The video game has had a rather dubious history in the world of film. On the by and large, they have been critically hammered and, with a few exceptions, generally offer less than stellar box office receipts. Of particular note, and the focus of this piece, is the fighting game adaptation. As a fan of martial arts cinema, as well as no small number of fighting games, it has always eluded me as to the reason why these two worlds have never been able to combine for an entertaining cinematic experience that does justice to the source material many gamers love and devote hours upon hours playing and learning. Like many fans of popular culture, the fighting game aficionado develops a strong connection to the characters and stories to which they give their time. It seems like a personal insult when an outsider (ie. The film industry) takes a beloved franchise which results in an unsatisfying film and everyone comes out unhappy. But why is this so? It is easy to just say that filmmakers have no interest in preserving the integrity of the original property. This may be true to certain degree, after all, they are only in it to make money. However, from my extensive movie viewings and experience in gaming, I’ve been able to distinguish some correlations between fighting games and their film adaptations which seem to nearly always result in poor filmmaking.
The Tournament Format of Fighting Games Does Not Give Ample Material For A Story Driven Film
Fighting games are generally a simple genre on the surface. Basically, two fighters enter a stage and proceed to drain the life bar of the opponent in order to advance to the next stage and opponent. While variations exist; like partners, assists, and tagging, this format is generally recognizable and simple enough for even non-gamers to grasp the concept. This simplicity, however, is the main flaw from a storytelling standpoint. While having continual fight scenes may seem like a great idea on paper, it nonetheless weakens the story and in turn, the very characters of the property. Without any kind of investment in the story, the audience will never root for the characters on screen. The greatest film heroes earn your support and make you want to see them succeed. Characters like John McClane and Indiana Jones go through trials in which the audience gets to know them and their victories turn into our own. They have developed identities that make the film engaging and more relatable. The tournament system in fighting games simply does not leave much for story and characters to develop. “But characters HAVE developed storylines in the games!” some may argue. This can be true, especially with certain franchises that have been around for decades, but this brings me to my next point.
There Are Too Many Characters In the Game
There is some deep history which exists between characters in fighting games. Relationships such as between Ryu/Ken/Akuma/Gouken in the Street Fighter series and the Mugen Tenshin Ninja Clan in the Dead or Alive series are seemingly great fodder for filmmaking, and offer deep characterizations and motivation for the fighters, but they are simply too focused on too small a number of actual characters in the games. A large character roster is seen as a very favorable attribute in any decent fighting game. Diverse characters and moves offer a variety of ways to play the game and innumerable strategies to devise and many gamers can affirm that much thought goes into the selection of a character or team. This choice, however, actually hurts a film’s outlook. With so many gamers out there, odds are that the character you use in-game is not who your opponent will select as their own. As each character has their own backstory and motivations, studios run the risk of alienating possible viewers should they choose to not feature your favorite character. While a smaller group of characters could be done among a smaller storyline thread, these ‘character interactions’ generally do not occur within the context of a tournament, or have a believable way of tying to it as such. A prime example is the horribly campy adaptation, Street Fighter (1993). Reportedly, writers were told to include EVERY character, and what resulted was a sloppily written and overbearing cast to go with a simple and generic plot. Also, new installments of franchises introduce new characters frequently, in many cases retconning character relationships and histories. This makes the use of these characters extremely difficult as well. If you are seeing a character you love on screen, you want him/her to be well represented and acted too right? Well, that brings me to my next point.
There are No Good Martial Artist/Actors Working in Film Today
Okay, that’s not really true, but the calibre of actor most people want for fighting game adaptations, just isn’t going to happen. Actors like Donnie Yen are not going to spend their time on a film like this when they are able to produce and develop projects of their own. The landscape of martial arts in film has changed drastically in the time fighting games have been around. Gone are the days of actors having years, even decades of training in fighting arts. What seems lamentably easier these days is to use effects work and aim to give the ‘appearance’ of proficiency. Actors are few and far between willing to take of the mantle of fighter and punish their bodies so. It is just a safer bet to let effects do the heavy lifting these days, if you want to have a longer career anyway. There are a few young guns out there; Tony Jaa, Nicholas Tse, Stephen Fung, Jeeja Yanin, and others who have experience or are working to develop into true action stars, but unfortunately, typically great martial arts ability does not help acting ability. If I have to hear one more time about how Tony Jaa needs to find something lost or stolen, I just may as well mute the film. In the end, talent with your fists does not guarantee a good film.
Typically, it is a combination of the points or all three that keep a good fighting game adaptation from hitting the screen. Now there have been some passable films, most notably Mortal Kombat, directed by Paul W. S. Anderson. It featured solid fight scenes, good design, and a generally authentic re-telling of the game’s story. While missing some key elements that made the game stand out at arcades (gore and fatalities), it was an entertaining and successful film. Though the sequel pretty much ruined any momentum the first film generated, the first Mortal Kombat feature is generally considered to be one of the best video game live action adaptations. The much more recent web series, Mortal Kombat Legacy, is something I also consider to be pretty successful; it lays groundwork for characters, features solid choreography, and is instantly identifiable to fans of the game series. Indeed, the episodic format may be better for this incarnation of the franchise, Mortal Kombat Conquest not withstanding. Animated films have fared a bit better in the visual medium, particularly with anime. The Street Fighter franchise’s animated films and series are generally successful, though accuracy to source material and quality of work vary from project to project. Somewhat better received was the recent Tekken Blood Vengeance CG film. Featuring some beautiful animation and pretty inventive action choreography, it is a marvel to see. It does have its weak points though, particularly the hackneyed ‘Scooby Doo-esque’ mystery subplot and ridiculous use of animals. While fighting panda bears and velociraptors with boxing gloves may be a part of the Tekken canon, I really don’t want to see it outside of gameplay or the short intro and ending sequences. It is the kind of stuff that works against a good adaptation.
In the end, is there any hope for a good film based on a fighting game? One would think no, but I honestly have some optimism for the future. As fan projects such as Street Fighter X Tekken Legacy and Mortal Kombat Rebirth have shown, the community at large has a great passion for these properties and want to see it come to life. One need only to look at the caliber of superhero films to see that we are in the golden age of comic book films. The people producing these pictures, the Joss Whedons, Kevin Feiges, and the Mark Millars, grew up loving these characters and now find themselves with the ability to do it right. Considering the relative young age of fighting games, I predict that in the years to come, there will be a a film that will be produced that will be embraced by fans, as well as the public at large. The story and history that has developed because of the fans love deserves to be shared and cheers to the person or persons that can make it so.
Cesar Alejandro Jr. currently runs Taskmaster/She-Hulk/Dormammu in UMvC3, Hakan in SSFIV, and Dragunov in Tekken.
Here are some notable fighting game to film adaptations and quick reasons why they didn’t work:
[one_half]Future Cops (1993) – This HK actioner features some of Hong Kong’s biggest stars and one would expect the action film capital of the world to get something like this right. Well, while in production, Capcom pulled the license allowing use of their characters but that didn’t stop the generally popular but terrible filmmaker Wong Jing from finishing the movie anyway. Character loyalties are switched, (Andy Lau as Vega/Claw is the main hero!) and names are altered for legal reasons; Ken became Kent, M. Bison became General, E. Honda became Toyota, and Sagat became Thai King among other elements. Also, that is a Son Goku down there at the bottom of the picture.
DOA: Dead or Alive (2006) – Especially among gamers, the Dead or Alive series is probably known for one main element; beautiful ladies. This Corey Yuen directed film certainly has plenty of that going on and Yuen’s choreography is actually pretty solid despite many of the actresses not having a background in martial arts. For the most part, characters actually look the part though more than a few get pushed to the background and have little screen time. I’m a Lei Fang user myself and she doesn’t even get any lines! A guilty pleasure of sorts, one can’t deny Kane Kosugi’s pretty badass one man assault sequence, though Eric Robert using sunglasses to fight loses your goodwill quickly.
Avenging Fist (2001) – This Tekken rip-off follows Future Cops in that Namco decided to not allow use of their characters during production. What we get is futuristic scifi story about fighters using a Nintendo-style Power Glove to obtain superpowers. It is ridiculous but does feature some well known martial artists like Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, and Ron Smoorenburg but they never really get a chance to shine. Some clear ‘appropriation” is used when Hwaorang (Stephen Fung) fights Bryan Fury (Smoorenburg) in a not too subtle reference to the classic Grappler Baki OVA anime. A terrible movie, I’m am glad it didn’t destroy Andrew Lau’s career.[/one_half]
[one_half_last]City Hunter (1993) – Also pictured above, this film contains the infamous Jackie Chan as Chun Li sequence fighting a very decent looking Ken personified by Gary Daniels. Adapted from a Japanese manga itself, City Hunter actually had rights to use elements of the Street Fighter games from Capcom in the film so sound effects, art, and an actual game machine all make appearances in the film. An amazing example of just how culturally important SF2 was and still is, Jackie freaking Chan featured it in his movie! The Dhalsim stretching leg effect is actually pretty cool but energy blasts fare much worse with 90s special effects. A lot of fun and goofy in that classic HK 90s way, City Hunter remains an entertaining yet odd chapter in Street Fighter’s history on film.
Street Fighter (1994) – Yeah everyone knows this movie. It’s bad and cheesy and features Raul Julia’s final acting appearance. Too many characters, bad fights, and a heck of a lot of camp, this is pretty atrocious. I did enjoy this as a kid, but I was a dumb kid back then. Worth a watch for nostalgia, I remember getting trading cards when watching it the theatre, it is a nice slice of childhood that doesn’t age well, but seems to have been embraced a bit by the community at large. It is still much more watchable than the horrendous Street Fighter: Legend of Chun Li. (Picture from Street Fighter Wiki)
Tekken (2010) – Look of the characters is actually not bad and Cyril Raffaeli provides action choreography, but short shooting schedules and a low budget hurt production immensely. Fights actually aren’t terrible but they do get the Hollywood treatment of being edited to heck and I wonder how Raffaeli would have edited them together himself. While not great, it definitely isn’t the worst film of all time despite what some avid gamers and, presumably, casual movie goers would lead you to believe. Gary Daniels is pretty awesome as Bryan Fury and that Yoshimitsu costume does look pretty sweet, in fact, many of the looks of the characters are pretty spot on. A Very week finale really hurts the film among other flaws.[/one_half_last]