05 March 2009

WATCHING SOMEBODY ELSE NOT PLAYING A VIDEO GAME

You'd expect one thing out of a movie with the words "street" and "fighter" in the title, and one of the greatest failures of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is how very little fighting actually goes on in its modestly convoluted plot about a young woman getting her revenge on a murderous Irish real-estate investor. Though to be fair, it does in fact feature more street fighting than 1994's Street Fighter, and this might be the only thing I have to say in favor of the new film over its predecessor.

Both films, as you likely know if you're even vaguely interested in either of them, are based upon the tremendously successful Street Fighter games produced by Capcom. Both of them are also incredibly bad adaptations, even by the standard of video game movies. I don't honestly understand how difficult it can possibly be to write a screenplay for a fighting game movie: there's an underground tournament happening somewhere in southeast Asia, several people show up to take part, some of them are revealed over the course of the week or however long to have vengeful motives on the tournament's promoter. Good God, if Paul W.S. Anderson could do that right, in the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie, anyone with basic literacy ought to be able to do it.

But no, in Legend of Chun-Li (adapted by one Justin Marks), we get no tournament of any kind, indeed nothing so much as a cameo from any of the dozen or so classic Street Fighter characters: we get a boilerplate "orphan out for revenge" plot that would function identically in every possible respect save the character names if you cut out the video game entirely. I'll not bore you with the details, but in essence, there's this talented pianist/martial arts fancier named Chun-Li (Kristin Kreuk) whose father was kidnapped many years ago for unknown reasons by a vicious man named Bison (Neal McDonough). Bison is an international criminal who, when we catch up with him in the present, has just overthrown the crimelord of Bangkok. His objective? Something something massive profits for razing the slums. Anyway, after her mom dies of cancer, Chun-Li travels to Bangkok and trains with the martial arts master Gen (Robin Shou), before finally confronting Bison and his lackeys over a MacGuffin that doesn't really follow any particular kind of story logic, but then, it is a MacGuffin after all.

I shall cut to the chase: this is a wildly functional crappy action movie in nearly all respects, with a particularly grinding screenplay. The whole "Bison buys up the slums" plotline is a classic example of a screenwriting having the bones of a political idea (bad people want to exploit the poor), but not enough practical knowledge of the system he's describing to make sense of it all (anyone who's seen the film and can explain how exactly Shadaloo - no longer a crime syndicate, but an investment group - is going to make all that money, let me know). And of course there are the usual sprinkling of absurdities, my favorite of which is probably the unanswered question of why, if Bison's Irish missionary parents died when he was a baby, leaving him in a Thai orphanage, does he speak with a rich Irish brogue?

Only in two respects does Legend of Chun-Li completely collapse. The first of these is Kristin Kreuk, of TV's Smallville, giving one of the most listless performances I have ever seen onscreen. Watching the trailers, it always seemed odd that Kreuk was never really present, nor did she ever speak; I wondered if that spoke to a reduced role in the film. HAH! The opposite, in fact, thanks in no small part to one of the most unnecessary voice-overs in a long time (one of those "because of what you just saw - which I'll describe in full - I had to go to this place that you're about to see" deals), giving us just about all the Kreuk we can handle. The real reason she wasn't in the advertisements, it turns out, is because she was apparently deceased for the entirety of the shoot, boasting one expression, one tone of voice, and only the most unexceptional ability to fake martial arts moves before her double steps in.

The other truly horrid element of the film is the pair of fumbling cops out to stop Bison on their own: INTERPOL agent Charlie Nash (Chris Klein) and Bangkok police detective Maya Sunee (Moon Bloodgood). The "pair of cops working toward the same goal as the protagonist, but poorly" subplot has a long history, and it's nearly always the worst part of whatever film it features in; and yet the adventures of Charlie and Maya is exceptionally awful, as bad as the trope has been since its anti-heyday in the 1980s. This is mostly due to Chris Klein, who actually manages to save Kreuk from being the worst member of the cast. His performance is all oil and slimy charm, as though Nash were a globetrotting crime-fighting, car insurance salesman. Rarely do the movies present us with a putative hero so instantly repellent as this figure, whose very first moments in the film consist of leering at his new partner's ass. Thank all good things in the universe that the cops weren't also the comic relief, for that would have been more than my soul could have handled.

The worst part about the film? It's just bad. The first Street Fighter, with a dying Raul Julia and Jean-Claude Van Damme failing utterly to sound remotely like an American, is a marvelous bit of campy fun, the kind of mid-'90s silly action picture that's goofy and idiotic and a breeze to watch (it's almost the equal of another famously wrong-headed video game adaptation, the bad-acid-trip marvel that is Super Mario Bros.). Legend of Chun-Li is just a boring, bad action movie - which, to be fair, means that it's one of the best video game adaptations ever made. Still, I can't imagine that anyone could get any legitimate kind of joy from this slog of a movie, which at 97 minutes feels twice as long, and can't even manage a full martial arts scene that's worth a damn.

3/10

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