If a man alters his path can he change his destiny...or only delay the inevitable? Based on one of the most recognised and beloved video game franchises in the world, Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist is the live-action origin story of iconic characters Ryu and Ken as they live a traditional warrior's life in secluded Japan. Unknowingly, the boys are the last practitioners of the ancient fighting style known as Ansatsuken (Assassin's Fist). During their time together they learn about the mysterious past of their master, Goken, and the dark, tragic legacy of the Ansatsuken style. Can their destiny be changed, or will history repeat itself? Delivering top-notch martial arts action and stunning visual effects, this is a must-see for all Street Fighter fans and action cinema lovers alike.
A new challenger appears! Thailand! Round One, Fight! Continue? 9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1! GAME OVER!!! Such are the battle cries of a childhood. If you grew up as a teenager or even a young child in the 90s, Street Fighter was the bee's knees. Mortal Kombat was great, sure. If you could find King of Fighters or Final Fight in your arcade, that was better. But you always went to Street Fighter, no matter what. Because every conceivable player type was in SF: muscle heads, sumo wrestlers, bodybuilders, boxers, martial artists and brawlers. They all looked amazing and unique. They had one player campaign storylines that had to do with settling scores and/or testing themselves. If you were good enough to make it to the end (only once for this player) the satisfaction of beating the final challenger stayed with you like a warm afterglow, a badge of honour that nobody could take away from you. Street Fighter fans are united all over the world. Say one of their fighter's catchphrases, a smile breaks over their face. However, say a line from one of the adaptations of the franchise in filmed form, a different look is on their faces. Its not a secret that Street Fighter films are not always faithful nor fun. If you remove the campiness or Raul Julia performance as Bison (and by God, its great) then the 1994 film is a by the numbers actioner. It does have Kylie Minogue but shes not everyones cup of tea. The anime version of Street Fighter is an amazing tour de force with lightning fast action, great one liners and a great final fight. The Legend of Chun Li is god awful or so Ive been told and the TV show titled Street Fighter II V is a continuation of the game series storyline in that it takes place before the first Street Fighter II game. And then theres this: Assassins Fist. Offspring of a proof of concept film short and after successfully finding the funding through private backers, the film was broken into 12 shorts running 11-12 minutes each. After a well received launch on Youtube and Machinima.com, the film in its original form now runs a staggering 2 hours and 26 minutes long. Telling the story of how Ryu and Ken both came to live and train with their master Goken, it also tells the story of the birth of major series antagonist Akuma and sets the stage for his quarrel with them.
When games are adapted into films, they can go two ways: total adherence to the source material (Halo:Forward Unto Dawn, Tekken: Blood Vengeance, Mortal Kombat) or totally loose (oh, any of Uwe Bolls video game adaptations, Legend of Chun Li). Either way is perilous but you can always tell when someone really cant be bothered to even reference back to the game. So where does Assassins Fist sit? Faithful to almost a fault, with a blinding strength to start fresh and clean the slate for future stories.
Telling Ryu and Kens origin story cant be easy and telling their story with Goken is doubly hard. The characters have been rebooted, remixed and given so many more details over the years that finding a point and saying "A-ha! Now we can begin!" is fraught with disaster. Starting in 1987 and jumping from the mid-1940s to the late 50s and back again, we begin to understand why Ryu is such a rigid practitioner of his masters teachings and why Ken came to have a brush with the dark side and ultimately why he and his brother are the best of friends. Ken is so angry and rash, initially, that it takes Ryu to convince him to stay and finish his training. Ryu for his part doesnt want to battle his brother as instructed by his master but as he learns why his master adapted the fighting style of Goutetsu, he embraces the challenge and realises that he can battle an opponent without malice in his heart. As the months drift into years, the boys have their share of moments where they could fall off the wagon (they sneak away to a local bar and proceed to batter an entire squad of American soldiers unconscious, Ken discovering Akumas notebook in the dojo) but each time their master pulls them back from the brink and instills in them the idea of being empty of emotion and purpose and using that to channel their qi (life energy). There are a grand total of seven main characters in the film and thats it. The bar nighttime scene is the most people you see in this story. All the dialogue, fighting and flashbacks happen in isolation, away from civilisation. Its implied in the backstory that the dojo where they live is isolated but accessible to the outside world but that Goutetsus dojo is really remote, high in the mountains. This lends a satisfying logic as to why Ken and Ryu know nothing of the outside world save that they learn from their master and Kens early upbringing. This contrasts with the sad tale of how and why Gokens brother, Goki, became the man known as Akuma and how their master tried in vain to stop him from slipping into darkness. Its all the more tragic when we see both men lose the same girl, Sayaka, for different reasons: one walks away from her and she walks away from the other. All the while, I never got the sense that Akuma was evil in the stock villain style. He follows a different path, one that takes him away from and then on a collision course with that of his brother. Physically imposing, Akuma says little and gives away even less. In that regard, Goken is like him: he doesnt want his students to follow in Akumas path but he treads a fine line as to what to tell them, letting them in on little bits and pieces until finally telling them the final, horrible truth at the centre of his life with his brother. Throughout it all, he maintains a good disposition with his students and with himself at the end of the film where all the events he has endured have led him to this.
Mike Moh as Ryu and Christian Howard as Ken work so well as a team, they harken back to how they were played in the anime version: not enemies, good friends and even better rivals. At times, Ken displays self confidence that it borders on arrogance (sorry, Star Trek) but never foolishness. He can show off but he has something to back it up. Ryu is the definition of quiet: reserved, shy, unsure of how far to go in his training or demeanour. He starts off being the confident one against Kens showboating but as he gets better at his training, he starts to worry at the awesome and terrible power he carries in him. Only through his masters teachings and guidance do we see how Ryu becomes the silent, capable, gentle soul he is in the games and spin offs. Akira Koieyama as Goken is a mountain of impassiveness, with no way in except in how he delivers his performance. A good natured character, his earlier life (where he is portrayed by actor Shogen) belies the man he transforms into and who takes on these two boys who dont look like much to the outside world but who work so hard to prove themselves in his eyes. Gaku Space as Gouki is not arrogant which is how I took him on the first viewing but driven, if not craves, to perfect his masters teaching of Ansatsuken. His fall from grace comes not from something he said or did to another but what he did to himself. Practising Dark Hado is literally killing him on the inside but he moves on. When he transforms himself into Akuma, it is a total transformation, he physically, mentally and psychologically changes as his own teachings on what makes a warrior take over. So when he surpasses Goutetsu and takes his beads, its because he really did follow all of Ansatsukens teachings not just the ones Goutetsu hand picked for his students. Director Joey Ansah portrays Akuma and brings a lethal presence to proceedings.
The action is well put together and looks solid with hits, punches and kicks looking like they land with force. While a lot of Ryu and Kens signature moves are on display (yes, all of them), the martial arts skills on display look grounded and real with three main actors (Moh, Howard and Ansah) not having any stunt doubles because of the limited amount of money in the project. Camera work has an immediate feel to it and while the dialogue scenes could use a bit of sprucing up, they work since the dialogue itself leans towards functional rather than flourish. Little bits and pieces make up the background of the film. The boys play MegaMan on a NES console. The main musical theme of the film is the menu music from the original Street Fighter II game. Togo Igawa who plays Goutetsu in the film also plays Goma, a homeless man who constantly belittles Ken for being foreign and not as good as Ryu. Kens father is a friend of Goken and Kens mother was Japanese, making him half Japanese. So as well as getting references in from Capcom, the film pays homage to the games, manga and spin offs without making them part of the overall story.
The blu ray from Manga UK has some excellent behind the scenes and a multi-part making of documentary. Outtakes, deleted scenes (which include a reference to Dan!) and a commentary track from Joey Ansah round it out. Amazingly, there are subtitles for all the Japanese language moments in the film but no subtitles for the English dialogue! I dont know what to think of that since the audio itself is only stereo and its a film with a lot of cast members for whom English is not a primary language.
Assassins Fist does something for Street Fighter fans that no other adaptation could do: it doesnt treat the source material as something to be managed but something to be inspired by. Other than diehard fans, nobody outside the circle would know about Akuma or Goken or even how Ken and Ryu are friends. In the live action Street Fighter movie (1994) they just are friends, no reason is given. Here, we see them grow up as young boys and then men struggling to finish their training without having to give in to the quick and easy methods. Joey Ansah and producer Jacqueline Quella have stated that they hope to start working on the World Warrior arc this time next year with a hope to releasing it in 2016. If World Warrior is half as good as Assassins Fist, it is looking good for Street Fighter fans at long last.
If readers would like to know more about the making of the film, Kung-fu Kingdom did a series of wonderful interviews with the entire cast of Assassin's Fist which you can access here.