighter to keep you up at night, doing a bit of galaxy brained thread connecting.
Street Fighter’s true magic is that its cynicism is reserved only for whatever half baked commentary it’s wrestling with. When it comes to the source material, it’s got a candy coated heart that doesn't have time for ironic detachment. Unlike modern blockbusters, where acts of fantasy are often undercut by “yeah, it’s silly, we know” one liners, every joke here serves the characters' true emotional cores. Zangief is a big oaf, but that’s what makes his realization at being used become a sweetly baby-faced heel turn. When beautiful people in eye-popping costumes are playing everything so earnestly, the proclivity to buy into the whole shebang is just so easy. JCVD, eyes glazed over in a narcotic haze, delivers the silliest “rah rah” speech you’ll ever hear. Yet in another example of how easily we overlook his raw performative talent, Van Damme knows it's silly and still plays it with stone cold seriousness. As Guile screams into the camera, swearing vengeance against Bison, it’s enough to want to leap off the couch and join the Allied Nations yourself.
Earnestness in the face of stupidity is a quality that’s going to matter more as our world steeps itself in meaningless culture wars. Our digital world is designed to fill your head with hate, just like Carlos Blanka (Robert Mammone), one of the kidnapped AN soldiers and Guile’s best friend. Bison is out to create an army of uber men and Blanka, being a straight up physical specimen, is a prime candidate. Pumped with chemicals and a steady visual diet of history’s atrocities, Blanka’s meant to be transformed into an angry, violent killer. A funny thing happens, though, as one of Bison’s scientists, Dhalsim (Roshan Seth), secretly begins slipping in acts of kindness and morality into Blanka’s mind. What results is a monster with a heart of gold, one without the influence of constant hate streams.
As we fill ourselves with a daily intake of bile over what the M&Ms are wearing, or fury over content warnings, becoming irony poisoned feels like the only logical end to our collective existence as human beings. A film like Street Fighter, in all it’s ridiculous glory, is a left field reminder that, as we continue to watch the dumbest people alive ascend to the highest levels of power, sincerity matters. Good people, jumping in the air and high-fiving in a freeze frame, have to count for something. What that is, who’s to say, but sometimes it just feels good to embrace it, even if it all comes wrapped in plastic.
Brandon Streussnig is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Playlist, The Movie Sleuth, and Film Combat Syndicate.