Van Dammage Report: Street Fighter

Van Damme Street Fighter

I was wrong about Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Let me explain.

I hated Street Fighter the first time I saw it, and, as a result, it was ground zero for my love of The Muscles from Brussels.

Let me explain.

When I was 13 (the year the film released), Street Fighter II was (and remains to this day) one of my favorite video games. So how could I not be excited when I found out the guy credited with writing some of the best action movies ever (Commando and Die Hard) had written and directed the movie version? Well, that sounded like the best thing ever.

What I saw horrified me.

This wasn’t the serious and violent movie I wanted. It felt more like a cartoon, and not one of those weird and awesome Japanese cartoons I had seen on a scratchy VHS tape. M. Bison wanted to put a food court in his World Domination Shopping Mall. Ken and Ryu weren’t honorable Shotokan fighters; they were weaselly grifters. And Guile? He didn’t even SOUND American! Where were all the one-on-one fights? Where were the hadokens and sonic booms? This Van Damme guy (whoever he is, I had never heard of him before) did a couple flash kicks and that was cool but c’mon!

“That Van Damme guy, what a cheesy actor. I bet all his movies are stupid. He seems like a really bad actor,” I thought. And thus began a long stretch where I approached every Van Damme movie with a smirk and a feeling of superiority. I even bought a copy of Street Fighter on DVD eventually so I could laugh at it with my buddies. Jean-Claude Van Damme was little more than a cheap punchline for me.

But eventually, as I started watching more and more of his films and approaching them as someone genuinely curious about and invested in film, my view of Van Damme and what his films actually accomplished began to shift. Sure, a lot of his movies are silly. And yes, JCVD is not the world’s greatest actor. On these points I have little doubt the man himself would agree. And that’s okay. This realization called for a larger assessment of the man’s work, and thus was born the Van Dammage Report.

So what of Street Fighter? Did my opinion of Steven E. de Souza’s sole feature film outing change as well? Oh absolutely.

It’s an unpopular opinion, to be sure, but I absolutely believe that Street Fighter (as a whole) is one of Van Damme’s best films. There are other films of his with better stories and better (and more) fights, but looking at it from the perspective of what the film set out to do, this is among his absolute best. Sure, the video game fan in me is still a little raw that so many of the characters at best only vaguely resemble their digital counterparts, but it doesn’t matter ultimately. What de Souza actually gave us wasn’t a Street Fighter adaptation, but rather the single best G.I. Joe movie ever.

The secret jungle lair, the plot for world domination through crazy science experiments, the colorful collection of soldiers assembled for the fight. Heck even Guile’s stealth boat seems like it should have some Joe decals on the side of it. It’d all be right at home in the eternal conflict between Joes and COBRA. So in that way, the cheesy one-liners, the (gloriously entertaining) overacting, are all a perfect fit for this goofy actioner. It’s clear that de Souza was working on a fairly modest budget, but he makes it work.

Even though it’s still a bit comical that Guile (portrayed in the games as your typical All-American soldier) speaks with a thick Belgian accent, Van Damme seems to be having a great time hamming it up in a way he hasn’t really gone for before or since. And while it may clash tonally with the rest of the performance (and film at large), Van Damme’s delivery of a troop-motivating speech right before the final assault is right up there with Bill Pullman’s Independence Day speech. I won’t go so far as to say that Van Damme’s work here is self-aware, but there’s a level of playfulness he gets to exert that I wish more of his films would allow. I still chuckle each time I think about how much of a joke I considered his performance in this to be when I now consider it one of his most enjoyable.

What has always been enjoyable, even when I kind of hated the movie, however is Raul Julia as M. Bison. Here you have an actor who is by all accounts charming and talented and capable of taking on all manner of serious acting jobs. His turn as Bison would be considered by most as a chance to slum it for a paycheck. But Julia, the consummate professional he was, gave it everything he had. Not even his poor health could prevent him from imbuing this role as a wide-eyed megalomaniacal warlord with all the energy and gusto it needed. If nothing else, Street Fighter deserves credit for introducing me to this wonderful actor.

Previously on the Van Dammage Report:
TimecopHard TargetNowhere to RunUniversal SoldierDouble Impact,
Death WarrantLionheartKickboxerCyborgBloodsport.