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Saturday, April 1, 2017

Obscusion B-Side: Street Fighter vs. The King of Fighters: Live & Let Die and Go for Broke, for This is Gonna be a Match to Remember!

Like any great rivalry, Capcom & SNK has had a very symbiotic relationship. After all, 1984's Vulgus, Capcom's first arcade game, was distributed in North America by SNK. Similarly, after co-creating Street Fighter in 1987, Takashi Nishiyama & Hiroshi Matsumoto left Capcom to join SNK, where they started that company's status as a legendary fighting game developer by creating Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, & The King of Fighters, among others. Finally, SNK's return to relevance recently was lead by Yasuyuki Oda, who directed KOF XIV & was previously worked with Capcom as battle designer for Street Fighter IV  (not to mention worked with the original SNK before that). That's why it only made sense when the companies teamed together to produced the Capcom vs. SNK & SNK vs. Capcom games from 1999-2003 (& 2006); it was seemingly destiny for the twain to meet. That being said, the first Capcom vs. SNK, outside of the (hidden) inclusion of Morrigan Aensland & Nakoruru, was literally just "Street Fighter vs. The King of Fighters"...

And that's how you do a segue!

What about Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, you ask?
There's a simple answer to that.............

Naturally, with the success of both Street Fighter II & The King of Fighters, live-action movie adaptations were made. First up was Street Fighter, which came out on December 23, 1994 and was written & directed by Steven E. de Souza. King of Fighters wouldn't see a film adaptation until August 31, 2010 & it was directed by Gordon Chan. Street Fighter is the much more well known of the two due to it being given a wide theatrical release internationally, plus a cartoon series sequel & two wildly different fighting game adaptations (one by Incredible Technologies & the other by Capcom). King of Fighters, on the other hand, received theatrical releases in Canada & Japan, but went straight-to-video elsewhere. Both are intensely ridiculed to this day, so why am I pitting them against each other?

Because it's April Fools' Day, & what better way to have fun on a (not actually a) holiday about playing jokes on people than to continue Capcom & SNK's absolute rivalry by having it's two live-action movies fight to the death, to determine which one stands tall in victory!

Round 1... Ready?... Fight!

Street Fighter takes place entirely in the fictional country of Shadaloo (which is shown early on a map to simply be Myanmar/Burma), which is in the middle of a war between the forces of General M. Bison & the soldiers of the Allied Nations lead by Colonel William F. Guile. Said war is been covered by GNT reporter Chun-Li Zang & her crew of videographer G. Balrog & technician E. Honda, all three of which have secret personal vendettas against Shadaloo. Meanwhile, Ken Masters & Ryu Hoshi try to pull a false weapons deal one night in Shadaloo City with Victor Sagat, who sells weapons to Bison, only to wind up being arrested along with everyone else during a raid by Guile. Guile, wanting a mole to infiltrate Bison's headquarters to locate his base, hires Ken & Ryu to help Sagat break out of jail & enter Bison's headquarters. Similarly, Chun-Li & her crew try to ruin Sagat's weapons deal, only to get captured & taken to Bison's HQ. The rest of the story takes place here, culminating in a giant assault on Bison's base by Guile's AN forces.

The King of Fighters focuses on a mysterious tournament where competitors put on earpieces when called that transport them to an alternate dimension so that they can do battle. Mai Shiranui is an agent who's competing in the tournament under orders from the CIA. Unbeknownst to her & partner Terry Bogard is the secret behind the tournament, where Rugal Bernstein once tried to claim the power of Orochi 10 years ago so that he could fused both dimensions together & be "The King of Fighters", only to be stopped by Chizuru Kagura, Iori Yagami, & Saisyu Kusanagi. After Rugal effectively takes over the tournament, resulting in the brainwashing of two fighters (Mature & Vice) to act as his assistants & the deaths of many of the competitors, Mai, Chizuru, & Iori eventually take on the help of Kyo, the son of Saisyu who initially knows nothing about his father's involvement with Orochi.

Winner: The King of Fighters
Though I'll get to the actual execution of the plots later on, from an utterly simplistic story synopsis perspective, it's easy to see that Street Fighter is a heavily convoluted plot that tries to shove way too many characters into it (& I didn't even list about half of the cast!), while The King of Fighters stays conceptually simple, if it a bit too "high-concept" for its own good. Therefore, the win here goes to KOF.

Lead Character:
I'm changing things up a little here, as instead of lumping all of the characters together like prior Vs. Battles, I'm splitting it up in three here, starting with the leads. Street Fighter stars Jean Claude Van Damme as Guile, who was essentially Capcom's only pick from the very start of pre-production. Yes, this means that "All-American" Guile is played by a Belgian, but at the very least it's obvious that JCVD gives the role the absolute best he can. While his Belgian accent is too heavy to hide, Van Damme says all his lines just fine, & is even one of only two people to actually pronounce Ryu's name correctly. JCVD takes command of every scene that he's in, and while he has a stupid moment or two here & there (the only reason his captured friend "Charlie" Blanka is chosen to be experimented on by Bison is because he said his name while talking with Bision, prompting Charlie to visually respond), Van Damme still gives Guile more than enough charm & personality when needed. Hey, all I'm saying is that if I was in the military & this guy was my commanding officer, I'd have no problem following his orders. Sure, it's Jean Claude Van Damme hamming it up a bit at times, and he's most definitely a bit of a tone deaf casting pick from Capcom, but at least it's JCVD being entertaining, and that's what counts here.

KOF, on the other hand, tries to reinvent Kyo Kusanagi to an extent by casting Sean Faris, who at this point was (& may still be) best known as Jake Tyler in Never Back Down. Yes, Faris was not a Japanese person by any means (he's 100% European in heritage), but at least the movie bothered to explain this take by having him be half-Japanese; Iori even calls him a "half-breed" at one point. Sadly, the movie also tried to have it both ways, as flashbacks showing a childhood Kyo featured Keanu Lam, who definitely is of Asian heritage, with the end result being that viewers are seemingly supposed to believe that Kyo stopped being Asian-looking after puberty. Getting back on track, Kyo in this movie is portrayed as having no real knowledge of his clan's heritage & legacy, outside of "fairy tales" he was told as a child. Faris plays this variant of Kyo about as well as he can, playing up the confusion inherent in being suddenly told about alternate dimensions, his fairy tales being real, & being given the chance to get revenge on Rugal, as he was ultimately the one responsible for putting Saisyu into a nearly vegetative state for 10 years. Luckily, Faris never goes into "emo" territory, and his general snarkiness towards a lot of the stuff early on is entertaining.

Winner: Street Fighter
Now, to be fair, Sean Faris isn't outright terrible as Kyo... He's just greatly miscast, and tries his best to make it work. Granted, Jean Claude Van Damme is also wildly miscast as Guile, but he more than makes up for it by playing up his character to such an enjoyable degree that you can excuse him not being "All-American".

Facing off against JCVD in Street Fighter is Raúl Juliá, who played M. Bison in his final role, as he died two months before SF's debut, after a stroke induced by a battle with stomach cancer. Juliá, knowing that he may only have one more film role left in him, though he was originally intended to play Bucho in 1995's Desperado, let his children pick the movie. To many people, a role like Bison was well below the quality of an actor as respected & adored as Juliá, but at the same time Juliá was too much of a sheer professional to do nothing less than his absolute best; he even researched historical dictators & watched video of the likes of Hitler & Mussolini. The end result is easily the greatest performance in the entire movie, & probably to many still the ideal portrayal of the man known as Vega in Japan. A maniacal leader who truly believes that his crazed plans will bring about world peace, Juliá truly acted as though he had become a man who seemingly believed that things like love & compassion were in fact evil, & that he was a god among men. But, most importantly, you can tell that Raúl Juliá was having fun in his final role. This was for his children, so he gave it his all, even while in a heavily weakened state, and the end result is a performance so magnificent that even those who vehemently abhor this movie will admit that Raúl Juliá knocked it out of the park.

Now, to be fair, nothing should be taken away from The King of Fighters in this category, as it too has a truly psychotic & memorable villain in the form of Ray Park's Rugal Bernstein. In a movie where everyone is either very serious or at least somewhat (understandably) snarky, Rugal is 250% ham. This results in a villian who is, by far, the most memorable character in the story, and Ray Park commands every scene he's in. Sure, he doesn't hide his Scottish accent all too much, but every single line that comes from his mouth sounds completely vile & with ill intent; this Rugal takes pleasure in the torture & suffering of others. It also helps greatly that, since it's Ray Park, he does all of his own stunts, helping add a strong feeling of credibility that Rugal is a force to be reckoned with. In fact, I don't recall seeing a single moment where Rugal actually seems to suffer a definitive defeat. Sure, since he's the villain it's obvious that he loses in the end, but even then it isn't because any of the main characters were better fighters than him. Truly, this Rugal was The King of Fighters.

Winner: Draw
Look, while I am sadly not familiar with the rest of Raúl Juliá's oeuvre, I do know that he was highly respected, highly beloved, & so immensely talented. This is why his take on M. Bison in Street Fighter is so outstanding & glorious. At the same time, though, if Ray Park is acting in a film, then there's a good chance that he might be the best, if even only good, part in the movie. This is also true for The King of Fighters, and it's honestly worth watching it just to see Ray Park be crazy. Seriously, I can't choose between Juliá's Bison & Park's Rugal, & I don't think I want to.

Supporting Cast:
Street Fighter has an enormously massive supporting cast, primarily due to the fact that Capcom demanded that every single playable character in Street Fighter II be in the movie; the only exception is Fei Long. Because of that, there's a wild mix of those who get a lot of focus, & those who get very little to work with. Easily taking the spot of co-star, after Raúl Juliá, is Ming-Na Wen (Mulan ni Mulan, Melinda May in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), who plays Chun-Li probably the most naturally of the entire cast; tons of personality & lots to like with her. Other relatively solid performances come from Byron Mann as Ryu, Miguel A. Núñez Jr. as Dee Jay, Peter Tuiasosopo as E. Honda, & Grand L. Bush as Balrog, most of whom at least do resemble their characters & have their moments (especially Núñez). Then there are those who at least tried, like Kylie Minogue as Cammy, Wes Studi as Sagat, Jay Tavare as Vega, & Damian Chapa as Ken, but otherwise don't really do much else. Then we have Kenya Sawada, who plays Captain Sawada (Fei Long's replacement, essentially). Capcom shoved this Japanese actor into the film with plans to make him a big star with the company... And that went nowhere, especially when he barely did anything in this movie. Hell, even Capcom's actual development staff poked fun at Sawada, making him a seppuku-committing joke character in the console fighting game.

Without a doubt, though, the MVP of SF's cast is Andrew Bryniarski (Butterfinger in Hudson Hawk, Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre [2003]), whose Zangief is simply outstanding. Sure, the actual video game character isn't anywhere near as dimwitted as his movie counterpart is, but Bryniarski simply nails everything to perfection here. He looks the part, looks intimidating when need be, & delivers some of the most memorable & quotable lines with aplomb. Sorry, Zangief, but I refuse to "change the channel" when Andrew Bryniarski plays you.

In comparison, KOF's supporting cast is rather tight & small, which is an initial benefit. While Kyo is technically the main character, he more or less share the spotlight with Mai, who is played by Maggie Q (Mai Linh in Live Free or Die Hard, Nikita in Nikita). She plays her role rather well, & at least she has Asian heritage to make her a semi-believable Mai; she has performed in numerous Chinese films, at least. Probably the best actor overall is Will Yun Lee (Kenuichio Harada in The Wolverine, Wei Shen in Sleeping Dogs), whose Iori has enough nuance, emotion, & personality behind it. Another rather fun performance is from David Leitch, a stuntman & action director who plays Terry with all of the snark & deniability that such a preposterous plot inherently has (I'll get to his accuracy, like everyone else, later). Two more fitting picks are Monique Ganderton & Bernice Liu as Mature & Vice, who pair together excellently as the (seemingly) lesbian lovers; in fact, Liu apparently wanted a role in the film because she's a big fan of KOF. That leaves Françoise Yip & Hiro Kanagawa as Chizuru & Saisyu, respectively, who are just fine in their roles, if nothing else.

Winner: Street Fighter
While KOF's supporting cast is overall solid, very few really stand out; it's really just Will Yun Lee & David Leitch. SF's supporting cast, though insanely bloated & featuring some substandard performances, more than makes up for it by having a lot of rather memorable performances, especially by the likes of Ming-Na Wen & Miguel A. Núñez Jr.. Honestly, though, Andrew Bryniarski alone is enough to give SF the win here, because he's right up there with Van Damme & Juliá as a scene-stealer.

Street Fighter's score was done by Graeme Revell, who worked on the likes of The Crow, From Dusk till Dawn, & Titan A.E.. In traditional Hollywood fashion, Revell goes for a highly orchestral execution, which definitely helps give everything a strong dramatic feel. While none of the music matches the feel of the Street Fighter II soundtrack, it honestly would have felt a bit awkward if it did. Instead, Revell's direction matches the militaristic-style battle between the AN & Bison's forces. Luckily, there are some really memorable productions, like the main theme itself or when Guile delivers his rousing speech to finally start the last assault on Bison's HQ. Going alongside Revell's score is a selection of licensed songs from artists like Ice Cube, MC Hammer feat. Deion Sanders, Angelique Kidjo, & The Pharcyde, which is kind of standard for a Hollywood-produced film. Easily the most interesting licensed use is that of "Something There" by Chage & Aska, which acts as the main ending theme of the movie & would also be included in the console video game. There's just such a stark difference in sound between Chage & Aska and the rest of the licensed artists, and that helps make "Something There" feel all the more special here.

Being an international co-production, it's not too surprising that The King of Fighters was scored by a Japanese composer, in this case Tetsuya Takahashi. Not to be confused with the Monolith Soft founder of the same name (the kanji for "ya" is different), Takahashi has scored various anime like the Appleseed CG movies, Halo Legends, & all of the Marvel Anime productions. Compared to the more standard orchestral fare of Revell, Takahashi's score for KOF really sounds more like an anime soundtrack, with a stronger focus on music that matches the mood & feel of the scene, especially during the fights. While also not adapting any of the actual music from the franchise, Takahashi's battle music is always very energetic, intense, & (for lack of a better word) epic. That being said, there is a bit of an awkwardness in hearing what sounds like an anime soundtrack when you see actual people moving about & fighting. Whether or not it works is really going to come down to personal taste, but I do find it interesting to see it actually done like this, without a doubt.

Winner: Draw
Really, this is simply a case of clashing ideologies & cultures, to an extent. Graeme Revell's score is admittedly kind of traditional in that "Hollywood=Orchestral" fashion, but there are at least two really memorable songs to be found, & the inclusion of a Chage & Aska song at the end clashes so hard that you can't forget it. Tetsuya Takahashi's soundtrack, on the other hand, is much more eclectic for a live-action movie & helps their individual scenes out better on the whole. Admittedly, I can't exactly remember any songs off the top of my head, but that's partially because I've only seen King of Fighters twice, while I've seen Street Fighter multiple more times, so it's only natural that I'd remember some of its soundtrack after the fact. I don't want nostalgia affecting my judgment too much, though, so I'm calling it a draw due to sheer difference in style.

Overall Execution:
For Street Fighter, it was easy for Steven E. de Souza to follows his writer's vision, as he was also the man who penned the movie. He almost infamously had to write the initial draft in a single night, as Capcom reps were coming on short notice. While this was de Souza's first time directing, he was already a highly regarded scriptwriter, having been behind the pen for fan favorites like Commando, Die Hard, The Running Man, & the Cadillacs & Dinosaurs TV series. Still, having to make a movie based off of a video game with little to not real story (at the time), while having to include (nearly) every single character from said game, is no easy task, so he instead did two things. First, he put the focus on Guile & Chun-Li's own vendettas against Bison, which are admittedly more appealing from a storytelling perspective than focusing on Ryu's aimless world trekking to learn more; if I want that, then I can watch the awesome Street Fighter II Movie. Second, he made sure to not take everything too seriously, giving it a purposefully kitschy feel.

de Souza admits this execution in his commentary track for the movie, and it's really what makes the film work as well as it does. Yes, the movie's troubled production has been covered in great depth, and for some people they either just won't understand that it's purposefully supposed to be a bit silly at points (which de Souza actually calls out in the commentary) or they just won't care (for reasons I'll get to shortly). Still, Street Fighter aims to be a fun action movie, with a focus on personalities & some silliness mixed in.

On the other side of the Pacific, Gordon Chan was a more than acknowledged Hong Kong director by the time he directed King of Fighters, though his only notable film to most people internationally would be 2003's The Medallion, which starred Jackie Chan. Therefore, it's no surprise that Chan decided to go with a strong martial arts flavor for this film. Whereas Street Fighter only has some minor flourishes of fighting until the climax, when multiple fights occur at once, King of Fighters has numerous battles throughout the entire running time, starting right at the beginning when Mai fights (a white) Mr. Big. With David Leitch also assisting as action designer & stunt coordinator, the fights are really the best parts of KOF. While the plot itself isn't handled poorly, it is rather vague on a lot of things, like why exactly there's another dimension in the first place (Orochi could have been sealed any other way). Kyo's subplot of becoming a proper inheritor of the Kusanagi lineage is done well enough, but this is really a film about the fights, & the choreography is the high point, without a doubt.

Winner: Street Fighter
As much as The King of Fighters is the better film from an actual fighting aspect, which is kind of the point of movies based on fighting games, there's no doubt that Street Fighter's purposefully fun & sometimes silly execution works out better from a simple enjoyability perspective.

Still, both of these films are highly derided because, like many video game adaptations, they aren't really all too accurate to their respective fighting games. That being said, however, which one is more accurate & feature more references? Street Fighter nails some basic character backstories down, like Charlie being Guile's friend & harmed (in some way) by Bison, Chun-Li's father having been killed by Bison, & Ryu & Ken having learned from the same sensei. There's also some attention to detail when it comes to their looks, especially by the end. Zangief has the various scars all over his body, Honda eventually winds up with facial cuts that resemble his face paint, Ryu & Ken don white & red gi, Sagat has a giant scar on his chest, etc. As for the references, there are plenty, like the artwork from Honda's bathhouse stage being on the wall in Bison's training room, & Bison blowing up water mines using part of a SFII arcade cabinet. Even a small number of moves from the game were included, like Guile's Flash Kick, Bison's Psycho Crusher (minus the rotation), Honda's Hundred Hand Slap, & Ryu's Hadouken (kind-of-sort-of). Sure, none of this is much in the grand scheme of the movie's totality, but at least it's something.

The King of Fighters has some accuracy to it, primarily in the lore of the iconic Orochi Saga. The basic backstory of Orochi having been sealed away by the ancestors of Kyo, Iori, & Chizuru is there, and even some individual aspects of the characters are showcased, like Chizuru being able to create mirror images of herself or Iori being tempted by the power of Orochi (similar to the Riot of the Blood). Rugal wanting the power of Orochi is also accurate for the most part, right down to him having a red eye when in the alternate dimension. Vice & Mature, while not fighting like their game counterparts, really are the most accurate depictions, & Terry (though nothing like his counterpart) does don a red jacket & Fatal Fury hat when in the alternate dimension. Sadly, though, this is really it, other than a short bit where Vice is forced into inviting other fighters to take on Rugal (to their deaths), which include Shermie, Ramon, & Duo Lon; none of them are actually shown, though. Hell, Rugal is the one who throws out flames during some attacks, instead of Kyo or Iori. It really does feel more "in name only" of an adaptation, than anything.

Winner: Street Fighter
Yes, it's not much of a victory, since neither film is really accurate to their source material, but Street Fighter at least still makes an effort to stay visually accurate & feature call backs and references. I appreciate that King of Fighters does utilize some of the Orochi Saga lore for its backstory, since it's a fairly minor detail that could have been ignored, but that's really it when it comes to paying respect to the fighting game franchise on an accuracy level.
So, after this long & epic battle, our winner is Street Fighter with a score of 6-3! Yes, neither film is accurate to their respective games, and most will argue that neither film is necessarily "good", but Street Fighter has the better lead character, the more enjoyable supporting cast, pays more attention to respecting its source, & overall is way more fun to watch. The King of Fighters does have a more focused story, it's villain is just as enjoyable as SF's in terms of scene-stealing glory, & the music is very fitting, but what really kills it in this fight is that it's both not all too focused on paying respect to the original game series & it takes itself way too seriously for way too long; Terry's cynicism is usually a welcome bit of levity, though. Still, if you want more action, then KOF is there for you, & both are honestly fun to watch, even if some feel its in spite of themselves. Personally, though, I love Street Fighter, & re-watching it again for this Vs. Battle just reaffirmed how much fun I get from it.

Happy April Fool's!

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