To see the impact that the arrival of Sonny Chiba had upon American audiences in the 1970s, you need only watch the trailer for his 1976 film The Bodyguard. A rising chant of "Viva Chiba!" accompanies images of Sonny doing various bad-ass things until the chorus raises into a frenzy. At the time Chiba was (along with many, many others) being touted as the spiritual successor to Bruce Lee - despite being Japanese - but his films showed off a very different kind of appeal. Chiba was later deified by Quentin Tarantino in his script for True Romance, as well as casting him in Kill Bill, but it's the bloody, brutal The Streetfighter where most had their first taste of the genre legend.
Chiba is Takuma (Terry) Tsurugi, a Karate expert and mercenary who we first meet busting a criminal out of prison, before killing the prisoner's brother and selling his sister into slavery when they are unable to pay their bill. It's about at this point where viewers will realize that Tsurugi is an unconventional hero, and it speaks to Chiba's brooding charisma that it's diffcult to not root for him even when he's being dispicable. Anyway, after refusing to do a kidnapping job for the.. uh.. Chinese Yakuza (Tsurugi has an issue with the Chinese) they agree to kill him off, so he decides to protect the potential kidnapping victim (Sarai, an oil heiress) as revenge. He does this by killing everyone who comes near him in increasingly brutal ways - including eye plucking, spine snapping, and the requisite testical ripping. Things wrap up surprisingly neatly at the end with a promise of more Street Fighter action to come.
"If you've got to fight.. fight dirty!" bellowed the posters for The Streetfighter upon its initial U.S. release, but audiences used to the comparitively tame martial arts flicks of the time must have been shocked at the levels of violence and nastiness on display. Originally hit with an X rating, the film sticks closer to the Yakuza flicks of the 60s or the exploitation Samurai films of the 70s with a morally questionable protagonist that lives by a specific code of honor that allows the audience (and often characters in the film) to give them grudging respect. That Tsurugi can back up his eqo with his karate ability, while showing little affection or respect for anyone or anything besides his comical man-servant Rakuda/Ratnose, makes him a perfect antihero for the time it was released.
And Chiba fills this role with gusto, grimacing constantly while conveniently dispatching anyone who looks at him sideways. Totally believable as an ass-kicker, it's no wonder that audiences were drawn to him. Director Shigehiro Ozawa (who also helmed the sequels) obviously knew he had something special, and effectively structures the film to get maximum use out of this over-the-top character. Ozawa keeps the colorfuls action moving and uses little stylistic touches - particularly the infamous x-ray punch - which add to the comic book atmosphere.
Credit must be given to Koji Takada & Motohiro Torii's tight script, which neatly balances Terry's dickishness with flashes of humanity, while briefly touching on his past and his instilled sense of honor, to make him slightly more sympathetic. By the time we get to the final confrontation, both characters involved have a right to seek revenge which makes the final result slightly bittersweet.
The supporting cast are all game, but this is Chiba's show and he brings bright red blood with every swing. Veteran composer Toshiaki Tsushima (The Green Slime, The Yakuza Papers) provides an energetic score, which includes the awesome Streetfighter theme music which will stick in your brain for days after hearing it.
If you haven't seen The Streetfighter.. well, why not? A terrific uncut & widescreen print of the film is, for some reason, in the public domain and has become widely available on DVD and online from a variety of distributors. Though this is a dubbed version the translation, aside from some difficulty with a few of the Japanese names, is pretty servicable. A subtitled version is also available from the UK, but try the free version first.
The version in the Millcreek 50 Movie Pack is, indeed, the widescreen print and I would be surprised if any other films in the collection match up to it in terms of image and sound quality. This (and its sequel, also available in the public domain) is a welcome respite from the general sketchy quality in the collection as a whole.
Some viewers may have difficulty rooting for such a heel, but if you give in to the magnetism of Sonny Chiba it's near impossible to not enjoy The Streetfighter. It moves at a lightning pace, and is packed with enough violence and exploitation to placate the most rabid film fan. Everyone should see this one. Viva Chiba!