Street Fighter II: The World Warrior. That means something to millions of a certain age range. It is a deity on the pantheon of video games and keeps evolving to the present day. It isn’t the primary reason I got into training in the martial arts, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it was one of them.
After years of playing Street Fighter II — hell, I remember playing the elusive Street Fighter in the arcade in Brazil — Hollywood and Capcom were ready with their big feature film in 1994 with Jean-Claude Van Damme as Guile. And… it was shit. Stinky, smelly, nasty, horrible shit. Perhaps the greatest actor ever to come from Puerto Rico — Raúl Julia, who played Bison — passed away shortly after the film’s release, making Street Fighter his final film. I couldn’t help wanting to erase it from his filmography just to let it end in acting gold with The Burning Season. In 2009, there was another Hollywood Street Fighter film featuring Kristin Kreuk as Chun Li. Haven’t seen it; I’m told not to see it.
A year later in 2010, a fan film called Street Fighter Legacy popped up online. No real budget, quite short, plenty of things that could be better (those eyebrows yikes!), but there was an essence that finally someone had gotten it right.
Not surprisingly, it was not from a big studio and had no stars but came from creators who were fans and believed they could do it right. The short film was so well done that a few years later, Capcom granted the filmmakers — Joey Ansah and Christian Howard — the rights to continue with an official Street Fighter web series. I don’t want to get into the plot of Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist, but I’ll tell you it’s an excellent origins story.
If you’ve never seen the different anime productions and have wondered why Ryu and Ken are nearly the same or how Ken ended up in Japan or what the connection between Gouken and Akuma is, all of that and much more is covered. Instead of giving a point-by-point recap of the series, I’d rather lay out some history of both Legacy and Assassin’s Fist and mention a few things that worked and hooked me in, where the other attempts failed. I want you readers to enjoy the viewing experience with as little plot knowledge as possible. Quick parental note: there’s some language, mostly from Ken, think of it as having a PG-13 rating.
Both Legacy and Assassin’s Fist begin and end with British martial artist/ actor/stuntman Joey Ansah. The tie that binds Ansah to all of us is that he loved the video games. He’s spoken about growing up with Street Fighter II as he switched video game systems and picked up the different versions. Ansah’s father is Ghanaian, and he didn’t seriously get into martial arts until his family moved from England to Ghana. In Ghana he began studying Tae Kwon Do. When he returned to England years later, he began studying Taijutsu, which led to study in Ninjutsu and Capoeira. In other words, the man is a bad-ass dancing ninja.
In the genre, it’s less common these days, but this was not an actor learning martial arts for the camera. This was a martial artist whose next challenge was to study acting. You can IMDB his early work, but it’s worth mentioning he did stunt work in Batman Begins. Ansah was consulted quite a bit by director Christopher Nolan for all of the League of Shadows scenes since he was the only guy on-set truly trained in Ninjutsu. His big break came in his epic fight scene with Matt Damon in The Bourne Ultimatum.
As a former stuntman, for every fight on camera he’s been in or choreographed, Ansah has done all of his own stunts a la Jackie Chan. It is all of this history that poured into his ideas for a live action Street Fighter with his friend and fellow British martial artist and collaborator, Christian Howard.
Ansah and Howard co-wrote the script for Legacy, while Ansah directed and choreographed the fights. He also briefly appeared as Akuma. Howard took the role of Ken and John Foo played Ryu. Jaqueline Quella, an Academy Award-nominated producer, eventually joined the production. They initially got the rights and funding from Capcom to use the film as a promotional tool for Street Fighter IV. At the last minute, though, Capcom dropped their association (and money) from the project, and thus was born the “fan film.”
It has been rumored that Capcom was worried about the film’s reception, and who could blame them if you remember the stinky past? However, the Brits showed them as upon release online, millions of viewers and positive feedback led to a 98% approval rating on YouTube. Legacy was basically used as a proof-of-concept piece, mostly to prove to the big wigs and corporations that they could deliver. With that mission accomplished, it was on to: Round 2. FIGHT!
In 2012, Ansah announced plans for an expanded series called Assassin’s Fist, and with hard data now in hand, Capcom was all in this time around. The crew even began a Kickstarter campaign to get the project up and running. It’s hard to believe they were crowd sourcing a year before filming, but eventually, a little no-name Japanese car company called — Honda, is it? — decided to get in on the action and give them some blank checks. Machinima picked up the rights to air it as a web series and there are now plans to release it as a complete work on blu-ray and DVD.
Assassin’s Fist saw most of the band back together with Ansah directing and doing fight choreography, Quella producing, and Ansah and Howard writing and reprising their roles. Foo was replaced as Ryu by martial artist — and Kamen Rider Axe himself — Mike Moh. A stellar Japanese supporting cast was also added. I use the word “supporting” loosely because, in my opinion, they carry the series. This leads into the elements that Ansah and crew nailed as fans doing it for the fans.
As a polyglot, language is always important to me personally in setting a tone. In Legacy, I was surprised to hear the actors speaking some Japanese before switching to English. It could not have prepared me for the amount of Japanese in Assassin’s Fist. We’re talking if not half, even 60/40 of the film is in Japanese, with even the trio of non-native speaking leads doing it up convincingly. Talk about immediately adding the flavor of authenticity that the past disgraces lacked. Brilliant! I already believed the Japanese setting by language alone, but the locations look perfect for the story. Though filmed in Bulgaria, the feel is clearly a late 80s early 90s Japan (there is a key scene that locks this in, I can’t give it away, you’ll know, trust me). Costuming is well done too, far beyond the famous gis we can all identify. Also in terms of tone, as a musician, I must say the music is awesome. More so than anything, it was the arrangements from butt-rock, to full orchestra, to flute solo that really set my nostalgia loose.
Considering these are not big stars with big acting credits and experience — and considering, well, Van Damme — the acting is actually quite good. The leads do well, but the Assassin’s Fist Best Actor winner goes to Akira Koieyama, who plays Gouken. After a few episodes, you start to see how he is the heart and soul of the series and truly carries it with some great acting chops.
The fight choreography is excellent, as to be expected. While there are some effects to go with the Hado mysticism we know from the games, I was surprised by how little effects and wire work were used. Another big difference from the Hollywood films where getting the humanly impossible moves down no matter what made it just look silly on camera. Ansah’s knack for detail as a fanboy truly shines here. I can imagine him playing, pausing, and then sparring with Howard to get every single move the characters do in the game down. It is very precise and well done. There may be a touch too much slow-mo, but it works. Since I’m already shitting on Van Damme, it’s way less than any Van Damme flick. Finally, Ansah can direct. He lays out some nice dramatic moments and knows his shots well. I don’t know if it’s Bulgaria or what, but he also captures this eerie tone of distress in many scenes.
I don’t think I’ve given too much away. I love the idea of the fan film and Kickstarter projects, especially when they end up so well done. You get to feel like community is at the heart of it all and not just profit. While they managed to get some deep pockets behind them, Ansah and crew still bring this vibe home and know their roots; kids once obsessed with a video game and later dreaming about doing it for real as adults.
It took two decades to get it right, but I believe that is why it was so successful. It’s the live action Street Fighter film they — and we — always wanted. Ansah is also thinking about rebooting the World Warrior as a sequel and bringing in his friend, and one of my favorites in that martial arts cinema trio: Mr. Boyka himself, Scott Adkins. So now it’s time to go to YouTube, find the Machinima channel and Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist, sit back, relax, hopefully enjoy, and focus your Hadoken.