'Street Fighter' is witless, even for a Van Damme movie

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In "Street Fighter," a scientist has transformed a man into a superhuman killer by tampering with his mind in a process the screenwriter airily christens "cerebral download." You don't have be Einstein -- or even Frankenstein -- to take this as fair warning to leave your brain in the lobby before confronting Jean-Claude Van Damme's latest homicidal spree.

It admittedly would be in the kinder, gentler spirit of the season to label Van Damme's latest farrago of flying fists and feet a career relapse. But that would imply that the Belgian martial-arts star is making progress as an actor. He still delivers dialogue with the puzzled concentration of someone trying to read a ventriloquist's lips. Then again, it doesn't much matter, since screenwriter Steven de Souza was clearly cerebrally downloaded himself when he embarked on "Street Fighter."

De Souza, whose scripts include "Die Hard," has forgotten just about everything he learned about action movies. This is inconvenient, since "Street Fighter" marks his directing debut. The film is based on the popular video game and plays as a pathetically incoherent attempt to accommodate all the characters kids want to see come to life on the big screen.

It was bad enough that death claimed Raul Julia this year -- a

blow compounded by the fact that "Street Fighter" now represents the final movie of an actor of his stature and distinction. He is cast as General Bison, a fascist drug lord who brings out the herd instinct in humanity. With a vast army to do his bidding in a Southeast Asian country called Shadaloo, Bison has taken hostages and demanded a $20 billion ransom from a world governing body called the Allied Nations.

Maybe de Souza thought the United Nations would sue for defamation if he used their logo. We know in real life the U.N. can't do much to stop massacres on a national scale in the Balkans, let alone worry about a handful of hostages. But "Street Fighter" is about nonstop death, not real life.

Any doubt on that score is quashed by the appearance of Van Damme, as the head of a peacekeeping force bent on rescuing the hostages. In other circumstances, the campy asides that Julia gives General Bison and his designer Nazi outfits might have been modestly amusing instead of painfully sad.

In one of his better sallies, Bison hectors the scientist in charge of downloading gray matter. The man complains that his work is being perverted as he languishes in Shadaloo, churning out what amount to Shadaloobotomies. "After I crush my enemies," Bison promises with a demented sneer, "I'll see about getting you published." With all the bodies piling up, the pledge lends a new meaning to the academic imperative "Publish or perish."

"Street Fighter"

Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Raul Julia

Directed by Steven E. de Souza

Released by Universal Pictures

Rated PG-13

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