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‘Street Fighter’ Signals Retreat From Too Much Grime

Fri., Jan. 6, 1995

“Street Fighter” is an action film that broadens the accessibility of its genre to younger audiences while retaining the essential brainlessness that makes such pictures such fun to sit through.

I’ve long complained about how mainstream, upscale Hollywood has absorbed the functions of the film industry’s rattier sectors - the violent action films, in particular - and then regurgitated them in a slick, star-driven form that defies categorization. “Street Fighter” is typical of that trend, but it also signals a change of direction.

Can the “Die Hard” films of recent years be accepted, for example, as fare for a juvenile audience? Hardly so, even though the heroic mission at the core of these adventures is the same as that which drove such kid-moviegoer stars of past generations as Buster Crabbe and Roy Rogers.

So then, is a “Die Hard” escapade suitable for an adult audience? That depends on what you call “adult.” Most thinking grown-ups would consider such a film to be kid stuff, if not for the excesses of crude language, adult subject matter and grisly violence.

All of that moved New York critic Vincent Canby to concoct a word that would describe such films: A “kidult” movie, Canby argues, mingles the harsh doctrine of the classic exploitation movie - violence, sensuality, rude language - with the heroic suspense of classic kid-movie fare (especially the serials and the matinee Westerns). Kidult tastes and values, in turn, are formed in childhood and remain fixed for life.

Like Bruce Willis in the two “Die Hard” films, Jean-Claude Van Damme has become typecast for making kidult movies. But Van Damme’s involvement has been more extensive and authentic, starting with genuine low-rent exploitation films in the middle 1980s and continuing to where the major studios could no longer afford to ignore him.

But the hypocrisy of kidult cinema is such that Van Damme has been subversively marketed as a heroic figure for children, even as the studios have made his films (officially, at least) off-limits to filmgoers younger than 17. The fallibility of the movie ratings system is a story for another day, but it bears mentioning that Van Damme’s greatest fan base rests among adolescents and teenagers, many of whom can only be bewildered by the excesses of such films as “Death Warrant,” “Cyborg” and “Hard Target.”

The true breakthrough of Universal Pictures’ new “Street Fighter” is not so much that it broadens any horizons for the action-adventure film as that it tones down the customary harshness sufficiently to earn a PG-13 rating. This bureaucratic code suggests that kids under 13 not see “Street Fighter”; it is the same ticketselling rating that Universal landed for “Jurassic Park” in 1993.

And no, “Street Fighter” is not a children’s film. But in subduing the visceral excesses, it transcends the kidult label and brings its audiences reasonably close to the spirit of the Saturday-matinee thrillers of a more innocent time.

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