Is this the greatest ever video game movie performance?

Raul Julia’s villainous turn in 1994’s Street Fighter is worth savouring.

Words

Greg Evans

Mainstream movies and video games have for some time shared various narrative and stylistic similarities, from a heavy reliance on special effects to immersive scripts and fantastical storytelling. Yet the two mediums have shared an awkward, arm’s length kinship. Whenever one tries to step into the other’s world, the results are nearly always disastrous.

Beloved franchises like Resident Evil, Mortal Kombat and Super Mario have produced forgettable films full of crass humour and nonsensical plots. Equally disappointing conclusions arise when films have attempted to dip their toes in the video game world. Games based upon ET, Friday the 13th and Jaws are regarded as some of the worst ever made, gaining infamy in the gaming industry.

One of the first signs that these two forms of entertainment were failing to bond was the 1994 adaptation of Street Fighter. The beat ’em up was, and still is, one of the most adored and respected video games in history and anticipation was high among fans. Inevitably, the film bore almost no resemblance to the actual game. Popular characters like Ryu and Ken were relegated to supporting roles and the game’s famous finishing moves, such as the Hadouken, were nowhere to be seen. Instead, viewers were treated to a 102-minute subpar martial arts movie centred on a war between a phoney NATO operation and a megalomaniac dictator.

Jean-Claude Van Damme commanded an $8m fee for his part as allied nations’ commander William F Guile, which ate up most of the film’s $35m budget. This forced other roles to be handed to unknown actors or else those who were horribly miscast, like a completely out-of-her-depth Kylie Minogue as British military intelligence agent, Cammy. The production itself was hampered by the situation in nearby Myanmar not to mention the endless meddling of the Street Fighter owners, Capcom. Almost everything about this movie was a calamity. Except, that is, for one man: Raul Julia.

By the mid ’90s, Julia was well known for his role as Gomez Addams in the Addams Family movies, and had previously starred in films like The Panic in Needle Park and Kiss of the Spider-Woman while also working with high-profile directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet. Julia was an extremely flamboyant, funny and charismatic actor. He would bounce around the screen like a dancer and his endless repertoire of facial expressions would often leave you in stitches. Julia was far too good an actor for Street Fighter but his commitment to the role cannot be questioned.

The then 54-year-old only agreed to be in the film on the request of his children, who were fans of the game and helped him to prepare for the role of the evil warlord M Bison. Sadly, Julia was suffering from stomach cancer at the time of filming, and yet his pale complexion is the only indication that this was a man nearing death.

Street Fighter’s dialogue is ridden with clichés and hyperbole – especially Bison’s, whose determination to conquer the world via an army of genetically enhanced soldiers, requires him to give several ridiculous if impassioned speeches. Indeed, Julia’s distinguished delivery wouldn’t be out of place in a serious drama: the woodenness of the other actors simply doesn’t touch Julia. He exaggerates his mannerism with the kind of self-indulgent vanity that is befitting of his character. He not only managed to rise above the turgid script but produced something that was distinctly entertaining in its own performative right.

Also worth mentioning are the striking similarities between Bison to Gomez Addams. Despite their differing goals, Julia inhabits both characters with dangerous ferocity. They are instantly likeable because of Julia’s natural charm but a small gesture or glance is enough to remind us of the insanity that lies just beneath the surface. Considering the multitudes of problems he was dealing with away from acting, it’s astonishing that Julia managed to create something that evoked the macabre genius of Gomez.

Julia died on 24 October, 1994, two months before Street Fighter was released. The film is dedicated to his memory. It’s almost as if Julia knew that this was going to be his last movie and, despite the mediocrity with which he was presented, still endeavoured to give a truly accomplished and complete performance. Street Fighter may not have been the legacy that Julia intended for himself – he certainly appeared in better films – but it perfectly captures his unique abilities as an actor. His Bison is funny, menacing, clever, camp and more interesting than everyone else in the film. Even in the direst of situations, Julia brought credibility, dignity and poise, and that is a memory worth preserving.

Published 3 Jan 2017

Tags: Jean-Claude Van Damme Raul Julia Video Game

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