Thursday, July 06, 2006

DVD Review: Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie

DVD Review
Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie
Uncut, Uncensored, Unleashed
(This is a pre-release review, release date is July 18th, 2006)

It was virtually impossible to walk into any Video Arcade in the early 90’s and not see a crowd of people gathered around a Street Fighter II machine, myself included. In a relatively short time, the game managed to set itself firmly into 90’s pop-culture, and in 1994, on the tail end of the Street Fighter craze, the faithful were rewarded and punished at the same time. For our penance, we were forced to sit through the awful live action Street Fighter film starring Jean Claude Van Damme, and, rumor has it, a quick rewrite of an aborted screenplay for a film based on G.I. Joe. We were rewarded with the home video release of Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie a little under a year later. Over ten years on, and the animated film is still held in very high regard amongst Street Fighter fan circles. It is the definitive portrayal of these characters for many, and is often regarded as an anime classic. The VHS editions are long gone, and the early DVD release is still out there, but is generally hard to track down. Manga video has finally stepped up and given us about the best version of this film we’re ever going to see, not perfect, but pretty good.

Shadowlaw, a ruthless terrorist organization, is using monitor cyborgs (robots with funky Terminator-esque “scanning vision”) to hunt and analyze street fighters all over the world. Upon discovering the strongest fighters, they kidnap and brainwash them, and turn them into covert (or not so much so) assassins. Interpol investigator Chun-Li, and her American Air-Force partner, Guile, are working to gather the evidence needed to track M Bison, leader of the Shadowlaw forces. They plan to lay the big beat down for personal reasons. Meanwhile, the chief target of Bison’s search, Ryu, continues to wander the Earth, oblivious to the evil force that’s seeking him out. Ryu stumbles into one street fight after another, until his old training partner, and equally powerful fighter, Ken Masters, is kidnapped by Bison in Ryu’s place. Somewhere in all the madness, Chun-Li winds up hospitalized after a near deadly battle with Vega, one of Bison’s assassins, Ryu meets up with Honda, a Sumo who lives in the mountains of Thailand (?), Guile flexes his muscles a lot and cruises around in his Shelby Cobra, and Ken fumes and sputters about his unfinished business with Ryu while cruising around in his Porsche listening to Alice in Chains and Silverchair.

Does this movie stink? Well, yes, and no. Looking at it purely from a plot perspective, you’ll probably check out the moment you see Chun-Li in full Mandarin “entertainment” regalia giving an intense briefing on international terrorists in a room full of uniformed agents about 6-7 minutes into the flick. The plot is sheer nonsense – basically, it’s a simple wire coat hanger on which to hang a load of fight scenes. There are logic holes galore, characters pop in and out frequently, many relegated to glorified cameos, like Dee Jay, a kick-boxer who pops up long enough to kick a few guys, speak some jive, and be monitored by a monitor cyborg or two. Or Thunder Hawk, a giant Native American character who shows up long enough to fight Ken so that Bison can get a detailed spec sheet on Ken’s stats. Maybe someone could tell me why a wealthy world class martial artist like Ken would be hanging out in dingy Seattle warehouses at night fighting giant Indians. So yes, plot wise, Street Fighter II is a terribly bad flick, which pretty much rules it out for anyone looking for any sort or reasonably sensible entertainment. What the film does very well, is service the fans of the series. Every character, from series hero Ryu, right on down the line to bizarre weirdoes like Dhalsim, are handled in a manner in which they are portrayed truthfully to the source material (unlike the live action film, which recast Ryu and Ken as smarmy con men, or Dhalsim as a geneticist.). It gives us a glimpse of every character in the Street Fighter II series up to that point, and the character designs are universally excellent. Now we get to the meat and potatoes of the film, the fight scenes. From the opening awesomeness of the nighttime battle between Ryu and Sagat, to the final three way battle between Ryu, Ken, and Bison, each and every fight scene in the film is wonderfully directed, beautifully animated, and, until characters start chucking fireballs around, it remains pretty technically sound. The animators brought a real martial artist in to consult on the fighting, and it definitely shows. These matches are fast and brutal affairs that aren’t at all shy about displaying a little bit of graphic violence. Particularly awesome to watch are the fights between Ryu and Hong Kong action movie star Fei Long in an underground fighting arena, and the savage brutality of the Vega vs. Chun-Li fight. The animation quality in these scenes is fantastic as well, with wonderfully fluid and lifelike movements. It’s these two factors, the loyalty to the characters, and the quality of the fighting present, that makes this one such a well loved flick amongst Street Fighter fans, and fans of anime based on fighting games in general, most of which is horribly awful stuff.

The soundtrack to the film is also something that’s generated both admiration and controversy within fan circles. The film’s English language version does away entirely with the cheesy synth-driven score of the Japanese version, replacing it with a more “worldly” score, full of exotic beats and some hard driving metal guitar, as well as some very popular early 90’s alternative and techno tracks (Including Alice in Chains, Silverchair, Korn, and KMFDM). Many fans have been pissed that the original Japanese language version hasn’t been presented up to this point. These fans aren’t really missing anything. The voice-acting is equally bad in both English and Japanese (the plot certainly doesn’t make any more sense in Japanese, that’s for sure), and the Japanese score lacks any sort of real punch to accentuate the action on screen. The English score, by Corey Lieros and John D’Andera, is much better suited to the action, and does an overall better job of setting an appropriate mood. It’s definitely nice to have both versions available. Ultimately, I think the tv series, Street Fighter II-V, does a better job of telling a more grounded story with these characters, but for fans of the games, this one is easier on the eyes, and more or less entertaining throughout, in spite of the utterly ridiculous narrative.

This is the second outing for Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie on DVD. The first was released very early in DVD’s life, and was essentially a port of the VHS widescreen with a 2.0 stereo soundtrack and not much else to speak of. The “Uncut, Uncensored, Unleashed” version is a double sided flipper disc, with the English version on one side, and the Japanese version on the other. Manga has done a passable job with this one, and it’s certainly nice to have the uncut version of the film again, and the original Japanese version in 5.1 is sure to make some people happy, but overall the quality of the disc is lacking. I was disappointed that there was very little effort put into restoring such a popular animated film, the transfers on both films are full of grain, dust, dirt, blotches, cigarette burns, and are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen. The Japanese version also suffers from some intense interlacing errors and aliasing which I didn’t notice in the English version, which leads me to believe they were taken from separate sources, despite the fact that Manga has stated that they come from original Japanese masters. The English version also has a softer feel, with a slightly less focused image. The majority of the problems were definitely inherent in the source material (outside the aforementioned problems with the Japanese version, which could very well have been side effects from a poor PAL to NTSC transfer). With a little TLC this could have been a much stronger release, but as it stands, this is about as good as we’re going to get. The English 5.1 mix is generally well done. It doesn’t really have any extreme highs or lows, but the sound is well separated, and has significant punch, but, again, the Japanese version suffers. Outside of occasional effects which overpower the mix (like the thunder in the opening scene) the Japanese 5.1 feels flat and lifeless. The score is barely audible much of the time, and character voices are poorly mixed, sounding very “tinny”. The English version is the clear winner here, which may anger purists, but as I stated above, the English track is vastly superior anyway.

So should you rush out and purchase? Well, that all depends on you, as shoddy as the transfer is, and the extras are non-existent, this is probably the best version of this film that Street Fighter fans are going to get. If you can park the ole brain, hell put it in reverse, and enjoy this one on the same level as other martial arts yukfests like Ong Bak or Fist of Legend, then, yeah, you’ll probably have a bit of fun with Street Fighter II. If you love the games or knew these characters intimately when the game was tearing up the arcade and Super Nintendo, then yeah, this flick is definitely for you. If you’re a total Street Fighter nutbar like me, well, I don’t have to tell you, you’ve got your copy pre-ordered already.

Film: 2 (out of 5)
DVD: 2.5 (out of 5)


Mitch said...

That's all well and good, but I want a review of Renegade, dammit!

SteveTP said...

Next week, i promise!

I have two very nearly finished reviews i have to put up on the sadly neglected Busted Controller, then i'll get to Renegade :)

And Pirates 2 was AWESOME!