Ansah Reveals Street Fighter Done Properly in 'Assassin's Fist'

Directed by: Joey Ansah; Runtime: 151 mintues
Grade: B

Too often in big-screen adaptations, especially with videogames, characters with straightforward histories and personality traits get inflated and bent to a script's whim, resulting in portrayals resembling their origins little beyond their name. Some, like Prince Dastan, Liu Kang, and even Bob Hoskins' Mario, escape their respective movies relatively unscathed; others, like Raidan, Luigi, and Max Payne, suffer heavy blows that make them nigh-impossible to value beyond reluctant understanding of the "... we've gotta make it work as a movie!" mentality. Few videogame adaptations are more egregious in that aspect than the '90s Street Fighter movie, notably in the depiction of fan-favorite characters Ken and Ryu: dedicated and conflicted warriors in the games reframed into daffy con artists. With knowledge of the successful Street Fighter animation and comic-book series under his belt, actor and stunt guy Joey Ansah decided to get his hands dirty in giving the franchise, and those characters, some due respect with Assassin's Fist. While flawed as a cohesive big-picture production, the two-plus hour series excels at being exhilarating, smartly reverent, and more philosophically pertinent than one might expect from a fighting-game flick.

Everything about Joey Ansah's take on the Street Fighter mythos exudes reference and precision, depicting the process of Ken and Ryu's training in the fading art of Ansatsuken ("Assassin's Fist") before they embark on their journey to the game's focal tournaments. It provides fleshed-out background information behind how they arrive at Master Gouken's doorstep in Japan -- Ryu as a mysterious orphan adopted by the martial arts master; Ken as the rambunctious child of a wealthy, busy entrepreneur in the US in need of discipline -- and the ways in which their personalities impact their focus on the spiritual/magical side of their art, the Ki, as well as their competitiveness with each other. In the midst of their training and character definition, they're also told the story of Gouken's brother, Goki, who struggled with channeling and controlling the mystical energy into the fighting style's potent energy/fireball attacks, a warning of what could happen if they lose themselves to the power.

Assassin's Fist originally appeared on Machinima (a la Mortal Kombat: Legacy) as a series of webisodes that clock in between ten and fifteen minutes a pop, each ending with some kind of credible "gotcha" moment that seamlessly feeds into the next installment's opening scene. Therefore, the chopped-up content flows together surprisingly well as a singular narrative, unnoticeably so, when welded together without the title cards; however, the sprawling length of all the picaresque segments continuing one after the other leads the production to suffer from some awkward storyline pacing issues. Part of that comes from the lack of an immediate conflict or stakes in the modern-era plot, which is essentially a feature-length training montage for Ryu and Ken as they discover their distinctive capabilities and experience their own issues with harnessing the Ki. In truth, the structure of Assassin's Fist predominately revolves around gratifying the games' fans instead of concentrating on forward-moving momentum, given only mild uncertainty in Ken's waning interest in the training and desire to fast-track his energy honing.

Here's the thing, though: Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist transforms that sparsely-plotted, doting concentration on the lore into its own style of martial-arts drama, hybridizing the discipline and control of physical training with the quasi-philosophical struggle in focusing Ken and Ryu's powers. The methods and willingness in how the guys decide to tap into their powers -- or fast-track their growth by unstable means, through the "dark" version of what they're being taught by their master -- becomes a source of depth and looming curiosity in the story, as well as a smart way of sketching out their personality types: restraint versus ferocity, embodied with mixed but admirable buoyancy by actors Christian Howard and Mike Moh. The struggle between controlling and unleashing one's potential (as well as resorting to darker, more wrathful motivations) certainly isn't a new concept, stretching back to '80s kung-fu films all way to Keanu Reeves' recent directorial debut in Man of Tai Chi. That said, it fits comfortably within the Street Fighter universe and manifests rather well on-screen through the warriors' Japanese training, especially when juxtaposed with the cautionary descent of Gouken's power-hungry brother.

Surprisingly, amid the fireballs, windmill kicks and rising uppercuts, Assassin's Fist manages to make Street Fighter's signature moves feel like natural extensions of a martial-arts style instead of showy indulgence, elevated by strong production values that defy the lack of Hollywood-caliber budget. Director Joey Ansah's grasp on hand-to-hand fighting shines in the choreography, photographed with a steady, clear perspective on the geography and potency of battle. Does the director's perspective delve headlong into fan-service territory? On occasions, sure, when he lingers a little too long on (numerous) uppercuts and on Ryu and Ken's changes in appearance. They're so frequently counterbalanced by Ansah's organic incorporation of other elements -- the formation and release of hadoken energy balls, the creation and emergence of their nemesis, Akuma (Ansah himself), and their purpose for embarking to the tournament itself -- that you're willing to enjoy his diligence in reminding the audience that he knows his way around what Street Fighter's all about, something sorely lacking in the messes contorted within the Van Damme and Kruek vehicles.

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