Friday, November 14, 2008

REVIEW: The Street Fighter - Shigehiro Ozawa (1974)

Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr

For anyone seeking to better appreciate the great Japanese star Sonny Chiba, there are few if any better places to start than 1974’s "The Street Fighter". The first in a long line of Street Fighter films (including "Return of the Street Fighter" and "Sister Street Fighter"), "The Street Fighter" clearly stands as the Japanese equivalent of the Hong Kong martial arts films that made Bruce Lee a star (among these can be counted "The Chinese Connection" and "Fists of Fury"). However, all comparisons between the two icons aside, Chiba certainly makes a unique impression and, in my opinion, edges out Lee by a slim margin in the badass department as Tokyo-based mercenary-for-hire Terry Tsurugi.

"The Street Fighter’s" plot is no more complex than it need be for an action vehicle of this kind: after Terry refuses an offer from the “Hong Kong yakuza” to kidnap the daughter of a wealthy magnate, he joins her side and works to protect her and overturn the bad guys’ plot. Much chaos and hilarity ensues. Goichi Yamada co-stars as Ratnose, Terry’s bumbling, Eli Wallach-like sidekick. The film is otherwise populated with a substantial gallery of characters (mostly villains) who fill out their designated roles fairly well – but then again, none of them are the reason why you’d consider giving the film a rent in the first place, are they?

Without a doubt, the supreme delight (and, let’s face it, main point) of the film is Sonny Chiba. The sight of him locked in combat mode in any of the fight scenes is a thing of beauty: his face contorts in a myriad of furious expressions, his eyes bulging in barely-suppressed rage, and as he glares and moves ever-so-slowly into his attacking stance, you have only one thought regarding the poor sucker dumb enough to challenge him: this guy’s so toast. And a few seconds later, he certainly is; a mangled, blood-soaked piece of toast, and only one among several who fall before Tony’s hands. At one point, a character makes the following astute observation: “Terry, I’m sure you’re the meanest guy in the world.” Sonny Chiba ’s marvelous performance more than ably confirms it.

As with many of these kinds of films, approaching the violent content within "The Street Fighter" from a realistic point of view is utterly pointless. This thing is an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon. People fall from buildings and burst like water balloons filled with red paint, spray mouthfuls of fake blood (and at one point, confusingly but to hilarious effect, vomit) and suffer far more gruesome and bizarre fates (other memorable bits include an x-rayed shot of a skull-cracking death blow and, best of all, Terry’s…practical way of neutralizing a would-be rapist).

Watching this film, it is clear where Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez got some of their “inspiration” for the ultra-violent antics on display in "Kill Bill" and "Sin City". However, unlike those films, "The Street Fighter" is free of the burdens of self-indulgence and post-modern lack of originality. Like the aforementioned Bruce Lee films, it’s clear just from watching it that "Fighter" never aspired to be more than the profitable product of a tried-and-true genre of exploitation cinema. It certainly succeeds as mere entertainment, but thanks to its now-retro touches and Chiba ’s formidable performance, it has become so much more.

Without a doubt, "The Street Fighter" is an enduring classic of its kind. To many, it will never be more than the vintage 1970s cheese that it is, but with Sonny Chiba as gleefully entertaining as he is here, what more could they want?

Read more by Marc Saint-Cyr at his blog.

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