If you want to see what REAL martial artists are capable of--what truly talented fighters can do without camera tricks and wire-harnesses--you need to check out these films.
The Street Fighter (1974)
Starring: Sonny Chiba, Waichi Yamada, Yutaka Nakajimam, Akira Shioji, and Tony Cetera
Director: Shigehiro Ozawa
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars
When a gruff, anti-social martial-artist-for-hire (Chiba) turns down a Yakuza contract to kidnap the heiress of an oil-based financial empire (Nakajimam), he discovers they'd rather kill him than risk him revealing their plans. So, he does the only sensible thing a human engine of death and destruction can do: He offers his services in protection of the heiress, and proceeds to tear through her enemies like so much tissue paper. However, a callous act of his past will come back to haunt him, complicating his fight against the foot-soldiers of the international crime cartel.
"The Street Fighter" may be a fairly low-tech and low-budget action film, but it shows that martial arts fights scenes don't need wires and CGI to be exciting... they just need actors who really know their stuff!
When it comes right down to it, the plot in this film is pretty nonsensical and so full of holes that it'll collapse if you try to give it even the slightest thought. But who cares? The fight scenes are extremely cool and horribly violent at times. (Is there any other film where the hero has ripped the gonads off a would-be rapist with his bare hand?)
Interestingly, despite the films title, the main character, martial arts mercenary Takuma "Terry" Tsurugi doesn't seem like much of a street fighter. He seems far more like a ninja, both in how he dresses and how he behaves. This is no more clear than in the film's climax where he singlehanded takes on a floating nest of bad guys on an oil tanker. (I also think that this, more than any other film, must have inspired the notion that the purpose of the ninja is to flip out and kill people. Lord knows Terry does some flipping out AND he kills a ton of people in this movie!)
Although "The Street Fighter" was rated X for its eye-gouging, throat-slitting, and penis-ripping graphic violence back when it was first released in 1974, I really didn't see any violence worse than the average slasher flick or "torture porn" movie that gets R-ratings these days. (And unless the censors were a little more artful with this film than usual, I think I viewed an uncut copy.)
"The Street Fighter" is a movie that fans of martial arts and action films need to see. It's a classic of the genre, weak script aside, its got great fight scenes, great soundtrack music (with a catchy theme)... and Sonny Chiba makes more goofy faces while fighting in this single movie than Bruce Lee did in his entire career!
Return of the Street Fighter (1975)
Starring: Sonny Chiba, Masafumi Suzuki, Yôko Ichiji, Masashi Ishibashi, and Hiroshi Tanaka
Director: Shigehiro Ozawa
Steve's Rating: Six of Ten Stars
Takuma "Terry" Tsurugi (Chiba) opens a new can of whup-ass when Otaguro (Tanaka), the master of a martial arts school that's serving as a money-laundering front for an international partnership forged by the Mafia and Yakuza, targets the incorruptible martial arts master Masaoka (Ishibashi) for death. But can even Terry's powerful Karate carry the day when female assistant (Suzuki) is plotting with Otaguro, and an old and deadly enemy returns from the grave to confront him?
"Return of the Street Fighter" has fight scenes as great as the ones in the first movie. Some are even better, like the Terry's mountain-top fight against a band of expert martial artists armed with traditional Japanese weapons, or his confrontation and battle with Jonju, whose pulse someone clearly should have thought to take as the end credits rolled on "The Street Fighter". Oh, and while Terry does about the same amount of skull-cracking, bone-breaking and internal organ crushing as in the first film, he doesn't make nearly the same amount of funny faces while doing it. (Those are reserved almost entirely for the climactic battle where Terry takes on a whole building full of gangsters.)
Although the story is full of logical lapses and incomprehensible actions on the part of the characters, the story is a bit stronger, because it draws the lines between the good guys and bad guys a bit more clearly. Terry may be even more amoral and money-grubbing than he was in the first film, as he starts this film in the employ of the gangsters as an assassin. However, his change-of-heart to join the side of the good guys appears to be motivated by a sense of justice... or at least a desire for revenge, because the employers he turns against here make the international gangsters from "The Street Fighter" look like a bunch of Mormon missionaries.
With a slightly stronger storyline, more evil bad guys and lots of cool martial arts scenes (which include a little Wire-Fulooooooong flashbacks that consist of clips taken from "The Street Fighter". Some 10-15 minutes of the film's 83-minute running time is included for no reason other than to make the film longer.
(Interestingly, the filmmakers almost entirely avoided the one bit of recycling I wish they had engaged in--the reusing of the "Street Fighter Theme" from the original film. I think we only hear it once in this film.)
It's a shame the director or producers couldn't be content with a 70 or 75 minute film. Just losing the bulk of the padding would have made this a far superior movie (and would have earned it a 7-rating in my eyes). It's still entertaining, and if you enjoy martial arts films I think you'll get a kick out of Terry Tsurugi second round against international organized crime.
The Street Fighter's Last Revenge (1979)
Starring: Sonny Chiba, Reiko Ike, Koji Wada, Tatsuo Endo, Akira Shiojo, Sue Shihomi, and the Voice of George Takai
Director: Shigehiro Ozawa
Steve's Rating: Five of Ten Stars
Mercenary martial arts expert (read ninja!) Takuma "Terry" Tsurugi (Chiba) is hired by a criminal syndicate to secure the secret formula for a synthetic type of heroin that can be manufactured for virtually nothing. Instead of paying Terry the agreed-upon-sum, the gangster try to cheat and kill him--will they never learn?--which causes Terry to kick much ass and steal part of the formula to hold it until he is paid. When a corrupt district attorney (Wada) and an exceptionally slutty vamp (Ike) get in on the action, even more ass is kicked, and much crossing and double-crossing takes place. Will Terry EVER get paid?!
"The Street Fighter's Last Revenge" is the second and final sequel to "Street Fighter". It has a few improvements over "Return of the Street Fighter", but, overall, it's another step downward quality-wise.
On the upside, the film is as fast-paced as the original "Street Fighter", perhaps even moreso, because it is virtually padding-free. There are no long, nearly pointless sequences of students practicing martial arts (as we had in the original film) nor are there reels worth of repeated footage (as we had in "Return of the Street Fighter"). In fact, there is hardly a quiet moment in the entire film--even a semi-romantic/comic interlude ends up presenting some action.
On the downside, the film has a rushed quality to it. The foley work is downright pathetic, with the same sound being used for a ribcage being crushed as for a punch in the face, and the same same gun sound for a shotgun or a revolver. The fight scenes are not nearly as impressive or well-choreographed as in the first two films, and there is more one instance where even the camera placement is off to the point where it's evident that blows aren't actually connecting.
Even more disappointing is the change that has been made to the character of Terry Tsurugi; in this film, his in-your-face brutality has been dialed back a couple of notches and his apartment has sprouted secret compartments and he has developed disguise skills that rivals those of the agents from "Mission Impossible". He's even making fewer funny faces while channeling his chi and breaking people's bones. (He still has his moments of extreme brutality, such as when he tosses a foe into an oven in a crematorium and turns on the fire, but, overall, he comes across as if he was James Bond with a smaller operating budget and no social graces.)
For the dubbed English language version, there are the additional problems of what I am certain amounts to bad translations that end up making it hard to identify who the various factions in the film are, the fact that most of the voice actors are so bad that shouldn't even be allowed to do computer game voices, and that it's very distracting to hear George Takai doing one of the film's villains. Someone with such a distinctive voice shouldn't really be doing live-action dubbing once their face is famous.
Although fast-paced and entertaining, "The Street Fighter's Last Revenge" is a disappointing close to the series. While the finale of the film involves an explosion, it still closes the book on the Street Fighter not with a bang but with a whimper. (Come to think of it, even Terry's final lines have a bit of a whiny, whimpering quality to them. Of course, if I was looking at the terrible sight he was gazing upon, I'd feel a bit whiny too.)
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