Punchlines

*needle scratch*

Yep, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this animated kitchen, punching a man dressed like a member of C&C Music Factory in the face. Allow me to explain.

Editor’s note: Just…. just roll with it, folks. It’s been A Week.

Streets of Rage 4 is a video game where you walk to the right and murder people. That’s literally it. It is a classic, side-scrolling beat-em-up where you play as either Axel Stone (former cop, martial arts expert, headband enthusiast), Blaze Fielding (former cop, martial arts expert, allowed to have eaten food this time), Floyd Iraia (construction worker with cybernetic arms. It’s… a whole thing) or Cherry Hunter (daughter of a previous character, rock musician, martial arts expert).

Individually or in multi-player, you’re called on to fight the new syndicate taking over the city. You fight them on a train, you fight them on a plane, you fight them though they do their best, I HATE the guys in the green vests.

It is massive fun. it’s also massively, relentlessly difficult and has unfortunately decided to bring back that other unwanted piece of ’90s nostalgia; mocking players. Easy mode means your score is divided by 10(!) and there’s no quit option, just ‘CHICKEN OUT’. It’s not quite a game that keeps flexing its delts and yelling about Joe Rogan but it gets pretty close at times.

That (and the green vest wankers) aside I really enjoyed it, and finished it for the first time this morning. The hand drawn animation and backgrounds are gorgeous, the thing moves beautifully and has some lovely anime-style ‘…sure, okay’ escalation. You start out punching thugs in the face. You finish the game fighting a pair of 1%er trust fund babies, one of whom has an electrified fencing rapier and the other is driving a spider-mech. One that, in fairness, you see parked outside in a previous level, making it Chekov’s Mecha. So there’s that.

But what I really loved about it is embodied in the sceen from that screenshot. Stage 6, Chinatown, where you fight your way through… Chinatown. At one point you’re swamped by about 10 goons, all of whom try and get you cornered. You avoid them, usually fists first, and move around that central island. You punch, kick, deflect, throw, use improvised weapons, including your opponents. It’s frantic and balletic, brutal and darkly funny.

Rather like this.

This is a fight scene from Spy, Melissa McCarthy’s first finest hour and it’s the exact sort of frantic, funny but OH GOD THE KNIFE IS RIGHT THERE fight that Jackie Chan has been perfecting for longer than most of us have been alive. It’s also exactly what Streets of Rage 4 nails so beautifully. The perfect summation of graceful, clean martial arts and OH MY GOD WHY DO THEY KEEP HITTING ME?!

It’s impressive, relatable, badass and fallible. Like Spy. Like you in Streets of Rage 4.

Which really crystallized for me why I love a well-put-together fight scene so much. Done wrong, usually with about 50 cuts a minute, it just shows you that the director had too much caffeine that morning. Done right, it tells you everything you need to know about the characters and their emotional and physical state.

Which brings us to Mr. Wick.

The two human dynamos in the scene above are Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman, alumni of everything from The Raid movies to the most wasted cameo in Star Wars history. These men are martial artists with an emphasis on artist, offhandedly graceful, lighter than air and utterly bloody terrifying when called upon to be.

They’re also, and this is what makes the scene, just instinctively good actors.

The running, bloodied joke here is that John has fought his way through an entire hotel of armored commandos and a couple countries’ worth of thugs to reach this point. His lethally efficient, gracefully brutal judo and jujitsu skills have got him this far but he is TIRED and spends most of this scene getting his ass roundly kicked.

When his opponents aren’t doing that they’re busy fanboying over him. I mean sure, they’re there to stop him but this is John Wick! Simply getting to them was something only he could do. So as the fight goes on, they treat him with respect, he is DONE with EVERYTHING and basically bulls his way through these embodiments of graceful violence to reach yet another fight scene. Because John Wick’s real black belt is in not stopping and his perseverance is punched into focus by the world’s most violent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cover act up there.

That’s why I love a good fight scene, because it’s crammed full of information. Character through action, action driven by character. Can you take the guys in the kitchen all at once? No. Can you dance round that center aisle limiting their chances to get to you? Damn right you can.

Streets of Rage 4 has several moments like this and I loved each and every one of them. There’s one on a speeding train where signposts are an equal opportunities obstacle. There’s a mini-arc involving a supremely tough SWAT commander you never quite put down who ends up realizing she’s on the wrong team. There’s the spider mech, embodying everything the two privileged little sociopaths operating it have that you don’t. Weapons, money, goons, casual disregard for collateral damage.

But you have the corner of a dingy, stereotypical kitchen in a stereotypical Chinatown that has a karate black belt on every corner a kickboxer isn’t. You’re outnumbered, outgunned and even on easy you don’t have enough lives.

And you’ve got each and every one of them right where you want them. Especially those assholes in the green vests. Go show them who you really are.

Streets of Rage 4 is out for all major consoles now. Though you will have to buy your own headband. Send me a picture.

This piece originally appeared as part of my weekly newsletter, The Full Lid . If you liked it, and want a weekly down of pop culture enthusiasm, occasional ketchup recipes and me enjoying things, then check out the archive and sign up here.