Like many people of my generation in North America, the first exposure to The Street Fighter (1974), starring Sonny Chiba, was probably the brief clip shown in Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993), which was written by Quentin Tarantino, a big fan of Chiba, an actor who got his start appearing in science fiction and crime thrillers but is best known for his martial arts movies, chief among them The Street Fighter series. True Romance’s main character celebrates his birthday by going to see a Sonny Chiba triple feature at a local theater and there he meets the girl of his dreams. In explaining the allure of Terry Tsurgui – Chiba’s character in the film – he sums it up best by telling her, “Well, he ain’t so much a good guy as he is just one bad motherfucker. I mean, he gets paid by people to fuck guys up.” Based on the worldwide success of Enter the Dragon (1973), the Toei Company decided to release its own martial arts action films and the result was The Street Fighter. It would be this film that would make Chiba an international movie star. The film went on to garner a notorious reputation for its bone-crunching violence, which earned it an unprecedented X rating in North America – the first film to do so based solely on violence.
Terry Tsurgui (Chiba) is a mercenary hired by the Yakuza to free a convicted killer named Junjo (Masashi Ishibashi) from prison who is about to be executed. The man killed seven people with his fighting skills, which one prison guard says sarcastically, “He must think he’s Bruce Lee.” Terry enters the prison under the guise of a Buddhist priest (?!) and engineers quite a clever breakout by zapping Junjo with a move that induces paralysis thereby making him unfit for execution. It takes less than four minutes into the film and we get a pretty cool fight sequence in slow motion complete with funky sound effects that were the hallmark of 1970s era martial arts films. If that weren’t enough, a fantastic spaghetti western-esque theme song by way of Shaft-era Isaac Hayes plays over the opening credits sequence and off we go.
With his sidekick and comic relief Ratnose (Goichi Yamada), Terry hijacks the ambulance carrying Junjo en route to the hospital. When the man’s brother and sister are unable to pay up, Terry proceeds to mess them up, including sending the brother out a window to his death and selling the sister into prostitution. When Terry dares to ask for more money to kidnap a rich Japanese heiress in order to control her fortune, his employers decide to kill him because Terry knows too much. As we all know from these kinds of films that that is a fatal mistake and boy, does he make them pay.
Terry only really cares about money and asks a lot for his services. He is a gruff, no-nonsense kind of guy. The film wastes no time in establishing Terry’s badass credentials as he takes on more than six guys that stupidly try to ambush him in his apartment. There’s a wild-eyed intensity that is quite unnerving to his opponents. What Terry lacks in finesse, he more than makes up for in ferocity. Subtlety is certainly not his forte. For example, he attempts to tail his target in a car without caring about or knowing to follow from a discreet distance. For his troubles, the car he and Ratnose are in is grabbed by a construction vehicle and dropped off a bridge! However, Terry’s not invincible and gets his ass handed to him when he takes on the head of a karate school who knew his father. There’s no denying that Sonny Chiba has a unique screen presence and an intense stare that puts guys like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal to shame.
Goichi Yamada’s Ratnose is a character whose only purpose appears to be as comic relief (“Who do you think you’re talking to, Madame Butterfly?” he says to Terry at one point in reference to his lousy cooking skills), groveling and being endlessly insulted by Terry. However, he does get his self-sacrificing heroic moment in the sun and this selfless act draws a rare tear of emotion from Terry, which in a weird sort of way humanizes the film’s brutal protagonist.
The Street Fighter is chock full of great, cheesy B-movie dialogue intoned by a guy dubbing Terry’s voice trying to affect a gravely Clint Eastwood-esque vibe. One choice gem has Terry tell some assailants, “So I’m to die because I know who it is that controls the Yakuza here? Isn’t that mean and nasty?” Another gem comes when Junjo goes into an oxygen coma, collapses right before being executed and a prison official asks someone nearby, “You’re a lawyer – what must I do?” It is how this line is said – in stilted, badly done dubbing – that makes it funny. However, there are also some pretty cool lines, too, like when Junjo confronts Terry and tells him, “I’ve waited a long time to settle the score.” Terry replies dismissively, “Sorry, I’ve more urgent things right now.” How cool is that? Yeah, I’m not too busy completing a job to kick your ass right now… maybe later.
In The Street Fighter, Terry punches, kicks and viciously gouges his way through a series of brutal encounters. Among the scenes that earned the film an X rating are one in which Terry castrates a would-be rapist with his bare hands, which still manages to shock with its intensity and graphic nature even by today’s standards. Guys are punched so hard they spit out mouthful of teeth and spew judicious amounts of blood. But the film saves the best (and nastiest) move for the final showdown, an impressive battle as Terry proceeds to single-handedly decimate a tanker boat full of henchmen with a climactic fight on deck in the pouring rain.
Shigehiro Ozawa’s direction is appropriately dynamic with plenty of skewed camera angles, slow motion, black and white flashbacks and even an X-ray shot of Terry crushing a guy’s skull with his fist. How badass is that? He makes excellent use of the widescreen frame, especially during the fight scenes, letting them play out along the entire length of the frame.
When New Line Cinema picked up the film in North America, it was renamed The Street Fighter from its original title, which translated into the infinitely cooler sounding, Clash, Killer Fist! It earned an X rating for the gory violence and the studio re-edited the film significantly, cutting out 16 minutes in order to get an R rating. The Street Fighter was an international hit spawning two sequels, Return of The Street Fighter (1974) and The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge (1974) as well as a spin-off film, Sister Street Fighter (1974). None of them hold a candle to the one that started it all – a cult film that dispenses with niceties like political correctness and restraint for an unbridled romp through the criminal underworld led by Chiba’s unrepentant mercenary. For fans of down ‘n’ dirty martial arts movies, this one is pure catnip and a potent reminder of how good a decade the ‘70s was for the genre where you could have a mainstream masterpiece like Enter the Dragon along with no-holds barred carnage on display in The Street Fighter.