A dive into 1990s movies based on beat ’em up videogames

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Street Fighter, Double Dragon and Mortal Kombat spearheaded the videogame movie: Bethany dives into the films for the very first time.

Spoilers for all three films lie ahead.

“Well, I put this off long enough” I thought to myself as I sat down with the three movies cued up to get watching.  I’d been playing a lot of Pokémon and watching the cartoon series which in this moment felt like preparation.  After watching Netflix’s excellent documentary series High Score I’d watched a couple of YouTube videos about videogame movies, I felt prepared to delve in: it was time for some videogame films.

After all, with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson making the delightful Rampage movie almost as penance for the execrable Doom, and current Man Who Can Do No Wrong™ Ryan Reynolds starring in the quite lovely Detective Pikachu it seemed like videogame movies were finally starting to come of age.

But which to watch? Initially I thought let’s watch the six that they made in the 1990s!’ and then I looked at the list and went ‘maybe not’.

The Fred Savage vehicle The Wizard then was Nintendo’s first foray into movies, and as much as I loved that film as a kid, it was essentially a 90 minute advert for Super Mario Bros 3, a game that wasn’t out in the UK for a full 18 months after the film was released. That, and a promo for Nintendo’s Power Glove, a product that looked cool, but was shelved by the time the first game actually made for it hit the shelves.


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Infamously, Nintendo followed this up by selling the movie rights for Super Mario Bros. to a small indie studio called Lightmotive, giving up creative control but retaining licensing rights.  The resultant film was supposed to be a dark(ish) comedy with a similar tone to Ghostbusters. The first draft was written by Barry Morrow who’d just won an Oscar for his script for Rain Man.  His Super Mario Bros would have been a dark comedy road movie about two brothers on an existential journey. This, though, was the Super Mario Bros movie we were robbed of!

What we got instead was a legendarily bad movie that ended the career of the directors, and there are already a million stories and videos out there about it. (side note: Tom Hanks was originally pegged for the role of Mario but turned it down when filming would clash with Philadelphia, and the role instead went to Bob Hoskins)

Looking at the list of the six I thought the best thing was to watch the three movies based on iconic arcade games. Games with zero plot, allowing the film makers carte blanche to build worlds around them.

So the movies I have in front of me for this marathon of mediocrity are: Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Double Dragon.

Double Dragon

I’m as surprised as anyone that they made a Double Dragon movie. From what I remember in the arcades as a child it was a side scrolling beat ’em up where you had either punch or kick and you fought a guy who looked like he had a pumpkin for a head.  Turns out that guy’s name is Bo Abobo, and the smaller picture show how they decided to present him in the film.


This is going to be so good, I figured. I grew up on cheap and crappy kung-fu movies. My favourites were from a producer called Godfrey Ho. He did this thing where he made what felt like two movies and then poorly spliced them together, usually starring US karate expert Richard Harrison.

Those movies had names like Ninja Thunderbolt (where ninjas on rollerskates have a car chase that ends when the hero finds a hill to drive up, and it also features a pre-Street Fighter spinning bird kick), Scorpion Thunderbolt (where the IMDb synopsis sums it up as “while a deadly snake monster runs amok in Hong Kong, a man (Richard Harrison) learns of an evil witch who wants to steal his magic ring” and that description still doesn’t do it justice), and Ninja Terminator. In that one, ninja robots attempt to steal back a sacred blade.

What I’m saying is Double Dragon seems right up my street.  It’s got 3.8 out of ten on IMDb and it’s got four and a half stars out of ten on Amazon Prime which gives you some idea of what we’re looking at. It’s firmly in guilty pleasure territory.

As I’m watching it though, it’s not actually all that bad.  It opens on the past and the legend of the Double Dragon amulet, telling of how thousands of years ago an ancient Chinese king sacrificed himself to create a medallion, one half with the power over body and the other with the power over soul. He gave the two halves to each of his sons.  We know how this is going to go down.  90 minutes of the baddie, in this case Koga Shaku played by Robert Patrick with the most fantastic reverse Paulie Walnuts hair, and apparently working from the direction “act harder”.

It’s set in ‘New Angeles’ in 2007, the island that Los Angeles has become following an earthquake. Usually movie visions of the future aren’t how they imagine the future, they’re about being as pure a hit of the present as they can manage.  Strangely though, watching a 1994 version of 2007 in 2020, an LA where the sky is orange and full of smoke, where Mad Max style cars are rolling coal, MMA style karate competitions are huge entertainment and there’s a curfew in effect, it feels shockingly present.

It’s interesting seeing the way they’ve set dressed the streets to look dirty and run down is pretty much how most cities do look right now.

It’s great fun, too. It’s Walter Hill’s The Warriors, with Mad Max cars, Back To the Future Part II’s alternative timeline’s aesthetic, and the feel of Schwarzenegger’s Commando. It feels like it knows it’s terrible, but doesn’t know whether or not it’s meant to be funny.

Mark Dacascos and Scott Wolf do a stand up job of playing the Lee Brothers who go on their journey to try to keep the medallions separate, and less than ten minutes in it’s obvious they’ll fail, that Robert Patrick will get them both and be destroyed by the power within, while their purity of heart will win the day. But in the meantime we’ll enjoy the sets they seem to have borrowed from RoboCop, and some of Alyssa Milano’s finest acting work.

Having been an actor and found myself in scenes where it’s not obvious how to get my character from one place physically and emotionally to where they need to be, there’s nothing but respect for both Wolf and Lee as they repeatedly have to do things that make no logical sense whatsoever in order to move the scene along.

Mark Dacascos especially, he’s a fantastic martial artist and never gives anything less than 100% commitment in his fight scenes.

There are some incredibly low stakes weapons used to devastating effect: a traffic cone and a light velvet curtain both manage to stop baddies. My favourite though is seeing Al Leong – who played Ghengis Khan in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure – stopped mid-fight by getting his ponytail closed in a suitcase, just so Scott Wolf could shout “what a headcase”.

What’s striking too is the quality of the matte work in this.  LA is flooded so we see loads of the landmarks we recognise partially submerged and collapsing, and where now they’d use CG it’s all practical and it’s beautiful.  I’m not one for slamming CGI, there were 1500 visual effects shots in Mad Max Fury Road, and they were spectacular, but this looks a lot better than the VFX matte shots in the opening scene of Chicago from 2002.

The movie ends predictably but knowingly, and it’s willing to not take itself too seriously. And as the credits start to roll (to the remarkably incongruous music choice of ‘All Together Now’ by The Farm) it was a small shock to realise that this was produced by Don Murphy and Jane Hamsher, and that this was the movie they chose to follow up their debut, Natural Born Killers.

Street Fighter

Following the outright fun of Double Dragon with what turns out to be the utterly joyless Street Fighter movie is a shock to the system.

Where Double Dragon often didn’t know if it was playing as comedy or straight action movie, Street Fighter did know that it was a straight action movie.  I don’t want to get all Adam Curtis, however; unfortunately this knowledge was a delusion.

On paper it looks entertaining enough.

Raul Julia who’d just played the definitive Gomez Addams in two movies is the baddie M. Bison, and in a bizarre casting decision Jean-Claude Van Damme, (a man who can’t really always play Belgian convincingly) took on the role of the American Colonel Guille.

The plot is remarkably unconvoluted. M. Bison is a dictator with Hostages, and Guille of the UN-like Allied Nations needs to rescue them.

Oh, and the writers need to find a way to shoehorn every character from Street Fighter II the arcade game into the script.

The obvious choice here would have been an homage to Enter The Dragon, and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s earlier movie Blood Sport. Perhaps with Bison still having plans for world domination and maybe having Ryu and Ken uncovering a world domination plot that was going on behind the scenes with a super soldier programme. That, or killer robots using artificial intelligence to learn from the best fighters in the world.

Instead what we got was a plodding one hour and forty minutes of a movie that took itself far too seriously.  I know I made fun of Bo Abobo and what they did with the prosthetic make-up in Double Dragon, but by the time we see what Bison’s mutagen has done to create Blanca I think Abobo in Green would have been far better.

The handful of jokes and witty quips that made it into the script are mostly strangled to death by JCVD, and in this movie he adds ‘man who can’t play blonde convincingly’ to his resume.

It’s such a shame that it was Raul Julia’s penultimate movie as he’s the real highpoint here. He’d died before the film was released and there’s a ‘Vaya con Dios’ message in the end credits, which makes the post credits cliffhanger where Bison rises from the dead seem not only pointless but tasteless.

Mortal Kombat

By the time I’m hitting play on Mortal Kombat, I’m hoping the film based on the game based on Van Damme’s movies fares better than I’m imagining it will.  Though of the videogame movies of the 1990’s it is the only one with numerous sequels (and it was a genuine hit on release, too). It’s by New Line Cinema as well who at this point in the 90s seemed to be incapable of putting a foot wrong, at least to my admittedly foggy memory of the time around my leaving high school.

The film’s a lot more fun than Street Fighter. It mostly manages to hit the same tone as the bits in early series of Buffy where the nests of vampires are talking to each other about their evil plans, and the lighting design at point feels like some of Ernest Dickerson’s work on Mo’ Better Blues.

It sort of follows the narrative I thought Street Fighter should have, only without the super soldier subplot I imagined and instead focussing on the higher stakes fight for the souls of multiple realities.  There’s also some overly brave CGI considering the era, a reptile in particular that looks like it’s from Tomb Raider 2 for the PlayStation One. Goro looks like he was animated by the master, Ray Harryhausen, whilst also resembling Earl from Jim Henson’s Dinosaurs.

Considering that the ‘fatalities’ in the arcade game were so bloody that they ended up being discussed in the US Congress during the 90s’ videogame panic, the movie seems remarkably tame and blood free by today’s standards.

Possibly my favourite moment is when Liu Kang has a battle with Katana who gives him the cryptic message “in your next battle use the element that gives life.”

Then in his next battle, against Sub Zero, just as he’s about to be frozen he sees Kitana again, and remembers (which we hear in voice over) “use the element that gives life”. We then see a bucket of water freezing and Liu Kang says “water!” It feels like the writer Kevin Droney had seen the Garth Marenghi quote “I know writers who use subtext, and they’re all cowards” and taken it seriously.

Watching the three films back to back, it’s hard to understand why, other than snobbery, movies based on videogames have had such a critical panning. Street Fighter aside they’re certainly no worse than so many of the routine action movies of the era.

Watching them gave me the feeling of it being a Sunday night in my late teens, round at my girlfriend’s house watching whatever movie her dad, Terry, had chosen from the video man who’d come round the estate in his van and recommend.

I think that could be the reason.  The people who grew up with videogames weren’t yet the critics, and a lot of the middle-aged dads who watched these movies thought videogames were childish and silly.

Maybe that’s the difference now.  Middle-aged dads spent a lot of money in the arcades, and lost weekends in a haze of weed smoke trying to perfect their dragon punch on Street Fighter II for the SNES.

Maybe some of the critics writing about movies don’t remember a world that didn’t have Pokemon in it. Maybe the current crop of videogame movies haven’t got better, they’re just out at the right time with people who grew up with the medium making, criticising and watching them.

Maybe I’ll be eating my words in a year’s time when Tom Holland’s Uncharted movie is released…

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