| August 12, 2011

The Anchor Bay release of Tekken, an adaptation of the popular martial arts video game franchise, is a perfect example of why the [lack of] evolution in martial arts cinema is so disheartening to me. On its own terms, Tekken is a rather solid effort from director Dwight H. Little. Among many films and television shows to his credit, Little’s high point remains his back-to-back productions of Marked for Death, one of Steven Seagal’s greatest offerings, and Rapid Fire, one of the most underrated modern martial arts films and the best showcase in the all-too-brief life and career of Brandon Lee. The strength of those two films can undeniably be attributed to the strength of their stars, and the common element between both Seagal and Lee—the element missing from Tekken despite appearances to the contrary—is a commitment to realism.
With Tekken, it seemed as if it would be a modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) affair set in a Blade Runner-inspired dystopia, and credit to the film, that’s exactly how it began. The first two fight sequences in the film feature the star, Jon Foo, competing against real-life MMA fighters Cung Le (playing the character Marshall Law, inexplicably reduced to a mere cameo appearance in spite of Le’s skills and the popularity of the video game character) and Roger Huerta (playing the character Miguel Rojo, a later addition in the video game franchise). These two fights resemble actual MMA competition, the first fight with Le actually taking place in a cage reminiscent of the (in)famous Octagon housed in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Subsequent to the sequence with Huerta, however, the film nosedives into ridiculous, WWE-inspired theatricality and high-flying, Chop Socky-inspired absurdity.
Beyond just the progressively nonsensical fight scenes, the story is also bogged down in clichés. Tekken is essentially a mash-up of Blade Runner (a burned-out, futuristic shithole at the mercy of the powerful Tekken corporation, serving as a not-so-subtle stand-in for the Tyrell corporation) and The Running Man (the rich and powerful maintain control over the destitute masses with their broadcasts of the brutal fighting tournament) with a Chop Socky revenge angle and a silly Oedipal reveal to round out the amalgam. While these are the most recognizable of its influences, the closest film in Tekken’s martial arts bloodline is probably the 1998 film Champions. Starring pioneering MMA legend and UFC Hall of Famer, Ken Shamrock, as the villainous champion of “Terminal Combat,” and Danny Trejo as the inevitable megalomaniacal promoter, the film sees its protagonist enter the deadly tournament initially seeking revenge, just like Foo in Tekken, only to realize the real enemy is not the vicious tournament champion but the tournament itself and the man who runs it, resulting in the exploited fighters ultimately banding together and turning on their master.
This element of Tekken is unquestionably the most intriguing, especially since, in addition to a “greedy rich guy running the show” angle, there’s a “greedy rich guy trying to steal the show from the old patriarch unwilling to pass the torch to his psycho son” angle, and the old patriarch is played by B-movie favorite, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, villain of such cult classics as The Perfect Weapon, Showdown in Little Tokyo, and, of course, the film adaptation of Mortal Kombat, Tekken‘s direct predecessor. Rather than focus on the father/son (i.e., the older generation, the creator of Tekken, and the new generation, the one perverting Tekken) or corporation/proletariat angles, Tekken becomes a redundant “boy meets girl and has to save her from mean Other” story, with a Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader Oedipal struggle added because it just wasn’t cliché enough.
Fans of the video game franchise will likely appreciate seeing the characters they’ve played as and competed against brought to life and given the big screen treatment, and while the fight choreography gets progressively less realistic as the film goes on, the choreography and stunt work are both still very well-done and will provide more than enough entertainment by martial arts movie standards. I’m just waiting for the day when I’ll be able to witness the release of a mainstream, big-budget martial arts film that doesn’t have to be set in a war-torn, futuristic dystopia; that doesn’t have to feature a tournament that follows a savage, deathmatch format; and that doesn’t involve a “hero backed into a corner who has to fight to survive” angle, a revenge plot, or a family battle fought in the arena (damn you, Warrior, you were so close!)

About the Author:

Kyle Barrowman is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at Columbia College in Chicago. In addition to his work for Film Monthly, he has previously published essays for Cashiers du Cinemart, Offscreen, and The International Journal of Žižek Studies, on subjects ranging from film noir to Alfred Hitchcock, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Lee.
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