In 1994 a live-action adaptation of Street Fighter was unleashed on the world. Much like the previous video-game movies before it, critics tore it apart, citing the ridiculous plot and cheesy dialogue. It didn't matter to Capcom or Universal Pictures, though, as the film tore up the box office. Over the years, it's become something of a cult classic as fans found a lot to admire about it, especially the late Raul Julia's phenomenal performance. While we've seen other live-action Street Fighter properties released since then, none have lived on in the memory like the Steven De Souza-helmed motion picture has.
De Souza is under no illusions of what the film actually was. Speaking to The Guardian, he said, "It was extremely profitable for the studio – it cost $33m and made $105m, so it was good for everybody. People say it's so dimwitted it's funny, but we knew it was funny. How can you see that movie and think it's funny by accident?" With hindsight, it's easy to look back at this film and appreciate it for being a time capsule of the era. Yes, it's silly. Of course it's over the top and nonsensical. But did you really expect Citizen Kane from a property where E. Honda's signature move is the "Hundred Hand Slap"? There's something magical and unapologetic about Street Fighter and its first live-action outing. If anything, it's a reminder of how Jean-Claude Van Damme was one of the biggest action-movie stars in the world and studios would find any reason to cast him in their movies.
Considering Street Fighter is about a fighting tournament, the actors were forced to go through martial arts training. Famed fight choreographer Benny "The Jet" Urquidez was called in to assist. Unfortunately, Urquidez was unfamiliar with the source material and unaware that each fighter in the game had a different fighting style.
"We had our trainer, Benny, but he didn't know what video game fighting actually was – it was all new to him," Byron Mann, who portrayed Ryu, told The Guardian. "We only found out midway through the shoot that different characters have different styles. Somebody said: 'Wait a minute, why is everyone fighting in the same way?'"
Van Damme might be one of the hottest action stars of all time, but that doesn't mean that his fellow castmates liked him. In fact, on Street Fighter 2, many co-workers lamented his late coming, diva behavior, and how he'd skip scenes to get his biceps bigger while everyone waited around for him.
To his credit, though, Van Damme has acknowledged that he wasn't the easiest guy to work with back in the day and does seem to have taken accountability for his actions. Obviously Street Fighter was his Raging Bull so it's understandable how this could've all gone to his head and made him a little more rattled than usual.
Sadly, Julia passed away after Street Fighter. The film is even dedicated to his memory. Before production started, though, he was already ill, suffering from stomach cancer and undergoing treatment. When he arrived in Bangkok for filming, the crew immediately knew something was wrong.
"I got a phone call from our costume consultant. She'd gone ahead a day before us to meet Raul and she said: 'We have a problem. He looks ghastly; he's like a skeleton.' We thought: 'Oh God, what are we going to do? We can't put him on camera.' We decided to push all of Raul's scenes to the end of the movie, so he could gain weight and we'd move other things up front," De Souza told The Guardian.
If you think about it, it's difficult to create a Street Fighter film. It's about a bunch of people beating up each other, so how much can you really do with that? According to De Souza, he envisioned something far different in his original pitch for the movie than what it ended up becoming.
He explained how he wanted it to be like a James Bond adventure, with an intriguing plot and exotic locations. Plus, he wanted M. Bison to be like a typical Bond villain, with his own underground lair. Capcom was reportedly on the same page and liked his pitch – until it changed its mind.
In video games, the more characters the merrier. After all, fans want variety and more depth to their gaming. When it comes to films, however, you can't apply the same principle. That didn't stop Capcom from trying its luck with Street Fighter, as it kept nudging the director to include more characters from the series.
De Souza said that he argued there were only 100 minutes, so there wasn't a lot of screen time for all the characters and their own narratives. At one point, the developer wanted him to include all 19, so he had to reach a compromise: Many of the characters made brief cameo appearances.
Not only did Capcom try to dictate how many characters were in the film, but it also attempted to tell De Souza who to cast. However, he put his foot down when it came to the casting of Ryu. Chinese-American actor Byron Mann had already secured the part, but Capcom wanted Japanese actor Kenya Sawada, who barely spoke English.
De Souza compromised by casting Sawada in a cameo as Captain Sawada. Mann recalled to The Guardian that it caused a bit of tension between him and Sawada. "I actually met [him] a couple of times while I was going for casting. He gave me some real dagger looks."
The film suffered numerous setbacks and challenges; however, the strangest came as a result of one of the locations: Bangkok, Thailand. It proved to be incredibly hot and impacted the actors in a negative way as they started to lose weight.
As Mann told The Guardian: "There was extreme heat, extreme humidity. We were supposed to be looking buff, but we were all losing weight. If you watch the movie, we all look a lot bigger in the scenes shot in Australia. The weather was fine, the food was nice – we had all recovered." Although, the cast did say they loved the massage parlors in Bangkok.
Apart from Capcom's meddling and JCVD's diva behavior, there were other forces that threatened to halt the film's production. At the time, there was talk of a possible coup in Thailand, so the military had to be on high alert and closed all the roads.
Keith Heygate, the first assistant director on the second unit, spoke to The Guardian about the challenges. "We needed to get the cast, the crew and all this equipment to different locations, so we had to travel by high-speed boats down the [canals] at 1am in the morning. This went on for 10 days, and these boats kicked up a lot of water, so, by the time we got to the location, the cast and crew were all sodden."
After appearing in Street Fighter together, there were reports that Van Damme and Kylie Minogue had gotten closer than expected. For years, the rumors of their affair swirled around, until Van Damme confirmed it to The Guardian in 2012.
"Yes. OK. Yes, yes, yes. It happened. I was in Thailand, we had an affair," he said. "It would be abnormal not to have had an affair, she's so beautiful and she was there in front of me every day with a beautiful smile, simpatico, so charming, she wasn't acting like a big star. I knew Thailand very well, so I showed her my Thailand. She's a great lady."
For those who don't know, the character of Johnny Cage was inspired by Van Damme. Before Mortal Kombat became what it is, the developers tried to secure the license to feature Van Damme in the game. It fell through, so Cage became a pastiche of the Muscles from Brussels.
When Paul W. S. Anderson's Mortal Kombat film went into production, the first choice to play Cage was the late Brandon Lee; however, his passing on The Crow set resulted in them having to look elsewhere. Van Damme was offered the part of Cage, which would've closed the loop on this intriguing story, but he declined it in favor of doing Street Fighter.
Having worked in the entertainment industry for many years, De Souza was confident he knew what was necessary to make a PG-13 film. Unfortunately, a real-life event influenced the Motion Picture Association of America, which classified the first cut as an R rating.
The director went back to the cutting board and trimmed down all the questionable content. When the movie was submitted again, it returned with a G rating. That wouldn't fly, either, as the film was targeted at teenagers. So, De Souza had Van Damme film one extra scene where he swore and it secured the picture the PG-13 classification that the director hoped for.
De Souza had an interesting career. In 1973, he wrote, directed and produced the low-budget comedy Arnold's Wrecking Co. Beginning in the '80s, he became a prolific screenwriter, penning scripts for the likes of blockbusters such as Commando, Die Hard, Die Hard 2, 48 Hrs, The Running Man, and The Flintstones.
When De Souza heard that Street Fighter was a possibility, and being a fan of the franchise himself, he wrote the initial draft of the script overnight and presented it to Capcom. The company liked what it heard and gave the A-Okay for De Souza to oversee the film as the director. The rest, as they say, is history.
Capcom decided way in advance that it wanted Van Damme as Guile – mostly because he was the biggest face in action at the time. Additionally, it wanted a big-name actor as the antagonist, hence Julia's casting as Bison.
"Now we had a couple of big stars in the cast but less money to make the movie," De Souza told The Guardian. "It meant all the other actors had to be really new names." Considering how the likes of Ming-Na Wen and Mann went on to have their own successful careers, it looks like De Souza made some smart casting decisions even with the tight budget at his disposal.
It was a tad weird to see Guile as the focal point of the film, when fans were used to Ryu as the main man of the series. The reason for Guile's sudden elevation was down to economical reasons. Capcom had struck a deal with Hasbro to produce toys for the film, which were due to ship in the festive season.
Hasbro's G.I. Joe had experienced a dip in popularity, so a Guile-led range of toys was seen as the necessary boost for both companies. There were some strange requests, though, as De Souza had to include Guile riding in a tank because there was a toy vehicle tie-in.
The inclusion of Minogue in the film brought a lot of attention to it, as her pop-star status still soared in the mid '90s. However, her casting was somewhat of a fluke and a right time, right place sort of deal, as De Souza confessed later on.
The role of Cammy hadn't been secured until very late in the production. On a flight over to Australia, De Souza saw Minogue's photo on the cover of People magazine and decided that she was exactly what he was looking for. The deal as wrapped up and she was brought on board. As we've already discussed, her casting delighted Van Damme especially.
Street Fighter fans were rather annoyed about how Ryu's name was pronounced as "Rye-you" in the film. It's a common mistake to make, but the actual pronunciation is supposed to be "Ree-oo". Unfortunately, Damian Chapa, who portrayed Ken in the film, just couldn't say the name properly – no matter how hard he tried.
After several takes, the director decided to just leave it as "Rye-you" and infuriate longtime fans. It's actually not that difficult to say, so we wonder if De Souza got sick and tired of Chapa flubbing his lines and decided to turn a blind eye. Still, how hard is it to say "Ree-oo"?
As discussed above, the cast preferred their time in Australia over Thailand. It was a mixed bag for the actors, especially when it came down to what matters most in life: food and drink. Some of them got sick from the cuisine, while others simply didn't like the culinary offerings of Bangkok.
As Mann told Polygon: "In Thailand, no one knew it would be that hot and humid. We were malnourished and not accustomed to the food. Everyone lost weight." You'd think that the actors and crew would've researched the country before filming there, but this was the '90s and everything was crazy back then.
Capcom obviously wanted all the best bits of the games in the film. Realistically, though, it wasn't possible to throw in every character's special move for fan service as they all have a wide arsenal of attacks. One move that did make the final cut was Ryu's Hadouken, aka the cornerstone of Street Fighter.
When it came down to it, however, it looked more like he shoved Vega in the stomach than anything else. There was a brief flash on screen, but it certainly was the weakest Hadouken in history. The truth is, the filmmakers ran out of time (and probably money) to include the necessary special effects, so that's what we got instead.
Despite the destruction of Street Fighter in the press, it did really well at the box office and fans generally enjoyed the campy affair. In fact, there was even genuine interest for a sequel after a few years. A fresh rumor suggested that Van Damme would return with most of the original cast for Street Fighter 2 in 2003. Joining them would be the likes of Holly Valance and Dolph Lundgren.
Obviously, this movie never happened, but we did see Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li instead. Van Damme was given the opportunity to reprise his role as Guile for that film but turned it down. He certainly made a sound decision there.
As confirmed by Van Damme himself, he wasn't the best-behaved actor in the '90s. He indulged in the excess of Hollywood and developed some dangerous addictions when he was at the height of his fame. Even De Souza admitted that Van Damme was a nightmare on the set of Street Fighter because of his personal problems and missed many days of shooting as a result.
A minder was hired to keep JCVD in check, but it turns out his watchdog was more of an enabler than a helper. Fortunately, Van Damme managed to kick his demons to the curb and lives a healthier and happier life nowadays.