by HELEN GEIB
Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is a bad movie. It is not extravagantly bad, a still entertaining near-miss, or an interesting failure. It is simply one more shoddily constructed, commonplace, boring genre movie off the Hollywood assembly line.
The Legend of Chun-Li, written by Justin Marks and directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak, is the second spin-off movie from the “Street Fighter” video game series. The first, simply titled Street Fighter, was made back in 1994 and rivals The Quest as the weakest film Jean-Claude Van Damme headlined during his few years of A-list stardom. Street Fighter took the approach of embracing its inner silliness. The filmmakers clearly knew they had dopey material on their hands and were determined to milk the dopiness for all it was worth. They didn’t pull it off, but at least the film had its moments. I remember the mock sumo wrestling fight through the scale model of a great city (Tokyo, wasn’t it?) with particular fondness.
I won’t remember anything in The Legend of Chun-Li with fondness 15 years from now. Frankly, I doubt I’ll remember much at all about the film in another month, aside perhaps from Neal McDonough and Michael Clarke Duncan’s scene-stealing performances as, respectively, arch-villain Bison and his numero uno henchman Balrog.
The Legend of Chun-Li adopts the approach of taking its material seriously. This raises two major problems. First, the material is only intermittently serious; for example, heroine Chun-Li’s wish to be reunited with her kidnapped father or Bison’s prosaic master plan to drive down property values in Bangkok slum areas so he can buy them cheap and turn a profit building luxury condos. At other times the material is idiotic: senseless plot points; cringe-inducing faux-Eastern mysticism; supernatural powers that come out of nowhere and as suddenly disappear.
Second, Kristin Kreuk (from the television series “Smallville”) as Chun-Li is not able to handle the heavy dramatic lifting the serious parts of the film demand from her performance. She doesn’t show the range, intensity, or dynamism needed either to make Chun-Li’s character arc credible and interesting, or to distract the audience from the film’s many and obvious weaknesses.
Many flaws in plot and characterization can be forgiven in a video game movie with wall to wall action. This is not one of those movies. There isn’t nearly as much action as you’d reasonably expect from a “Street Fighter” spin-off and worse, most of what there is, isn’t very interesting. Kreuk’s performance in the fight scenes suggests she has dance or gymnastic training, but she is not able to simulate power. Her victories are frankly unbelievable. The action choreographer must bear much of the blame for this; the screenwriter also takes a share. Once the casting decision had been made, the fights should have been choreographed around Kreuk’s strengths and limitations and contextualized to exploit the supernatural power Chun-Li supposedly acquires during her training under mysterious mentor Gen (an almost expressionless Robin Shou). That did not happen.
McDonough and Duncan have the opposite problem to Kreuk’s. They simulate power very effectively, but not martial arts skill. As the two actors are practically the only bright spots in the film I cannot wish the casting had been different. Nevertheless, the necessity to constantly cut away from them during combat scenes in order to maintain the fiction their characters are martial arts adepts eviscerates the excitement and drama of what are plot-wise the film’s most significant fights.