Badder than Bruce Lee? Sonny Chiba may honestly be able to claim that title. Considering the timing of the Street Fighter films (all three were made in 1974, the year after Enter the Dragon), they were obviously inspired by the success of Lee's films. But as funky and trashy as Enter the Dragon was, The Street Fighter is even funkier and trashier.
Junjou (Masashi Ishibashi) is a convict on Japan's death row. Minutes away from execution, he agrees to see a Buddhist priest (the rattiest priest we've ever seen), despite the fact that he has refused all other such offers. The reason he accepted this visitor is because he recognized the priest as a karate fighter. When left alone, a fight breaks out. The priest, actually Terry Tsurugi (Sonny Chiba), wins the fight and hits Junjou with a special punch that deprives Junjou of oxygen. If you are wondering why this would be more efficient that simply drugging Junjou, stop reading right now! You will never understand this film.
Junjou is taken to the gallows, where he faints from oxygen deprivation before they can get his neck through the noose. Faced with no other alternative, the prison warden sends Junjou to the hospital. It seems that they can't execute a sick person. If that doesn't make sense, stop reading right now! You will never understand this film.
For James Bond, this is Tuesday.
As Junjou is taken away from jail in an ambulance Terry and his toady Ratnose hijack the ambulance, and then send Junjou to Hong Kong. (Precisely how or why they do this is not clear, but its a plot point.)
Junjou's brother and sister show up at Terry's apartment, demanding to see their sibling. Terry tells them he's in Hong Kong, but they have to pay Terry the rest of the money they owe him. When the brother informs Terry that he is a little short, Terry tries to sexually assault the sister. A karate fight breaks out, and the brother goes out the window ala Bruce Lee in Marlowe (1969). Terry then takes the sister and sells her into white slavery!
While conducting this bit of business with the Yakuza (according to the script of this movie, a Hong Kong-based crime organization with Mafia ties), the local crime boss (Yutaka Nakajima, we think) makes Terry an offer. They want Terry to kill a young woman who has just inherited a huge oil company. When Terry won't agree to their price, they try to kill him. Terry uses his karate skills to escape.
Terry's next move is to break into the dojo that is sheltering the heiress, beat up a bunch of guards, and sexually assault the heiress. He does this to get himself a job guarding the heiress. Note to our readers: This kind of behavior will not get you a job in the real world, unless you want to be a White House intern. Once Terry has been charged with protecting the heiress, the movie becomes an endless series of attempts on Terry's life, until Terry has to rescue the heiress from the oil tanker where she is being held hostage by the *ahem* Hong Kong Yakuza.
Is he about to beat the crap out
of someone, or hawk a loogie?
Oh, and remember Junjou from the beginning of the movie? While in Hong Kong he hooks up with some of the Hong Kong Yakuza, all of whom dress like they're auditioning for a Five Venoms film. The Yakuza offer Junjou a woman, and low and behold he finds his sister. Junjou vows revenge on Terry, and the Yakuza are only too happy to use him against their enemy.
Street Fighter is to Enter the Dragon as Lone Wolf and Cub is to Kurosawa films. This movie has sex and gore, and Terry is a heck of badass. As one character opines, "Terry, I'm sure you're the meanest guy in the world." In one very memorable scene, Terry interrupts a man trying to rape the heiress, and he tears the guy's... um, block and tackle... off with his bare hands.
Sonny Chiba doesn't bring the same physical perfection to the fights that Bruce Lee brought to his, but Chiba was trained in gymnastics as well as martial arts, so the fights are surprisingly fluid. They could be filmed a little better, but they still seem ahead of their time. Remember the x-ray scenes in Romeo Must Die? A primitive but much more effective version shows up in this film.
"You're so cute! Let me give you a kiss!"
Sonny Chiba does a good job of scowling the whole way through the movie. Like Bruce Lee, Chiba makes funny faces and weird sounds when practicing his martial arts, though in place of Lee's "duck calls" Chiba makes noises like that suction tube the dentist puts in your mouth. Beyond that, there isn't much you can say about the acting in the film. Is it cool? Yes. Does it need to be good? Not really.
Just about the only flaw with this film is that the plot makes unexplained jumps in logic. Why did Terry decide to defend the heiress? Sure, he may have reason to hate the Yakuza after they try to kill him, but his claim that he "hates all punks" rings a little false, considering that he sold a woman to the same Yakuza just a couple of scenes earlier. Also, it's never really clear how Terry finds the Yakuza every time they hide from him. We guess they have to get the fight scenes in somehow.
The Street Fighter was the first of three films where Sonny Chiba would play Terry. Both of the sequels have the exact same plot. Terry is hired by some group to perform a deed, and after Terry does the deed, his employers decide to kill him rather than pay him. The two films also share a theme: Everybody Terry meets wants to kill him.
In Return of the Street Fighter (1974) Terry is hired by the Mafia to silence a witness. Terry breaks into police headquarters and crushes the snitch's throat, but leaves him quite alive. If you are wondering how that would stop him testifying by written deposition, stop reading this review right now! You will never... Oh, who are we fooling, that didn't make sense to us either. In any case the Mafia decides to kill Terry rather than pay him for the job well done, and they bring Junjou back to deal with him.
"And this is just what I shave with!"
The Street Fighter's Last Revenge (1974) finds Terry now a master of disguise stationed in an office that features several dedicated phone operators. He is charged with retrieving some documents from the scene of a riot. But his employers, referred to as the DA's office, try to kill him rather than pay him. And their chief weapon is Mr. Black, a Mexican in full mariachi get-up who can shoot lasers with his mind. Actually Terry contemptuously reveals that Mr. Black was actually shooting lasers from his belt, but we find any kind of laser-shooting mariachi pretty impressive.
After watching these two films, you'll begin to wonder how Terry gets through the day, what with all the people trying to kill him. He gets up, and his maid tries to kill him with a knife in her hairdo. Then the paperboy takes a shot at him, and the milkman has a blowgun. And you just know there's probably a ninja midget hiding in his breakfast cereal.
The sequels are more or less disposable, but the original Street Fighter is a great example of exploitation cinema. Forget Ken and Ryu, Sonny Chiba is the street fighter we would least like to run into in a dark alley.