The basic premise of Gordon Chan’s “The King of Fighters” is so ridiculous and nonsensical that at one point even the screenwriters seem resigned to this fact by having a scene early on where a character admitted just as much. Then again, this is a movie based on a 2D fighting game, so as the saying goes, “Whaddaya want, ‘Citizen Friggin Kane’?” Well no, but is it too much to ask that “King of Fighters” at least doesn’t stink up the joint so thoroughly?
The plot of “King of Fighters” may be laughable, but it still pales in comparison to the casting and direction by the usually very dependable Gordon Chan, who seems to be channeling his inner Roger Christian ala “Battlefield Earth” on this one. Chan implements a variety of gratuitous tilted camera angles that, in hindsight, was probably an attempt to distract you from the bad fight choreography generously supplemented with awful wire-fu throughout the film. And did I mention the casting is beyond bad? Take Sean Faris, who is whiter than white on rice, playing a character name Kyo Kusanagi (in flashbacks, Faris is played by an obviously Asian kid!), the awfully one-note Ray Park as the evil Rugal Bernstein, cause when you think “Bernstein” you of course think Ray Park. In fact, the only saving grace of “KOF” is David Leitch, who is flat-out hilarious as world-weary CIA agent Terry Bogard. Yeah, the character doesn’t make a lick of sense, but in this film, it borders on genius.
The film’s first hour is really one big exposition scene, where various characters explain the film’s parallel dimensions concept to each other. Essentially, there’s this parallel dimension, see, where real-world fighters are magically transported when they put on a wireless phone ear piece thingy. (Talk about hands free cellphone reception!) It’s here that fighters, including Mai Shiranui (top-billed Maggie Q.), fight one another for the title of King of Fighters. Apparently all that fighting is supposed to help you become a better human being in the real world. Or some such idiotic reason. What’s important, though, is that all this is also an excuse for more tilted camerawork and incredibly bad house techno music. But of course, ol Rugal Bernstein has evil plans for the parallel dimension, and in short order has stolen some ancient artifacts, transported himself into the fighter’s world, and begins killing the fighters one by one in order to gain enough energy to free some CG snakes that float around in a CG ball that will end the world. Or fold my laundry. Honestly, I’m not really sure what the snakes are supposed to do, but dammit, they must be stopped at all costs!
It’s up to Maggie Q.’s Mai, former King of Fighters champ Iori (Will Yun Lee), and not-Asian looking whatsoever guy Kyo (Faris) to save the day. And oh yeah, Terry Bogard pops up every now and then to crack jokes and generally remind you that David Leitch is pretty damn awesome, and is probably the only actor in the whole cast who realizes he’s stuck in a ridiculous movie and is trying to make the best of what is probably his biggest role in front of the camera. Leitch has had bit parts in some big movies, including “Ninja Assassin” and “V for Vendetta”, and he’s worked as stunt coordinator on a number of high profile titles, including the aforementioned “Ninja Assassin”, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, and the upcoming “Conan”. Honestly, folks, it’s saying something when a career stunt coordinator is the best thing about a movie with actors who have been in dozens of movies in front of the camera. (FYI: Leitch apparently did not work on “KOF’s” stunts.)
Running at about ninety minutes or so, “King of Fighters” wastes a lot of unnecessary time trying to convince itself that the audience needs to know everything there is to know about its history (we don’t, by the way), when it should have just accepted that it’s a movie based on a 2D fighting game, spend 10 minutes tops on the explanations, and get to the fighting already. Speaking of which, action junkies won’t find a whole lot to grapple onto here. The fights in “KOF” are of the no-blood, no-foul variety, which is not a surprise given its PG/PG-13-ish rating. Amusingly, the film seems to realize it’s been very tame for much of its running time, and suddenly decides to get all bloody in the last couple of minutes. In-between all the talking and explainin’, there are a couple of perfunctory fights involving two lesbian chicks. Unfortunately, while the two ladies certainly look good and have been practicing their kung fu poses, it would be a stretch to say that their fights are exciting. But hey, at least they look good in black leather, and apparently they’re lesbians, so there’s that, guys.
The performances in “KOF” are all over the place. Even the usually very reliable Maggie Q. seems to have realized about halfway through the movie that she should start checking out and getting ready for better movie roles. Sean Faris, last seen in the brawling movie “Never Back Down”, looks like he’s trying his darnedest to earn his paycheck, as does Will Yun Lee (“Elektra”), but alas they’re both working uphill for pretty much the entire film. And the less said about Ray Park the better. Look, I know you fanboys love this guy from the “Star Wars” prequel, but Ray Park is a movie henchman, nothing more. Which, again, leads me to David Leitch as Terry Bogard (pictured below, with his back to the hapless lesbian wonders), whose character easily saves the day. His CIA agent (in fact, the movie’s entire concept of the CIA) is so poorly thought out and haphazardly placed within the movie that you just have to figure that the writers are doing it as a goof. It has to be, right? But hey, even if it isn’t all done with tongue firmly in cheek, I have to admit that I had a big stupid grin on my face everytime Bogard showed up and did his shtick.
The notion of Gordon Chan directing a martial arts movie had me gleeful at first, but the execution, alas, is simply not there. And while cheapie production values certainly don’t help Chan’s cause, he brings so little to the movie that it’s hard for me to believe this is the same man who directed Hong Kong actioners like “2000 A.D.” and “Fist of Legend”. When a longtime Hong Kong action director completely flubs it with the wire-fu martial arts scenes, you know you’re in for a less than spectacular product. The film’s one major highlight is the concept of a hallway with multiple doors, where each door leads you somewhere else – or perhaps right back in some other part of the same hallway. This is, in fact, the height of creativity in “King of Fighters”, which is sad and — well, scratch that, it’s just sad. The final 30 minutes is essentially one big fight scene, as all the characters gang up against poor Rugal and his two lesbian girls. But honestly, it’s all a big mess involving out-of-nowhere superpowers (suddenly everyone starts developing the ability to throw magical fireballs at each other or some such nonsense), and just endless fighting that seems to get no one absolutely anywhere.
If you had to see just one videogame movie this year, you’d be wise to choose Dwight Little’s “Tekken” over Gordon Chan’s “The King of Fighters”. The differences are startling in terms of production values, but probably more important to gaming fans, the action. “Tekken” is simply a far superior film in almost every respect, and as an added bonus, its screenwriters aren’t completely taken and invested in explaining every inch of its bullshit premise. It’s too bad the writers of “KOF” didn’t realize what a load of horse manure they were being saddled with and simply dumped all the earnest exposition and extraneous parallel dimension junk and gone instead with a campy, balls-out action movie. Oh, what might have been…
For those still clinging to hope, “The King of Fighters” arrives on DVD September 7, 2010 from Vivendi Home Entertainment. Check your local import DVD dealers.
Gordon Chan (director) / Rita Augustine, Matthew Ryan Fischer (screenplay)
CAST: Sean Faris … Kyo Kusanagi
Will Yun Lee … Iori Yagami
David Leitch … Terry Bogard
Maggie Q … Mai Shiranui
Ray Park … Rugal Bernstein
Bernice Liu … Vice
Monique Ganderton … Mature
Françoise Yip … Chizuru