A favorite of both Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, this ultraviolent trilogy of Japanese martial-arts pictures stars Sonny Chiba, one of many Asian actors who filled the marketplace vacuum created by Bruce Lee’s death in 1973. As directed by Shigehiro Ozawa in a workmanlike fashion, the Street Fighter pictures offer diminishing returns. The first movie has a certain pulpy energy because the filmmakers took obvious glee in testing the limits of good taste; the second picture makes an okay companion since the storyline is closely connected to that of its predecessor; and the final flick is dull, perfunctory, and repetitive. (Continuing the chop-socky carnage, Chiba appeared in a spinoff trilogy about a female martial artist that began with Sister Street Fighter, also released in 1974.)
The Street Fighter introduces deadly mercenary Terry, played by Chiba. Fearless, resourceful, and tough, he pulls such brazen maneuvers as rescuing a thug from police custody, even though doing so requires defeating half a dozen cops with karate. The plot is needlessly lugubrious, but the gist is that Terry and his idiot sidekick, “Ratnose” (Gerald Yamada), get on the bad side of the Yakuza by refusing a contract for moral reasons. Despite being targets themselves, Terry and Ratnose rescue a young woman whom gangsters want dead, so fights ensue with criminals including the formidable Jungo (Milton Ishibashi). Yet the story is ultimately inconsequential, because The Street Fighter is primarily about the varied ways in which Terry kills people. At one point, he rips the genitals off a would-be rapist. Later, after Terry whacks a dude on the head, director Ozawa cuts to an X-ray of a skull as a huge crack appears. Fake-looking blood flows freely throughout The Street Fighter, culminating in a gross-out shot of a man’s head exploding like a watermelon when he’s thrown off a high ledge. Chiba’s athleticism is impressive, he delivers dialogue competently, and he scowls effectively enough. Furthermore, because The Street Fighter is basically a Japanese riff on the familiar Charles Bronson/Clint Eastwood formula—tough guy kills other tough guys—the combination of excessive violence and rudimentary characterization gets the dirty job done.
Return of the Street Fighter adds a little bit of narrative texture by emphasizing supporting characters, including the honorable master of a martial-arts school and the principled cop who quits his job so he can pursue Terry, vigilante-style. Throughout Return of the Street Fighter, the filmmakers try to shift Terry into likable-antihero mode, marking a subtle change from the avenging-angel archetype he represented in the first picture. Unfortunately, by placing Terry into opposition with noble characters who value decency and public safety, the filmmakers obscure any sense that Terry is a necessary evil in a chaotic world. He seems as vile as any of the mobsters who employ him, particularly when he hits one fellow’s head so hard that the gentleman’s eyes literally pop out of his skull. (Although probably intended to be shocking, this image is unintentionally hilarious because it recalls countless shots from cartoons showing the reactions of wolfish men to attractive women.) Nonetheless, reprising key characters from The Street Fighter gives the ending of Return of the Street Fighter a smidgen of stylish symmetry. Plus, there’s a bad guy who speaks through a mechanized voice box—always a nice touch.
The final picture in the trilogy, The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge, is enervated in the extreme, and the film’s episodic storyline absurdly positions Terry as some sort of underworld superhero. (At one point, he even refers to himself as “The Street Fighter,” and it’s never a good sign when pictures get overly self-referential.) The muddled plot has something to do with gangsters pursuing an audiotape that contains the formula for synthetic heroin, but the storyline is really just an excuse for marital-arts mayhem. Whereas the previous films included such elaborate conclusions as a battle on a boat during a rainstorm and a fight inside a shadowy factory, The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge concludes with a drab martial-arts match on a pier in broad daylight. Additionally, it appears that the final picture suffered from even worse censorship during its American release than the previous Street Fighter films did, so the level of graphic violence in the film’s American version is surprisingly low, even though The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge—like the original Street Fighter—was initially hit by the MPAA with an “X” rating for gore. The dubbing in the American version of The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge is also considerably worse than that in the previous films.
Purists, of course, may wish to seek out original Japanese-language prints of these pictures and could well discover virtues absent from the dubbed American versions, so the preceding remarks should be considered in that context.
The Street Fighter: FUNKY
Return of the Street Fighter: FUNKY
The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge: LAME