For a lot of us living in Fresno, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, it is hard to remember what the world was like before the Internet. All of us depend on this revolutionary new tool both for business and just living our daily lives that I suspect that for younger generations it is a challenge to imagine what the world was like before the Internet age of the 1990s. Of course, for those who were from my generation, we still had other things to distract us, such as video games. During the late 80s and throughout the 90s, video games were in, and in a big way. So many of the most classic video game franchises made their mark during this era, be it Super Mario Bros., Tetris, Sonic the Hedgehog, The Legend of Zelda, and also fighting games like Street Fighter II.
Ah yes, Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, the arcade classic that all of us 90s kids graciously spent so much of our quarters playing, the game that set the standard for fighting games that came after it, from Mortal Kombat to Tekken to Killer Instinct. The game had one of the best fight mechanics ever put in a game as well as a classic roster of playable characters, including Ryu, Ken, Chun-Li, Guile, Blanka, Dhalsim, E. Honda, Zangief, and those bosses Balrog, Vega, Sagat, and the evil M. Bison. So popular was the game taht iot was updated and re-released several time, each time introducing more playable characters, including fan favorites Cammy, Fei Long, T. Hawk, and the ruthless Akuma. The game's popularity, as well as the franchise that spawned out of it, led to several animated adaptations both in and out of Japan, as well as two live action American films, 1994's Street Fighter starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and the late Raúl Juliá, and 2009's Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li starring Kristin Kreuk. Both of these films received awful reviews upon release, and some would even argue taht the 2009 film is an even worse adaptaion than the film fifteen years prior.
Suffice to say, the Street Fighter franchise is one that has not receive much good fortune in the realm of live action film...until maybe now.
Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist is not a feature film but a live action web series directed by Joey Ansah, in the wake of his short fan film Street Fighter: Legacy, which Ansah created along with Christian Howard. That film was released on YouTube in 2010 as a proof-of-concept for a Street Fighter web series and during San Diego Comic-Con International 2012 Capcom announced it had granted rights to the creators to go ahead with the project.
I a lot of ways the project is similar to Kevin Tancharoen's own video game-inspired web series Mortal Kombat: Legacy and it's sequel Mortal Kombat: Legacy II. The difference however is that while Legacy was developed as an anthology series telling he back stories of several of the characters from the Mortal Kombat universe, Assassin's Fist would be a 12 episode series focussed on only two stories from the Street Fighter universe that are inexplicably linked. The series explores the training and simultaneous friedship and rivalry of the franchises two leading male protagonists, Ryu and Ken Masters, as they trained in Japan under their master Gōken, while at the same time revealing the back story of Gōken and his brother Gōki as they trained under their master Gōtetsu. The story reveals how the two brothers broke apart when Gōki became corrupted by a dark force called 'Satsui no hado' (translation: 'Dark Hado'), eventually turning him into the demon warrior Akuma.
As the series is essentially one big story split into 12 episodes, this examiner will merely provide the brief synopsis of each:
We flash forward in this prologue to find best of friends and bitterest of rivals Ryu & Ken face off in a potentially lethal showdown. How did it come to this? Begin the journey to find out!
As Ryu and Ken near the end of their training they are impatient to master the power of 'Hadō'. Their Master, Gōken, worries about sharing this powerful technique. Gōken sets Ryu and Ken on a quest to find Gōtetsu's Dojo where he trained.
At Gōtetsu's Dojo Gōken, Ryu and Ken pay homage at Gōtetsu's grave. Ken and Ryu discover something secret in Gōken's past. Gōken recalls his own time spent training alongside his brother Gōki under their Master Gōtetsu. Ryu and Ken fight!
In the past, Gōtetsu instructs the young Gōken and Gōki. Goki is drawn to the power of 'Satsui no hado'. In the present, Ryu and Ken try to create their first Hadōken. Gōken is disturbed by Ken's approach and they argue. Ryu and Ken learn more about the history of Ansatsuken, their master Gōken and his dead brother Gōki.
Ryu is disturbed and sees a foreboding stranger in his nightmares. Ryu and Ken sneak out for adventure at the G.I. Bar. Ken's father makes a surprise visit. Ryu is unsettled by the old Dōjō.
Gōken and Gōki vie for Sayaka's attention. Gōki uses 'Satsui no Hado' in a sparring match almost killing his opponent. Gōtetsu gives Gōki an Ultimatum after his abuse of Satsui no Hado. Gōki and Sayaka part.
Ryu and Ken continue to work on their Hadōken, but Ryu is troubled and refuses to fully manifest his. Something is learnt of Ryu's past. A mysterious stranger appears to Gōken.
In the past, we see events from Gōki's perspective as he finds a new home. Gōken and Sayaka become estranged.
Gōki's fatalistic pursuit of Dark 'Hadō' takes him to new dangerous levels. Gōtetsu & Gōken seriously debate the risks vs benefit of 'Satsui no Hadō'.
Gōtetsu and Gōken consult the Ansatsuken scrolls and discuss Gōki's departure. They question the very real potential of Ansatsuken myths becoming reality. Gōtetsu confronts a dark presence.
More is learnt of the fate of Gōtetsu, Gōki and Sayaka. Ryu and Ken train, their techniques and Hadōken more advanced.
As Ryu and Ken's training approaches a climax, Gōken sets them a 'rite of passage' which will culminate in the greatest challenge of their lives.
With a near fatality, tensions are high as Gōken is forced to make the hardest decision of his life as an outside force draws closer. The Dojo will never be the same again.
There is a lot of passion and love put into this series, and the use of so many open, rural sets for the story give a very independent feel. The costumes are pretty much just the character's fighting gi's pulled right out of the games, and while I will admit that when I first saw them I thought that they looked liked just really good cosplay costumes, I found myself buying into the illusion pretty easily.
It was such a delight to finally see a live action Street Fighter adaptation that actually kept the focus on the two characters that are supposed to be the real stars of this story. In the 1994 movie, they knew that they had a hot actor like Jean-Claude Van Damme playing Guile, so they promoted Guile to the main character while Ryu and Ken were portrayed as con artists, and the 2009 film was all about female lead Chun-Li, with Ken totally missing and Ryu briefly referenced to at the ending. But this time, the whole thing is all about these two guys, their friendship, their rivalry, and how they gained the skills to become the world warriors we all know and love. the only other characters featured from the games are the ones that directly tie into their story, most notably Gōken and Akuma; no Shadaloo or M. Bison to be found anywhere here. This makes the story very personal and simple.
Having said that, I'm not sure, at least upon first viewing, whether or not that personal story really needed to be twelve episodes long. Mortal Kombat: Legacy ran that kind of length too, but because that was an anthology series, it allowed for a wide variety of stories that were told in different formats with different characters. Here, because we only get one story (okay, two stories if we count the flashbacks as separate), that means we are essentially seeing a training and bonding saga dragged out for twelve nine-to-thirteen minute installment. Don't get me wrong, it is done very well, but I can definitely understand if some viewers watching all of these episodes back-to-back might find it a bit tedious.
There is a conscious effort to make this Japanese-centric story feel as authentic as it possibly can among the more over-the-top video game ideas. At least half of the dialogue, maybe more, is subtitled, which is an excellent decision that both shows respect to the origins of these characters and also coincides with the inherit internationalization of the Street Fighter cast. Like in the games themselves, a lot of the Japanese names are used, especially in the attack names (and yes fan boys, Ryu and Ken do constantly yell out the names of their attacks whenever they use them). It essentially feels like any classic martial arts film you've ever seen, this time set in this super-exaggerated video game world.
The parallels between the Ryu and Ken story and the Gōken and Gōki stories are clear and effective. In the flashbacks we see these two brothers trained to be the best warriors ever, but one becomes obsessed with a dark power that ultimately drives him over the edge and gets him cast out of the Dojo. When Gōki returns, he returns as a monster, does terribly evil things, and thus a family is destroyed forever. Throughout the main story it is teased that maybe Ryu and Ken are poised to go down a similar path, and even though fans of the games will likely know how this plays out, there is a cliffhanger at the end of the eleventh episode that makes yo right worry, and not necessarily for the character you expect either.
I like the parallel between Ryu and Ken, the former literally being dropped off at Gōken's as a orphan boy with immense hidden power, raised from such a young age by Gōken to be the ideal student but with much to learn and grow into; while the former is a rich kid from America who lost his mother and is dropped off at the Dojo by his father, a old friend of Gōken's, to learn to fight and to gain respect until he is ready to lead his father's company, something he's not even sure he really wants. Even though we do not see a whole lot of them as little kids, and indeed their first meeting is literally a hard-hitting one, it is still comforting that these two become such good friends, yet also rivals because each one seems to see the other as gaining an advantage over them and therefore as a motivation to keep training.
I will briefly say that for anyone hoping for a lot of Street Fighter cameos or fan service moments, there really isn't much of that here. However, there is one humorous reference to Dan Hibiki, infamous as the so-called worst character in the Street Fighter franchise, as well as a scene where Ryu ends up fighting an American army major which may or may not be intended as a cameo by a certain Sonic Boom-wielding soldier with a flattop haircut. Oh, and their is a funny scene where Ry and Ken spend some down time playing a NES copy of Mega Man 2--nice touch Capcom.
The fight choreography is really good and feels realistic...mostly. A lot of it does look pretty real, like an actual fight in a open, grassy field would look, but this being street Fighter we do of course have to make plenty of room for the guys to perform their signature Hadouken energy moves, which do look pretty good for their budget (heck, these energy attacks look far more convincing to me than the Kamehameha Wave in Dragonball Evolution ever did). And when the Shoryuken uppercut move is used, the scene replicates the games by having the characters leaps super high into the air, which does require some obvious, but not terrible, wire work.
But the series really lives and breathes on the performances. Mike Moh is stern and yet also vulnerable as Ryu, showing this usually solid wandering warrior type just on the eve of his truly beginning his journey and in this story discovering a darker side of himself. Christian Howard is very convincing as Ken Masters, looking virtually verbatim to the video game character and bringing a sense of humor, attitude, and impatience that does well to complement Moh's performance. Akira Koieyama and Shogen Itokazu both share the role of the old and young Gōken , respectively, playing this role very much like the stern master, but one who is not shy about showing his real affection for his student (even if he is as stern with them as any trainer would be). Gaku Space appears as Gōuki, playing the role very much int he vain of a tragic character, who who really has come to believe that power and reaching one's true potential should be achieve at any cost, even if that cost is one's own soul. Hyunri Lee appears as Sayaka, Gōken and Gōki's shared love interest, and while she is essentially stuck in that role, the actress does play it honestly and with affection, even as the man she is showing affection for is becoming a monster and she cannot, or will not, see that. Togo Igawa appears Gōtetsu / Goma, Gōken and Gōki's master, and he pretty much is just your old, tough, non nonsense master who must confront his greatest failure at the end wit dire consequences. Joey Ansah doesn't appear as often as you might expect as Akuma, but he looks like he stepped right out of the video game and clearly looks like an opposing threat. Other performances include Mark Killeen as Mr. Masters, Hal Yamanouchi as Senzo, and Yoshinori Ono as Ono.
Overall, Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist is most certainly the most honest, respectful, and dignified live adaptation of the video game franchise that this examiner has ever seen, delivering a solid and personal story about two friends becoming the warriors and heroes they are destined to be, while also paralleling that with the story of two brothers who are cursed with a dark family secret that thse two friends may have to face aw well some day. It does feel a bit long and maybe a full twelve episodes weren't necessary to tell this story, however anyone who loves the games or is a fan of other web series like Mortal Kombat: Legacy should definitely check it out!