If memories could be dialed back to the dark ages of the mid-1990s for a moment, recall that the last time the “Street Fighter” video game empire was adapted for the big screen, it concerned a cartoonishly costumed Jean-Claude Van Damme and Kylie Minogue trying to save the world from the demonic clutches of an infirmed Raul Julia. Unsurprisingly, the film tanked. Now 15 years later, a new challenger has arrived with “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li,” and this production is armed with a few clumsy television actors, Chris Klein, and a member of the Black Eyed Peas. This is not progress.
A criminal mastermind of the highest order, Bison (Neal McDonough) rules the streets of Bangkok with his right hand man Balrog (Michael Clarke Duncan), along with assassin Vega (Taboo) and corporate vixen Cantana (Josie Ho). With Bison’s vicious Shadaloo syndicate placing the city into a state of panic, it’s up to a highly trained warrior, Chun-Li (Kristin Kreuk, trying for earnestness and failing), and her unwavering dedication to justice to infiltrate Bison’s underworld and battle to save the city. On Chun-Li’s trail is Interpol agent Charlie Nash (Chris Klein), a man equally driven to stop Bison, rising above the law to join the lady brawler as she sets out to squash evil.
The pie crust of the “Legend” failure was shaped early on by the producers when they hired Andrzej Bartkowiak to direct this fresh attempt to merge the video game world with big screen heroics. Here’s a list of the director’s achievements: “Doom,” “Exit Wounds,” “Romeo Must Die,” and “Cradle 2 the Grave.” Not the most inspiring of filmographies. Certainly the new, hardened tone for “Street Fighter” requires a visionary who once helmed three DMX motion pictures, but his limitations as a storyteller and architect of foot-first action once again crumbles a promising feature film. However, Bartkowiak’s numerous directorial blunders are only but a toe dipped into the pool of “Legend” futility.
With only a few characters and elements adapted from the video game series that began its reign of quarter munching over 20 years ago, the new “Street Fighter” picture is a distinct departure from the 1994 event movie failure, removing an overall cartoon atmosphere for a grittier tone concentrating on straightforward revenge scenarios, Eastern mysticism, and adding a dab of verisimilitude to once colorful characters. The screenplay by Justin Marks is surprisingly straight-faced, aggressively attempting to assign new mythos to these famous characters that will generate a sprawling fight saga to be feasted upon over several sequels and assorted gaming tie-ins. The ambition is brave, but the execution is the pits, turning the beloved “Street Fighter” legacy into a cruddy, smalltime Sci-Fi Original production, perhaps too serious for its own good.
While I do use the word “serious,” “Legend” is far from Masterpiece Theater. At its core, the picture is still a crude martial arts demonstration reel, only Bartkowiak fumbles the heated encounters with ripsaw editing and clumsy choreography that exposes the actors counting off the moves in their head. It’s impossible to kick back and embrace the violence when it’s all made a blur, occasionally punctuated by a famous “Street Fighter” finishing move or special effect. The action is largely routine, PG-13 filler, but so is the entire movie, lamely lurching from conflict to conflict in a programmed manner. At this point, I’m positive Bartkowiak wouldn’t know nail-biting tension even if it came up and bit him on the nose.
The only joy of “Legend” is watching the actors struggle to rise above the mundane details, only to spectacularly fail without assistance from behind the camera. Chris Klein takes the cake here, assuming a strange mix of Clint Eastwood and metrosexual pedophile as he swaggers around the locations trying his damndest to come across as a tough guy. It’s hilarious to observe his cheese, especially in the presence of the other actors, who I swear are holding back giggles. Neal McDonough also deserves a fair share of raspberries for his acting, slipping on a goofy Irish accent to play pure Bangkok evil. Of course, why an Irish baby orphaned as an infant in Bangkok would retain a thick brogue in his adulthood is not explained, but very little of the film is, preferring the catchall Eastern locations to play ball any way it likes.
“Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li” is more numbing than awful (though a lesbian dance-off sequence with Chun-Li and Cantana pushes the needle into the red), and with a lack of gaming tributes and spectacular brawling, it’s difficult to understand why the feature was even made in the first place. The end promises a sequel that appears to right several wrongs, but after this installment, I doubt enough audience members will be eager to endure another round with this mishandled franchise. I’ll take Jean-Claude Van Damme and his powder blue beret any day over this insipid, clunky, and joyless motion picture.