Return of the Street Fighter almost stages a third act rally. It comes so close, then it doesn’t. After a string of boring fight scenes, director Ozawa finally gets in a couple good ones. Lead Sonny Chiba against one adversary, instead of a half dozen, two dozen, or four dozen. The failure to do big fight scenes is all on Ozawa. Chiba’s holding up his end–vicious karate killing machine–but Ozawa’s not shooting the fights well. When it’s just Chiba and someone else fighting, Ozawa and editor Horiike Kôzô create this rhythm to the cuts; the “story” pauses entirely for the fight.
When it’s Chiba vs. the evil karate school? Yawn. No fault of Horikke’s though; there’s just no good footage. Ozawa doesn’t do establishing shots. No matter how long Chiba’s fighting or how much ground he’s covered, no establishing shots. Ozawa never takes the camera off Chiba and never lets Chiba stop moving. Not fighting moving, but actually moving from place to place moving. It’s sort of narratively efficient but it doesn’t get the film anywhere. It’s just another unfortunate Return detail.
The story this time has Chiba working for evil karate school owner Tanaka Hiroshi–mostly doing hits. Chiba’s got a plucky, cute girl sidekick, Ichiji Yôko, who seems a little too cozy with Tanaka. Because Chiba doesn’t believe in Tanaka’s brand of karate, Tanaka’s just another client. And when Tanaka tries to hire Chiba to take out rival (good guy) karate school owner Suzuki Masafumi… well, Chiba’s got a line.
Thanks to flashback footage from the first film, we know Suzuki is the only karate school owner Chiba’s ever going to trust. Because we get to see their entire fight scene from the previous film. Return doesn’t even run ninety minutes and there are three lengthy flashbacks using first movie footage, then there’s Ozawa’s karate documentary where he showcases the various weapons and styles in use at Tanaka’s school. Why? Because then when there are actual fight scenes involving weapons and styles, Ozawa gets to rush through and just get to Chiba running away before taking the bad karate men down.
Again, it’s narratively efficient, it just doesn’t do anything good. It makes the actual fight scenes seem abbreviated. It’s a shame. When Ozawa wants, he can direct one hell of a fight scene.
Koiwa Hajjime’s script is pragmatically plotted, even when it misses opportunities. The connecting scenes between fights improve a lot in the second half of the film, contributing to the impression it’s going to get really good for the finale.
None of the cast stands out. Chiba’s pretty good, but underutilized. And it’s not like he can fix the poorly directed group fight scenes. Ichiji is annoying, but because she’s a narrative drag, nothing about the performance. Claude Gagnon is an unimpressive Mr. Big, however. And the showdown with returning baddie Ishibashi Masashi disappoints. Group fight.
The more obvious to becomes Return of the Street Fighter has nowhere to go, the more hurried the film becomes. It’s too bad; Return has the pieces to make something. The good fight scenes are quite good. They’re just dramatically inert. Given the whole film’s about Chiba resolving threads from the last movie, dramatic inertness shouldn’t even be possible.
But dramatically inert Return gets. It’s not all on director Ozawa. Most of it is on him, though.
Directed by Shigehiro Ozawa; screenplay by Koiwa Hajjime, based on a character created by Takada Kôji; director of photography, Yoshida Sadtsugu; edited by Horiike Kôzô; music by Tsushima Toshiaki; released by Toei Company.
Starring Sonny Chiba (Tsurugi), Ichiji Yôko (Boke), Claude Gagnon (Don Costello), Ishibashi Masashi (Shikenbaru), Tanaka Hiroshi (Otaguro), Shima Naoki (Yamagami), and Suzuki Masafumi (Masaoka).
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