At the time of this writing, one of the biggest bombs on movie screens is Battleship, a $200+ million adaptation of the board game of the same name. Audiences are staying away in droves, either because they don’t like the game or because the idea of adapting such a thing is ludicrous. I suspect the latter is closer to the truth. But Hollywood loves taking game properties and turning them into movies, though Battleship may be more of stretch than usual.
Way back in 1994, Hollywood hit upon the idea of adapting a fighting game. The misbegotten offspring of that notion was Street Fighter, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. It’s just about as awful as such a thing could ever hope to be, largely because the material is treated as a joke. One might say that original game is too goofy for a straight adaptation, and maybe that’s true, but the filmmakers didn’t even attempt to do so, thus turning off fans of the game and alienating potential outside audiences. It was a well-deserved failure.
Hollywood took another crack at that license in 2009, to likewise poor reception, and it seems now that this game, at least, will finally be left alone. In 2010, however, there was an attempt to exploit another fighting-game franchise, one with an even more niche fan-base. The end product: Tekken.
I should start out by saying that Tekken is way, way better than Street Fighter, and indeed it is far better than it has any right to be. But even though that is the case, Tekken still failed upon its limited release in Asia, where fighting games are almost a religion, and only got the direct-to-DVD treatment in the United States. This was probably a wise move because in addition to being an adaptation of a relatively obscure fighting game, Tekken fully embraces its roots and as a result delivers up something more akin to the 1988 film, Bloodsport. Movies like Bloodsport aren’t made anymore, their heyday long past. Tekken is chasing a forgotten dream.
I have no idea what kind of budget director Dwight H. Little was working with, though I assume it was small. But small or not, Tekken takes great pains to deliver what fighting-game enthusiasts desire and that is fighting. Jettisoning the patently absurd storyline of the games, Tekken transplants its action to a post-collapse America where mighty corporations have carved out new lives as the de facto governing body of an impoverished citizenry. The mightiest of these corporations is Tekken, led by Heihachi Mishima (Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa in the funniest hairpiece you’re ever likely to see). Living in a destitute slum under Tekken’s dominion, Jin Kazama (Jon Foo), makes his living as a courier handling black-market goods, but he has secretly been trained by his mother in a devastating form of martial arts.
The stunt work in Tekken is handled by the stunt team of Cyril Raffaelli, whom you may remember from District 13: Ultimatum. Raffaelli’s people are top notch physical performers and even before the fighting starts in earnest, we’ve been treated to such delights as a parkour run through the slums. Such high-quality work makes the film seem richer than it actually is and goes a long way toward supporting Tekken‘s appeal.
Because this is an adaptation of a fighting game, there must be an excuse for characters to fight, and it comes in the form of the Iron Fist tournament, held annually as a way for the various global megacorporations to “war” with each other without actual armed conflict. Jin qualifies thanks to his superb martial arts skills and is immediately dumped into the intrigues behind the scenes of the various one-on-one battles.
If Tekken was just fighting and nothing else it would be passable entertainment, but nothing worth writing home about. It makes its way up a notch by actually providing a few subplots worth paying attention to, including the ongoing machinations of Heihachi’s son, Kazuya (Ian Anthony Dale), regarding control of Tekken. That actually turns out to be one of the meatier portions of the film and it helps that Dale is singularly slimy and unpleasant in his performance, which might otherwise have come across as Generic Bad Guy.
Jon Foo as Jin isn’t called upon to do overmuch besides fight and brim with barely controlled rage and skillfully resist the charms of Christie Monteiro — Kelly Overton, wearing some incredibly revealing fighting garb. This is probably a good idea, as Foo is not the strongest actor despite his physical prowess, and also because his American accent frequently slips, making the audience wonder exactly why Jin sounds like a Briton when he grew up in the good old US of A.
Direct-to-video enthusiasts will also be glad to see Gary Daniels as a cybernetic fighter called Bryan Fury. Fury gets just a touch of back-story as a combatant whose age has caused him to slip such that secret mechanical alteration is the only way for him to stay on top. I kept hoping for more, as Daniels has grown as an actor over the years and hints at hidden depths to his character, but it doesn’t come.
But acting is really just icing on the cake for a movie like this one. People want action and action they get. At one point Tekken becomes a bit too talky for its own good, but for most of the rest of its running time there is combat aplenty to keep everyone satisfied. As I mentioned before, the closest thing to Tekken is probably Bloodsport and the many clones that followed it, so if you happen to like that sort of thing you’re going to be entertained by this one.
Is Tekken breaking new ground? No, of course not. At the same time, it’s easily the best fighting-game adaptation I’ve seen since Mortal Kombat, despite its modest budget and its sometimes ramshackle qualities. I may have some reservations about how the story is told and about a performance or two, but these are no worse than one got during the late ’80s and early ’90s when fighting movies were all the rage. Tekken isn’t going to set your world on fire, but it’s fun way to pass 92 minutes. Enjoy.