Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Street Fighter

Martial arts movies, like Westerns, are often judged on a different scale than most American movies.  Since most Martial Arts movies come from abroad, the plot is generally unimportant.  This is partially because all you really want to see is some awesome kung fu action, and partially because American dubbing is usually all but incomprehensible.  For instance, in The Street Fighter, there is a scene where the main character uses the phrase "mean and nasty" four times in under a minute.  I doubt that's an accurate translation.  Anyway, most of the time, viewers are willing to overlook a lame or nonexistent plot if the action is good.

To give you an idea of the quality of The Street Fighter's action, consider this: it received an X rating for violence.  Not sex.  Violence.  Granted, it was released in 1974 and times have changed, but there is at least one scene that will generate an audible response from you.  I'll give you a hint: bare-handed castration.  Awesome.  And, in some states, it would be completely justified.

The actual Japanese title for this movie is translated roughly as "Clash, Killer Fist!"  Apparently, the American producers didn't know awesomeness when they heard it.  I don't want to dwell on the convoluted plot, but Sonny Chiba plays Tsurugi, a mercenary, and he was hired to save a convict's life.  He does so with unique style, but is told by the convict's brother and sister that they don't have the money to pay for the service.  Being the bad-ass mofo he is, Tsurugi attacks the siblings; the end result is the brother dead and the sister sold into sexual slavery by Tsurugi.  What a twist!  Aside from that, Tsurugi is offered a job by the Yakuza and turns it down.  Aiiiieeee!!!  Thinking that he has too much information, the Yakuza try to kill Tsurugi; he then decides to join the "good" side just to spite the Yakuza.  Judo kick!  More stuff happens, I assure you, but the important thing to keep in mind here is that Tsurugi spends almost all of this movie fighting.  Good guys, bad guys, it doesn't matter as long as he can make them bleed.  Christian Slater explained it best in True Romance: Sonny Chiba isn't a good guy or a bad guy, just a mean mutha.

What really sets Sonny Chiba apart from other Martial Arts actors is his facial expressions.  Bruce Lee may have cornered the market on pure talent and his hilarious noises, but Chiba is light years ahead with his mean face.  It's hard to explain to someone who hasn't seen it firsthand, but whether Chiba is fighting street punks or an entire dojo, his facial expression is enough to make even the toughest foe ask, "Whoa, what's going on with this guy?"  He usually has the kind of smile you associate with someone that is about to eat your face off.  Oh, you still have a face?  Well, then consider this movie an investment in your continued survival.  You've got to learn these things sometimes.  Oh, and I'm pretty sure his eyes are a gateway to hell.  Maybe not the gateway, but definitely a gateway.

Another great thing about this movie is that it goes against the grain.  In most Martial Arts movies, something bad happens in the beginning.  The hero shows up, unable to help, and spends about forty minutes letting the story build until he decides to beat up every person he sees.  Here, Chiba doesn't wait around for the plot.  The plot is that he fights people.  I might not be exaggerating; the dubbing in the American version is so bad that recurring characters in the series have different names.  You could make a valid claim that the script is equally up for grabs.  Chiba isn't even the toughest guy in this film.  He gets beaten by a middle-aged guy with Kirby Puckett's body.  Chiba evens struggles against other people, too.  When you see Jet Li, Tony Jaa, or Bruce Lee fight in a movie, they are without peer.  Sure, some freak might give them a moment's pause, but they are never outmatched.  That vulnerability makes Chiba all the more appealing.  Who cares if he's not invincible?  He's still going to beat the snot out of you.

It's difficult to gauge director Shigehiro Ozawa's work here, since the translation is obviously terrible.  Ozawa directed this and the other Street Fighter movies that came out in 1974 (Return of the Street Fighter and The Street Fighter's Last Revenge), so he must have had something going for him.  At the very least, he knew when to tell Chiba to punch somebody in the face.

Now for the $64,000 question.  Is this a good movie?  Well, in Martial Arts terms, it is a clear classic; it is not cliche-ridden and introduces a new star.  In standard American movie terms?  Well, Sonny Chiba beats a lot of people up.  Aside from that, the movie is pretty hard to understand without multiple viewings.  So, no, it's not an immediately accessible film and it will not convert those that are not already fans of the genre.  That doesn't mean it's not awesome, though.

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