First of all, let’s get this out of the way. Ryu and Ken don’t show up in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. Nor, for that matter, do most of the other characters from this classic fighting video game franchise’s 20-year history. Instead, this flick is all about the young female high kicker, Chun-Li, and her arch-nemesis, Bison.
For those of you who haven’t got the slightest clue what I’m talking about, let me start with our heroine’s origin story:
Chun-Li is a lovely girl who spent her childhood studying to be a concert pianist—and who happened to get a bit o’ Wushu martial arts training from Dad on the side. But none of those skills can help her when, in her teens, a Bangkok kingpin dubbed Bison shows up at her house and whisks her father away in the service of his nefarious plans. Chun-Li is crushed, but she soldiers on in order to take care of her sick mother. When Mom later passes away, the 20-year-old is left with nothing but emptiness—and rage.
That’s when an ancient-looking message arrives inviting her to seek out a mystic teacher who will train her to harness her inner power, forsake her anger and learn how to use The Force … uh, sorry, wrong story. But close. Chun-Li’s mentor, the enigmatic Gen, vows to help her become a mighty warrior with the power to foil the empire-building schemes of the villainous Bison.
Chun-Li is mindful of the innocents in her slum neighborhood as she battles Bison and his lackeys. When a child accidentally gets between her and some baddies with guns, she shields the youth and takes a bullet for him.
Gen instructs Chun-Li that she must not let anger consume or hinder her, but instead learn to be at peace with her life’s circumstances. The movie repeatedly reminds us that it is virtuous to “stand up when standing is not easy.”
Chun-Li’s father, who’s imprisoned by Bison, is sustained by news and photos of his growing daughter. Father and daughter repeatedly speak of their love for each other.
Ominous spiritualism infuses much of the film, especially Bison’s backstory. A flashback shows a horrific sacrificial ritual he performed on his pregnant wife. (More on that in “Violent Content.”)
Gen and Chun-Li engage in a mystic martial arts practice that generates a tangible ball of psychic energy that can be used as a weapon. When Gen performs footwork in the sand, his feet draw out a large yin-yang symbol. Gen’s Eastern mysticism is never explained in detail. It’s simply a given as part of his membership in a group known as the Order of the Web.
Throughout the movie, we glimpse the temples and roadside shrines that are common sights in its Thailand locale.
Bison unbuttons his pregnant wife’s shirt, revealing her stomach and the lower part of her breasts. At a dance club, a woman gazes lustfully at other females. Chun-Li dances seductively with her and lures her into the ladies’ room (where they fight). Chun-Li frequently wears low-cut tops as well.
A detective named Maya dresses provocatively, sporting cleavage-revealing shirts and tight outfits. In one scene, she wears nothing but a skirt and skimpy bra in front of fellow detective Nash. They kiss passionately as cover during a stakeout, and sexually tinged dialogue implies that they’ve been intimate.
Chun-Li and one of Bison’s female minions have a pummeling brawl in a restroom. The encounter involves exchanged blows to the face and body. They also smash each other’s heads into a stall door. Chun-Li eventually breaks both of the woman’s arms to get her to talk.
In another scene we see Bison working out, punching what we think is a heavy bag. When the camera pans back we see that it is a bloodied woman hanging by her wrists. Gen faces Bison’s muscle-bound henchman Balrog in a knock-down, drag-out fight. After Gen is beaten severely and chucked about the room, he defeats his enormous foe by belting him with a steam-belching pipe that melts Balrog’s face. A separate bone-crushing fight includes a man getting his neck snapped and his head twisted completely backwards as someone lands feetfirst on his face. Another man’s neck gets violently broken as well.
Chun-Li’s father fights off several assailants with bottles of alcohol that he smashes on their heads and forearms—igniting the contents in one blazing instance. An assassin called Vega lunges at Chun-Li with bladelike claws. She defends herself by cutting his face with a circular saw blade. We hear Bison’s enemies being murdered offscreen, then see all their severed heads lined up on dinner plates.
Arguably the film’s most horrifying violence revolves around Bison and his pregnant wife. After taking her to a dark cave, he lays her down on a flat rock and plunges his hands into her abdomen, ripping her unborn child from the womb. We see the gruesome act in shadowy silhouette. We’re told that the ritual transferred all of Bison’s goodness to the child, leaving Bison himself soulless and wholly evil. Needless to say, his wife doesn’t survive.
An f-word is silently mouthed once, and two s-words come through loud and clear. Other vulgarities include one or two uses each of “d–n,” “h—” and “b–ch.”
Thugs drink beer in an alleyway, and lots of mixed drinks are tossed back at a dance club. Bison toast his guests with a glass of champagne, then sits down to dinner with wine. Nash drinks a glass of Scotch.
In the early days of filmmaking, Hollywood generated lots of quick little action flicks. They only took a week to film on a backlot, a few guys with cowboy hats who could stay on their horses and a few more who were willing to fall off while wearing Indian wigs. It was a simple, cheap, crowd-pleasing affair that (sort of) made simplistic sense.
But something like Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li doesn’t make much sense at all.
Not only did it likely cost a pretty penny to ship cast and crew to Thailand to create this thing, it’s not like scores of people have been clamoring for another Street Fighter pic since Jean-Claude Van Damme’s last big-screen adaptation of the franchise 15 years ago. Sure, there are plenty of fans of the colorfully bombastic 2-D video game that kicked it all off. (And, yes, there’s a brand new game that’s just been released.) But even die-hard aficionados will find little to engage them in the latest formulaic, monotone rendition of the Street Fighter milieu.
Kristin Kreuk, fresh off her 10-year stint on TV’s Smallville, is reasonably compelling in her starring turn as Chun-Li. The rest of the cast, however, appears to have wanted little more than a chance to eat authentic Thai food and to sweat off a few pounds. Their performances—and the shallow story that surrounds them, for that matter—come off as an afterthought.
Add to that a lot of violent martial arts work, some surprisingly disturbing imagery involving a pregnant woman being sacrificed—not to mention the camera’s penchant for ogling female flesh—and what you’ve got is a miserable movie that should never have seen the light of a projector bulb.
So despite the movie title’s promise, there’s nothing legendary about Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li at all.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.