The Streetfighter – Wearing Cynicism Lightly

Country: Japan
Genre: Action/ Martial Arts/ Comedy/ Exploitation
Director: Shigehiro Ozawa
Year: 1974

Rating: ★★★½☆


Here we have a film with a hero that the filmmakers go out of their way to paint as a complete bastard, and proud of it. Yet, through some weird feat of cinematic alchemy, The Streetfighter is quite funny. That’s due to three factors: the screenwriters have structured each revelation about the depths of our hero Takuma Tsurugi’s (Sonny Chiba) depravity as the punchline to a joke, director Shigehiro Ozawa ladles on the gore to an absurd degree, and Sonny Chiba contorts his face like Silly Putty while he’s smearing his opponents.

Chiba’s karate is not really the attraction here, although by the standards of the era, the martial arts bouts aren’t bad. What makes The Streetfighter worth watching is the tongue in cheek oneupmanship of the martial arts mayhem and the tightly structured and incident filled screenplay by Kôji Takada and Motohiro Torii.

Tsurugi has been hired by Nachi to rescue her brother from prison (he killed seven karate experts when he challenged a dojo), but it turns out that she only had enough money to pay for the deposit on the job. Tsurugi is not amused, and comes up with a logical solution that makes an enemy out of the karate expert he rescued.

But Tsurugi doesn’t care. He’s on to the next job. A Hong Kong assassination outfit wants to hire him to kidnap the heiress to an oil fortune, but they won’t meet his terms.

Ultimately, Tsurugi hires himself out to the heiress as protection and, whaddya know, the karate expert he rescued from prison is hired by the assassination outfit to kidnap the heiress, setting up the inevitable grudge match.

The screenwriters have done a great job of structuring the script so that there is a maximum of pithy scenes with comic payoffs and a minimum of downtime. It’s no wonder that The Streetfighter is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite flicks.

So, why haven’t I given The Streetfighter a higher rating?

Well, part of it is the martial arts, which are adequate, but not especially inspiring. Another is the comic relief of Tsurugi’s sidekick, which is kind of lame. But mostly, The Streetfighter is a jape, almost a spoof of a genre piece, and I don’t respond well to those. Since we aren’t meant to take the events and characters of The Streetfighter seriously, there’s little tension and no rooting interest, really.

The Streetfighter is a shallow experience, but for what it is, it’s very, very good.

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