It is difficult to avoid overvaluing 1994's Street Fighter is. Okay, it's actually very easy to avoid that, since Street Fighter is a massive failure, the grotesque mutant child of a calamitous shoot. You know all the stories about movies like Casablanca or Jaws, where the production history is just one catastrophe after another, they didn't even know what the film they were making was going to look like, it's a miracle that the results were so sparkling and successful? Street Fighter is a perfect corrective to those stories. The production was a jerry-rigged disaster, and the film that sort of emerged from that production is also a jerry-rigged disaster.

So while it's possible to overvalue it as a film, I can't imagine anybody actually doing so. No, what I was going for was that it's difficult to avoid overstating how much of a joyfully so-bad-it's-great moviegoing experience Street Fighter is. Truth be told, a whole lot of it is an inarticulate slog that showcases its behind-the-scenes woes in clumsy action and grinding dialogue scenes. But a whole lot of it is something else, and that something else puts in an excellent bid to be considered the single most enjoyable element of any terrible movie in the whole of the 1990s. That something else is named Raul Julia.

There is absolutely no way to discuss Street Fighter without making Julia the centerpiece of that discussion. For one thing, he's ultimately the reason the shoot was such a disaster, through no fault of his own. For another thing, the performance he gives is simply incandescent, a shamelessly hammy plunge into the most excessively florid, theatrical approach to some particularly overripe dialogue. In all honesty, I do not know if I should call it one of the best performances of 1994, or one of the worst. I know that if I were an Oscar voter, I would have put him on my nomination ballot.

The point being, if there's an argument that Street Fighter is one of the consummate so-bad-it's-good movies of its generation, that argument goes directly through Julia and lingers on him with great enthusiasm. He's not the top-billed star and not the ostensible box-office draw - that would be Jean-Claude Van Damme, who was at this point arguably at his peak of popularity (indeed, Timecop, which opened just three months before Street Fighter, was and remains his highest-grossing starring vehicle) - but I suspect that he gets the most screentime, and he certainly is the most electrifying, exciting screen presence in the film. There's a pretty straightforward reason for this; straightforward even beyond "Raul Julia was a real pro and would only give 100% of himself 100% of the time". Julia was dying from stomach cancer during the shoot, and though he spoke and acted as though he anticipated sticking around for a while (including make plans with the producers to stick around for Street Fighter 2), one must assume he knew, somewhere in the back of his mind, that this might be the end of things. And it was: he did not live to see the film's premiere (he had one last posthumous credit with the 1995 telefilm Down Came a Blackbird, but this was his last theatrical feature). I suspect - and admittedly, this is mostly because it makes me happy to think suppose it's true - that Julia decided to take this opportunity to celebrate and have fun, and really sock it to us with every line and every gesture.

The result is a performance of the most unbridled B-movie zeal I can imagine. Julia plays General M. Bison, all at one a fascist revolutionary, a cartel boss, a mad scientist, and a messianic zealot. In writer-director Stephen E. de Souza's adaptation of what little story is forwarded by the arcade fighting games under the Street Fighter II banner (there were five different iterations of Street Fighter II by the time the movie came out), Bison is in the process of taking over the Southeast Asian country of Shadaloo (a thinly-disguised version of Thailand, where the film was shot), and his plans to pivot from winning a civil war to taking over the world involve all sorts of different elements: creating a race of genetically-modified supersoldiers, kidnapping Queen Elizabeth II and holding her for ransom (a plot point that the film has forgotten about by the end of the scene where it's introduced), embracing the logic of suburban shopping mall architecture. He's got a little bit of everything, Bison does, and Julia plays him that way without a molecule of shame. Somehow, this is never messy. Obviously, a lot of this is because the actor simply gobbles up the scenery whole; with his frail, failing body hidden by makeup and flattering lighting and big cloak-based costuming, Julia compensates all the more by having a personality that fills to expand whatever space he's in. He bugs out his eyes, he makes huge, grasping motions with his hands, he whips from screaming to whispering in something exactly halfway between religious fervor and orgasmic pleasure. This never feels forced or arbitrary; it's an operatic approach to a role that becomes operatic largely because Julia treats it that way.

I think the best sign of what he's up to is buried in one of the film's most rightfully celebrated moments. The activist journalist Chun-Li (Ming-Na Wen) has infiltrated Bison's compound and shared her big vengeance monologue, explaining that she has been trying to get close to him to kill him for what he did to her village and her father. It's a whole big chest-beating monologue, and at the end, Julia is given these two lines in response: "I'm sorry. I don't remember any of it... For you, the day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me, it was Tuesday."

That is, to be sure, a great cheesy villain line, and an actor who couldn't make a feast of it is an actor who needs to retire. But Julia's delivery is not at all the big melodramatic cliché it easily could be. The first line - "I'm sorry. I don't remember any of it" - isn't haughty or cruel. He's actually sorry - if not to Chun-Li, then to himself; he seems a little chagrined to have to admit that his memory isn't perfect. Then the first sentence of the second line (Wen gets a reaction that's badly written and unimaginatively delivered in-between), he puts on the paternalising villainous haughtiness that the whole exchange seems to have been written for. But then for "But for me, it was Tuesday", he swallows the line a little: he doesn't put the big pregnant pause in at the comma that seems obvious, and he doesn't make "it was Tuesday" a joke, but an explanation, tying back in to his actual embarrassment at not remember the event. In short: Julia turns that big succulent villainous zinger into a character moment.

So anyways, the point is: Julia is legitimately magnificent, and he is the reason that Street Fighter is a memorable triumph of campy, kitschy, ironically lovable cinema, and not just an unlikable, boring farrago of an action movie. This is not, in the main, shockingly and therefore memorably awful like Super Mario Bros. from 1993; the story of how it became such a disaster is much more interesting than its own failures.The short version of the muddle at that link is that de Souza, who was the action screenwriter of the 1980s (if I recall correctly, his collective filmography was the highest-grossing of any screenwriter at the time, and perhaps it still is), was not maybe ready to become a director anyways, but definitely wasn't ready to become a director with a film whose director was going to face a constant litany of demands from Capcom, the Japanese video game company anxious to make sure the film helped advance the franchise's branding, and the genuinely impossible schedule and budget limitations imposed by Universal, the American film distributor that had locked Street Fighter in for a 23 December release date and could not for any reason nudge that date even slightly.

And then Julia showed up, emaciated and pallid, meaning that the shooting schedule had to be flipped to put all his scenes last. Van Damme was abusing drugs at the time and was routinely unable to make it to set, which means that the flipped schedule had to be flipped even a bit more. The end result of this is that the action scenes had to be filmed by stunt coordinator and second unit director Charlie Picerni as, essentially, a completely autonomous production. Picerni wasn't staging the action in the video-gamey way de Souza had promised Capcom, which meant that setpieces had to be hurriedly reshot; they were then sliced into illegible ribbons in post-production after the film was unexpectedly slapped with an R-rating.

Let's not mince words: you can see every bit of that in the film. The action is paltry, hard to follow, badly distributed across the running time, and boring. Van Damme is incredibly bad, playing a man so all-American that the film spares a glamor shot of the brightly saturated U.S. flag tattoo on his massively engorged bicep, and he plays this man with the viscous Belgian accent of an actor too stoned to even properly trot out the unpersuasive American accent he'd used earlier in his career.

The script has plenty of problems, to. One of the few things that Capcom and de Souza agreed on was that this wasn't going to follow the logical route of being a tournament fighting movie, but it still had to have the kind of hand-to-hand combat scenes of such a movie, since that was, like, the whole point (a year later, meanwhile, Paul W.S. Anderson took the path of no resistance in adapting Street Fighter's rival franchise Mortal Kombat into precisely the film it looks like it should be, and for his profound lack of imagination ended up with what might arguably still be the best movie based on a video game). So the film is a muddle of geopolitics - it's about a United Nations peacekeeping mission, wearing the fig leaf of calling itself the "A.N". But blue helmets is blue helmets - and arbitrary fight scenes. Meanwhile, a major point of contention was how many of the franchise's 16 major characters would be incorporated; the final number was 15, with only the martial arts movie star Fei Long failing to make the cut. But one new character was added to give Japanese actor Sawada Kenya a role. 16 main roles in a film that needs to dedicate plenty of running time to action is of course entirely insane, and Street Fighter makes a hash of it: several characters are basically just featured extras, and the huffing and puffing necessary to find script reasons for several more lays bare the perfunctory writing mechanics that de Souza had to use just to get this to "we can live with this" territory. Really, Bison, Guile (the Van Damme character, a colonel leading the A.N. forces), and black market weapons dealer Sagat (Wes Studi, the only person besides Julia who's authentically hammy rather than just ineptly broad) are the only people the film needs. And Julia is absolutely the only person the film cares about.

Which is, to firmly reiterate, to its benefit. This is a dumb, illegible story with incoherent action and diabolically bad pacing - but when Julia storms his way across the screen, preening and lamenting and raging, the film sings. So bad it's good, so good it's good, I don't even know if I can tell. I just know that Julia makes this film not merely watchable, but essential as one of the god-damnedest and most joyful explosions of demented bad movie silliness of its generation. Which, given how close to unwatchable some of Van Damme's scenes are, that's a genuine miracle.