Joey Ansah might best be known as Desh, the bad guy who went toe-to-toe with Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne in “The Bourne Ultimatum,” but his love of martial arts and his desire to create memorable fight scenes extends to one of fandom’s holy grails when it comes to fisticuffs: “Street Fighter.”
“Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist” launched today on Youtube’s Machinima channel and Ansah co-wrote and directed the epic, 12-episode series with an eye toward retelling and consolidating the story of how Ken and Ryu became names synonymous with video game action.
Ansah, who also stars in the series (Akuma), wrote the script with Christian Howard, who reprises his role as Ken Masters from the original fan film. The series also stars Mike Moh as Ryu, Togo Igawa (“47 Ronin,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “The Last Samurai”) as Gotetsu, Akira Koieyama as Goken, Gaku Space as Goki, Mark Killeen (“300: Rise of an Empire,” “The Dark Knight Rises”) as Mr. Masters, and Hal Yamanouchi as Senzo. Hero Complex caught up to Ansah as “Assassin’s Fist” hit the Internet to ask about the series and its fandom.
How did you go about adapting a story that people already think they know or have seen in many different media?
The whole “Street Fighter” mythology is very convoluted and there are many different facets to it. If we take what is regarded as strict canon by Capcom, that is everything that is depicted within the games — the prologues and epilogues of whichever character you play through the game — that is the canon. So we adhered almost 100% to that detail. Then you’re going to see anime films — “Street Fighter the Animated Movie,” “Street Fighter 2,” “Street Fighter Alpha,” “Street Fighter Alpha Generations.” Now all of them give their interesting additions to the back story, telling a part of the past that’s never been told before. I think a lot of fans have some elements they really hate and some they like, even though it’s strictly regarded as canon, which is quite crazy that Capcom might’ve officially licensed an anime and allowed the story to take place then say, ‘Yeah, it’s cool, but it’s not canon.’ Then you’ve got the Udon comics, which has got some great back story and development.
So what we’ve done on “Assassin’s Fist” is to try to create the definitive back story. Not only the fixed backbone canon that Capcom can stand by, but also incorporates all those elements from the anime and the Udon things that people like. So it kind of unifies everything that’s out there and makes it cohesive and clear. We obviously put more meat on the bones in terms of characterization to make it very layered and deep, and put two new characters in: the crazy fisherman and also the groundsman, Senzo, the caretaker. As the series goes on, you realize that he’s got a significant role. Those are the two new additions to the world, but everything else there has largely been established — whether it’s been established in just one sentence or not, it’s been established. I don’t think there’s anything where people will say, ‘Oh, no! You deviated from the canon!’
Because with these fans, you know that’s coming…
I know that that’s the climate we live in. We’re fighting an uphill battle. As Blade says at the end of a big battle in [“Blade”], ‘Some … is always trying to ice skate uphill.’ And that applies to this. Because of every terrible live-action video game adaptation that there’s ever been, you’re in a situation where you’re guilty as … until proven innocent. We have a massive loyal fan base — the trailer did over a million hits in three days and we’ve got a 97% thumbs up rating — but you’ll always get those haters. Some people are straight-up trolls, then you’ll get the people who just naturally sit on the fence, saying ‘I won’t be convinced until I’ve seen the whole thing play out and I’ll reserve judgment because I’ve been bitten too many times before to just get excited.’ And I would probably be the same, to be honest. We get served up so much trash by Hollywood in terms of these adaptations that we have a right to be cynical. But I really want people, even if you’re dubious, to watch it. I guarantee your mind will be blown. The series is one continuous gradual escalation.
What was the biggest obstacle, besides corralling the canon, in crafting this story?
The biggest challenge is giving sufficient narrative depth to Ryu and Ken. “Assassin’s Fist” is two parallel timelines. You’ve got the past, which is set in the mid-’50s with Gotetsu, Sayaka and Goki, then you have the present with Ryu, Ken and Goken. The past is full of all of those great storytelling elements that go back to the “Iliad” and the Old Testament. Brother versus brother, father versus son, love triangle, betrayal, banishment, the rebirth … so that was much easier to get my teeth into and write with Christian Howard. I didn’t want to crowbar in some false threat … I wanted to make them human. So Ken has got estrangement and abandonment issues with his father — a good place to start. And Ryu has this … well, he holds back, and it’s a theme that keeps repeating itself throughout the whole series — and we’ll find out why as the series progresses. Their true adult stories don’t begin until the end of the series when their training is complete and they go back to America ready for the “World Warrior.” This is a coming-of-age story for Ryu and Ken, so creating an engaging enough narrative, drama, threats, obstacles to overcome and objectives for those young, fairly innocent characters was a challenge.
Because this is a definitive back story, were there elements that you felt you had to leave out at all?
It’s not that we omitted anything, it’s just that we chose to focus on certain details. For example, any true “Street Fighter” fan knows that Goken had another student before Ryu and Ken, which was Dan. So a lot of people kept saying, ‘Oh, if you’re going to keep it true, Dan better be in there’ … Well, Dan is referenced. And there are extended parts on the DVD that will showcase more. Did you see any missing parts?
No, actually, but my reference point is more focused on the popular “Street Fighter 2: The World Warrior” story and video game. Any plans for that?
Definitely. The irony is that the script treatment that Christian and I originally wrote — which I pitched to Capcom five years ago — was the “World Warrior.” Had Capcom said, ‘Great. We love it. Here’s a couple million dollars, go and make it.’ That’s what we would’ve started with. So that script already exists. After “Legacy” and the success of that, I said “Let me shelve the ‘World Warrior.'” I want to go back and tell the lineage story [because] it’s the least detailed told element of the “Street Fighter” mythology, so even the hard-core fans out there are like “I want to see this cause there’s a lot to learn.” It’s more classical storytelling. For the wider audience who sees video games as crass, two-dimensional nonsense — people are gonna say “whoa, this is a character story.” It’s a much better jump on point for a mass audience.
In the same way that Nolan took Batman back to the roots — it takes an hour before you even see the Batsuit — you have to get people hooked on fundamental characters and story development before it gets too fantastical and supernatural. If you just throw people in the deep end with Blanka and Dhalsim and everyone’s doing fireballs and stuff, a lot of people would say this isn’t for me. This is kids’ stuff. It’s Harry Potter. I wanted to tell a really serious adult story. And besides, “The World Warrior” would need a much bigger budget. This was made for about $2 million, and a hell of a lot of blood, sweat, tears and favors. The core group didn’t even pay ourselves. We deferred our payments and put that money on the screen. We wanted to give the studio superhero films a run for their money in terms of narrative and length and action. So I do plan on doing “The World Warrior,” but that will be on a much bigger scale.
What did you take away from the experience, and what do you want fans to take away?
This could be the start of a franchise, and we’ll see from the demand of the audience. As a filmmaker, this is my gateway project. I’ve been an actor for years and have received a lot of accolades for “Bourne Ultimatum” and my now-famous fight in that with Matt Damon, but I have so many more strings to my bow. I wanted to tell a non-linear story. Stuff like “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” … there’s no clear main protagonist that you’re forced to follow. You might have Akuma as your hero in the end. I want people to have open minds and if they love what they see, demand it and I’ll give them more.
— Jevon Phillips