Full disclosure: For most of my time as an impressionable gamer youth, Street Fighter II and the series following it was my jam. Can you blame me? SFII introduced the world to a new and promising genre with style, grace, and a competitive streak a mile wide. Eventually, Mortal Kombat earned its own blood-spattered place in my heart, but Street Fighter II will always be my first fighting game love.
In recent years I’ve tried to match FightSticks with my more hardcore friends and found myself wanting on the field of battle, but back in the day, I could hadouken with the arcade crowd’s champions. Even now I still have a lot of respect for the Street Fighter tournament scene, one of the closest things to a sport in digital gaming. To me, that’s what Street Fighter has always been: a contest between two people to see whose art is stronger.
So the fact that the Street Fighter movie is about an international police action is a complete mystery to me.
Don’t get me wrong: As video game movies go, Street Fighter is far from the worst. Even if its action doesn’t quite land and its characters deviate dramatically from their source material (Doctor Dhalsim, the mad scientist? I don’t think so) it’s fun to pick out the references. The Street Fighter movie does bring the game series’ canon to life, but it does so in a sort of weird Frankenstein way, cobbling various pieces of the series together while missing its central theme. The first time we see a couple dudes—Ryu and Vega, both played with a surprising degree of accuracy—square off to go mano a mano in the arena, Guile’s armored jeep smashes through the wall before either World Warrior throws a punch. It’s like the runaway engine of plot, forcing a familiar scene from the game into lock-step with the movie’s largely original narrative.
I’m inclined to let this fly, at least in part. After all, in retrospect, this is the beginning of the Street Fighter franchise blossoming into other storylines and media. The cartoon was soon to follow, and Street Fighter Alpha was already giving us insight into other moments in the series’ narrative. I’m all for artistic license. My issue is one of form, more than content: Street Fighter the film, clearly carries out its plot-doctoring in pursuit of a questionable goal. The movie’s figuration of Street Fighter, with Guile at the center of a conflict that mainly occupied the background of the game’s many stages, is an outright attempt to translate game language into movie language. Mortal Kombat, the movie’s obvious cinema rival, was content to leave well enough alone and embrace the incongruity that the camera’s lens exposes. Street Fighter wants everything to fit together.
This makes it tough for Street Fighter’s appeal to carry through the screen transition: In a fighting game, you choose your character and prove your story in victory. Here in the movie, if you pick anyone but Guile, you’re wrong. Everybody’s part of his storyline, and the movie changes mismatched characters so they belong there. I think part of what makes Raul Julia’s performance as Bison so successful is that he’s the only character who doesn’t fit the mold: His lines are what you’d read if you chose Bison in Arcade Mode, and it works wonders. The final throwdown between Guile and M. Bison is the closest the film comes to mirroring the style of the games, and even that’s just a single scene in a bigger picture. It’s a bummer that most of that picture doesn’t resemble what we saw in arcades.
Street Fighter has some movie chops, but it doesn’t capture the joy of your first shoryuken or give you a thrilling portrayal of your favorite fighter. I don’t feel right calling it one of the Worst Video Game Movies. It’s not consistently cringe-worthy. It just doesn’t trust a video game to have a movie-worthy plot. And that, I think, is its fundamental failing: A lack of faith in video game storytelling.