Teacher and quizmaster Stephen Ruiz takes us back to when, even in 2009, Street Fighter fever had already greatly dissipated, and yet we still got the monumentally miscalculated Legend of Chun-Li.
On rare occasion, a film can be critically panned upon its release only to garner more appreciation years later. These movies aren’t bad; they’re simply ahead of their time. Sometimes a film arrives to the box office before their cultural moment is ready to welcome them.
Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is not such a film. In many ways, it is the polar opposite of the film described above. The demand for a movie set in the world of the wildly popular Street Fighter video game franchise existed and was answered in 1994 when Jean-Claude Van Damme played Guile because of his ability to approximate a 16-bit video game hero.
The clamoring of fans of the arcade classic was rewarded with a movie so bad that it killed Raul Julia, a movie so bad that a flash kick to the testicles seems appealing by comparison, a movie so bad that it remained the nadir for video game adaptations for fifteen years.
Chun-Li is a movie that boggles the mind when you ponder why it even exists. No one was asking for it. The heyday of Street Fighter II and its plethora of sequels was long over. Almost no one saw it and those who did were punished dearly for their sins. Chun-Li is guilty of too many crimes against film to mention here, so we’ll stick with one: nothing makes any sense.
The movie opens with a voiceover of the title character discussing at length her idyllic childhood with her adoring father, Xiang. His dream was for her to become a concert pianist even though they spent a great deal more time mastering the martial art of wushu. If the wistfully shot training sequences and effervescent smiles weren’t enough indication, Chun-Li attests that “life was a dream.”
Predictably, the dream is dashed when Balrog punches his way through Xiang and Chun-Li’s kitchen window. Balrog is inexplicably portrayed by Michael Clarke Duncan, perhaps weary of being typecast as “talented actor who chooses roles thoughtfully.” After a fight in which Xiang sets an assailant on fire by setting his whip on fire with his own hand that he set on fire without injury, Xiang is captured by Bison, played against all odds by another otherwise respectable actor, Neal McDonough. McDonough’s portrayal of Bison is bewildering. He’s an Irishman portraying a Thai slumlord whose accent is equal parts Scottish, Thai, and newly lobotomized. After Bison, Balrog, and the surviving henchmen escape with Xiang, we cut many years into the future where Chun-Li is enjoying success as a professional pianist.
The abduction and presumed demise of Chun-Li’s hero and inspiration doesn’t rate a rescue effort, a call to the authorities, or a single tear. Her contentment with playing packed concert halls and receiving nightly flowers from her throngs of admirers was all she needed until a mysterious Chinese scroll was delivered to her dressing room. Unable to read the scroll, she takes it to a local pawn shop. The proprietor tells Chun-Li that she has no choice but to walk away from the life she knows and loves and move to Bangkok. After offering almost no resistance, she complies, exhibiting an emotional pliability made possible only by the laziest of screenwriters.
Cut to Bangkok where Chun-Li is searching for the man who left the scroll. In the meantime, we are introduced to Charlie Nash and Maya Sunee, portrayed by Chris Klein and Moon Bloodgood respectively, who are hot on the trail of Bison and Shadaloo. There isn’t much to say about Bloodgood’s portrayal of Det. Sunee. She is completely adequate, which is the best one can hope for given the script. Chris Klein on the other hand? First of all, just look at him.
If his hair and glower don’t paint a clear enough picture, you can see him deliver all of his lines here. You won’t have context. You won’t need it. He delivers each of his lines as if he’s trying to conjure the opening credits.
In compliance with film law, there is instant sexual tension between Sunee and Nash. The professional and focused Sunee understandably rebuffs all of his clumsy advances. Just kidding—she reciprocates his middle school flirting immediately and changes her clothes in front of him moments after they are introduced.
The rest of the movie follows the formula of every bad martial arts movie (and many of the good ones) ever produced—training montages, mentor declares protagonist ready, evil forces call in their heavy hitter to deal with the hero, hero defeats said heavy hitter thereby showing her power, evil retaliates by killing her mentor, hero temporarily loses hope, realizes her true power was always within her, catches up with the big villain at the same time as the useless side characters, defeats him, finds peace and shows her gratitude to her totally still alive mentor.
I didn’t see this movie during its theatrical run because why would I? Aside from this past week, I saw the movie twice—once late at night on HBO when I couldn’t sleep and another several days later when I had friends over. Sometimes, we still reminisce about how awful it was. Chun-Li was The Room before there was The Room.
I noticed something upon my latest viewing only because of the recent cultural climate. The Legend of Chun-Li has a strangely high cultural sensitivity, specifically with respect to its casting. In 2009, the discussion around whitewashing in Hollywood wasn’t as prevalent as it is today.
Chun-Li, a Chinese character, is played by Kristin Kreuk, a woman of Chinese descent. Gen is played by Robin Shou, a martial artist from Hong Kong. Vega, a Spanish assassin is played by Taboo. Since he’s a member of the Black Eyed Peas, this movie is his greatest artistic achievement. Taboo is Mexican-American, not Spanish, but my people and I will take the small victory for what it is. Even Neal McDonough’s turn as Bison is suitable. Capcom has always been coy about Bison’s origins, often suggesting that he is a westerner who relocated to Thailand.
The concept is obviously simple—movies have Asian characters so logic dictates that Asian actors should fill them, but there are myriad examples where this isn’t done. Kristin Kreuk and Robin Shou could easily have been replaced by notable white actors of the time.
Finally, the Bison character feels prescient in retrospect. He’s a white man and child of immigrants who made his riches through shady, nefarious means. He built his empire largely through real estate (read: being a slumlord). He repeatedly shows his business associates that he is not to be trusted. He even says that he wants to make Bangkok a better place again. Neal McDonough’s Bison is the proto-Trump, but his speech impediment isn’t quite as strange. If only there was a plucky outsider training and biding her time, preparing to take him down.