The anti-hero is a magnificently cinematic concept that allows us to follow the exploits of people who freely go out and do the types of morally and legally questionable acts that we ourselves would most likely be banged in the slammer for if we ever tried to emulate them – be it the nihilistic, authority hatred of Escape From New York’s Snake Pliskin, to the moustachioed vigilantism of Death Wish’s Paul Kersey, to even the law-stretching police work of Dirty Harry. To worship them is to miss the point, but their acts of anti-establishment shenanigans usually prove to be immensely cathartic as they allow us to safely experience catharsis while taking a break from the holier-than-thou white hats that are often the alternative.
However, in 1974, the anti-hero gods delivered us The Street Fighter, a martial arts feature from Japan so brutal that surely had Grindhouse immortality written all over it the second it ran through a projector. However, even by extreme anti-hero standards, the gurning powerhouss known as Terry Sugury didn’t so much push the boundaries, he tore its throat out with his bare hands.
We’re introduced to amoral criminal, Terry (named Tateki Shikenbrau in the original dub), as he is hired to break an overly violent martial artist named Junjo off of death row the day of his execution by disguising himself as a priest and helping his target fake illness by using his “oxygen coma punch” on him. Later ambushing the ambulance that’s taking Junjo to hospital and setting him loose, Terry later has a run in with the people who hired him – Junjo’s brother and sister – who can’t afford to pay the full amount and – being the design soul that he is – accidently sends the brother fatally hurtling out of a window and the promptly sells the sister into the sex trade to recoup his losses.
While we reel from this string of events, Sugury is approached by criminal Mutaguchi and his associates and offered a job to kidnap Sarai, the daughter of a recently deceased oil tycoon in order to gain control of her inheritance; however, in a rare display of conscience, Terry refuses when he discovers that he’d be working for the Yakuza.
Pissed that they’ve just told their super-illegal plan to a hulking killer, the gangsters decide to kill Terry, but soon find that his bludgeoning fists and talents in face-breaking is more than a match for any amount of thugs they can throw at him. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, Terry seeks out Sarai as she takes refuge at the dojo of her martial arts teacher and attempts to become her protector the only way he seems to know how, by beating on random people until they relent.
However, the Yakuza have taken some measures themselves by not only tapping their allies in Hong Kong to provide some colourful killers to slow Terry’s roll, but choosing to enlist Junjo to help them by gaining vengeance for his brother and sister.
When you first watch The Street Fighter, you initially think that maybe there’s been some sort of bizarre mistake where, instead of focusing on a more traditional anti-hero, we’ve followed the sort of guy who would usually be the hulking henchman who does the villain’s bidding. With a title like The Street Fighter, I certainly wouldn’t expect Terry Sugury to be the kind of guy to help old ladies across the road, but it becomes pretty obvious within the first twenty minutes that this guy is an impressively collossal bag of shit. Busting a killer out of prison for money? Sure, that scans; as does accidently killing one of the people who hired him after the guy awesomely mistimes a flying kick and hurls himself out of a multi-story window – but selling the sister into the sex trade because he needs a buck? That’s beyond fucking cold.
However, while most movies would struggle to come back from such an act while trying to make their hero more sympathetic, The Street Fighter, audaciously doesn’t even try.
Rightly worshiped by Quentin Tarantino (it features predominantly in True Romance and he memorably cast star Sonny Chiba in Kill Bill), Shigehiro Ozawa’s bone crunching crime epic has no qualms painting a broad, corrupt, almost cartoonishly illogical world to have its relentlessly violent “hero” operate in. As disturbing as Terry’s virtually nonexistent moral code is, he despises the Yakuza and apparently that’s enough for him to be exonerated in our eyes as he caves in skulls in a shaky attempt to be virtuous.
It works, but only because of two reasons. The first is the spell-binding charisma of the legendary Sonny Chiba who takes his ludicrous alpha-male and turns him into a near-supernatural engine of destruction who magnificently sells every punch, elbow and stomp with a string of highly exaggerated, Bruce Lee-style sneering. Glaring at everybody from under a set of impressively feral eyebrows and constantly holding himself like he’s about to throw a brain damaging haymaker at any second, you soon realise that judging this man is a futile act and its maybe best to just buckle up and enjoy the ride.
The other thing that makes The Street Fighter achieve maximum impact is the heightened reality of all that stunningly savage violence that forgoes the type of lightning fast slickness seen in Bruce Lee movies and instead focus the gruesome, exagerated, anime-style finishing moves the film luridly features. Thrill as we switch to an x-ray shot as Terry crunches the skull of a lowly goon, while, during another brawl he drives two fingers into the eyes of a hulking, bald man-beast like something out of the Three Stooges’ worst nightmare – however, even these acts of thrilling ultra violence pales into insignificance once you stare, open-mouthed, when Chiba rips the pecker clean off a rapist after he attempts to attack Sarai.
It’s all topped off with a glorious orgy of mutilation as the climax sees our blood soaked lead storms a ship filled to the brim with hapless thugs as he batters and splatters them with reckless abandon and finally faces off with the vengeful Junjo on the rain lashed deck despite having to contend with a bullet hole in his leg and a stab wound to the chest. It’s in these final moments that we get to The Street Fighter’s most telling shot as Terry, after pulling off a throat-ripping that makes John Rambo look like a relative rookie in comparison. As he clutches the mangled windpipe of an enemy in his clawed fist, a look of such deranged triumph crosses Sugury’s features, you feel that this brief burst of virtue may only be a passing phase and he’ll be back performing atrocities for money by lunch time the next day.
Truly exhilarating in a way that only a deranged Grindhouse title can be, The Street Fighter may feature the concept of the anti-hero at it’s most nebulous – but the sight of Sonny Chiba at the height of his powers crunching ribcages under foot like an unstoppable titan allows us to give Terry Sugury and his genital mutilating talents a temporary reprieve.