“Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li” – The Movie, Lost in Translation – 2 popcorns

popcornBy Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Several years back, a N.Y. Times columnist eloquently worried that emerging writers concerned with those lucrative motion picture rights would be making sure, consciously or not, that their novels were cinematic. Would literature lose its purity of purpose? Now, films like “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li” raise the ante of media anxiety.

For you see, this mediocre martial arts film has its roots in neither traditional belles lettres nor their begrudged stepchild, the originally written screenplay. Nope, dear ever-shrinking population of readers, it springs from a video game. To the great unwashed that’s just one rung up from basing a movie on a pre-recorded phone message.

Granted, there are great works that began life on a cocktail napkin, preferably at “21” in the speakeasy years, if you’re a romantic. Which apparently the pageant of time isn’t. Not if it’s willing to supersede quill, fountain pen, Underwood and P.C. with Xbox and a room strewn with McDonald’s wrappers. Oh sacrilege, where is thy gigabyte?

Besides, it doesn’t work. We’ll never see a layout in “Architectural Digest” of a real writer’s garret, Rive Gauche, pickled, distressed video game machine atop Chippendale desk. That section roped off, tourists can read the brass plaque: “Here was programmed the video game that inspired the film ‘Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li.”’

And that almost concludes the self-serving, fuddy-duddy portion of this review. Fact is, technology floods in without concern for tradition. It’s harness the whirlwind or wind up like Old Fezziwigg who, in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is outmaneuvered by young Scrooge and Marley…which, by the way, has its video game offshoots and variants.

But here’s the problem. Even if one day the next “Citizen Kane” ascends from a video game, bemusing the muse as it may, at present the circumspect cross pollination of video game to film is in its nascency. I.e.-The earliest automobiles kind of ran, and kind of looked like cars as we know them. Likewise, “Chun-Li” sort of plays like a movie.

The history of Filmdom vouches that these latter day transfers to celluloid don’t hold a monopoly on banal screenwriting. It’s just that here it seems acceptable. Hey, it’s only a plot. Put in some Freud, a little Marx (either Groucho or Karl will do), a dash of Darwin and some ‘Twilight Zone,” too. Worse than connect the dots, it’s attach the clichés.

Hence, we go in expecting no real substance. Just action, familiar aphorisms and a reaffirmation of whatever mantra the game propounds. Which makes discussing the story seem rather silly. However, as Dr. Hinesburg at Olde Ivy Film Criticism College warned, “Don’t ever be such a smarty that you don’t need to summarize the plot.”

Therefore, please note that Andrzej Bartkowiak’s film opens with the introduction of businessman Xiang (Edmund Chen) and his idyllic family, the Golden Gate Bridge visible from their backyard. Her Daddy rich and her Momma good looking, little Chun-Li practices the piano. Perhaps one day she’ll be a famous concert pianist.

But life takes a turn after Daddy’s mysterious dealings necessitate moving to Hong Kong. While Chun-Li continues to work hard, she also becomes fascinated by her father’s interest in Wu-Shu (martial arts). Can’t tell when some symphony cellist will get fresh. Lessons begin. Pity, she’s too small to help on the night gangsters come knocking.

The manse turned asunder, Dad goes missing. But the valiant ladies persevere. Chun-Li, played by Kristin Kreuk, attends Juilliard and is soon wowing them on the eighty-eights. Until, one day, instead of the customary flowers sent backstage, there arrives a scroll. Skip a few paragraphs and our gal is on a scavenger hunt in the slums of Bangkok.

At long last, she wends her way to the compound of Gen (Robin Shou), a kung-fu kingpin/good guy doubtless influenced by Zen. Having forsaken his criminal past, Gen’s yen now is to right the world. He knows about Chun Li’s Dad and fills her in on Shadaloo, a criminal consortium run by the megalomaniacal Bison (Neal McDonough).

The super-scum is out to control the very ghetto that spawned him. Kidnapping families of prominent officials and thereby gaining zoning concessions, he stands to reap big profits by gentrifying the old neighborhood. At long last, a plot we can relate to instead of the usual blackmail-the-Earth gambit. Naturally, Chun-Li and Bison fight to the finish.

Borrowing from as far back as “Golden Boy” (1939), the saga of a musician forced to take up fighting fronts for the standard, CGI-augmented flailing of limbs. If only Chun-Li had arrived at Xiang’s in a basket among the bulrushes the triteness would be complete. In vintage game parlance, “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li” registers a tilt.

“Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li,” rated PG-13, is a Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation release directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak and stars Kristin Kreuk, Neal McDonough and Michael Clarke Duncan. Running time: 97 minutes

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