In the 1994 flick Street Fighter, we never learn what the "M" in M. Bison's name stands for. To me, that "M" means "Masterpiece." Why? Raul Julia's superlative performance as the lunatic dictator makes the film ever-so-watchable 16 years later.
Before I launch into my love letter to all things Bison, let's talk a little bit about Street Fighter, which is the big-screen adaptation of Capcom's arcade smash Street Fighter 2. In the game, a roster of martial artists compete in a global tournament for a semi-explained grand prize. Adapting Street Fighter 2 for the multiplex sounds like a no-brainer: simply mix a pinch of Bloodsport with the emotional theatrics of Over The Top, and slap in those Hadoukens during post-production.
Easy, no? However, the year was 1994, and Hollywood wasn't accustomed to making movies based on video games. Remember, few people saw the flamboyant failure that was Super Mario Bros., and the only people who saw Double Dragon were befuddled janitors who had no popcorn to sweep up during the film's credits.
Early video games movies drew heavily on science fiction tropes (i.e. alternate universes, genetic manipulation, apocalyptic scenarios) that had zip to do with the original games. For example, Super Mario Bros. (the game) was about a plumber versus a dragon from some mycological Narnia. Super Mario Bros. (the movie) was about the P.I. from Roger Rabbit battling a totalitarian T-Rex dictator. Similarly, Double Dragon (the game) was more or less West Side Story with lots of punching. The movie featured a battle with a mutant scrotum man.
These scifi trappings obfuscated the fact that audiences were watching gaming films. Remember, game films were still a novelty in the early 1990s. Gaming's prior overtures into mainstream media could be excruciating (there were also awesome moments; see Captain Lou Albano's PSAs). The science fiction window dressing gave game films the veneer of Hollywood legitimacy. You can see this trend today with board game movies — why the hell is Peter Berg's Battleship movie about an alien invasion? Ridley Scott's Monopoly movie was about parallel universe at one point. So yes, to go mainstream, 1990s game movies made their own bizarre celluloid mythologies.
Given Hollywood's predilection for scifi revisionism, what was Street Fighter about? US Colonel William Guile (Jean Claude Van Damme, never bothering to hide his accent) must rescue aid workers from Southeast Asian junta boss M. Bison (Raul Julia), who dreams of building an army of genetically altered supersoldiers. The entire coterie of street fighters (minus Fei Long and Akuma) appears, and maybe one of them actually engages in fisticuffs in a thoroughfare. Given that the characters' backstories were confined to a manual and a dozen or so 40-second victory endings, their origins were rejiggered. Muay thai master Sagat (Wes Studi) became an illegal arms dealer, Dhalsim the fire-breathing yogi became a kidnapped geneticist, and so forth.
If Street Fighter's only sin was having nothing to do with Street Fighter, the movie would be a dollar store curio. But no, the film's campiness (which makes Flash Gordon look like a documentary about monasteries) puts it in the pantheon of great so-bad-they're-good movies. Almost everything about the movie is deliciously inept, from the script's sentimentality to absolutely every line JCVD garbles to the painstaking attempts to shoehorn 15 street fighters into 102 minutes.
Amidst these so-bad-they're-good moments is Julia's marvelous depiction of M. Bison, which is so-good-it's-good. Street Fighter was Julia's last big-budget film, and he died of a stroke two months before its release. Despite his flagging health during the film's production, Julia's Bison is a vivacious villain. Part of the reason Julia's Bison is so memorable is that he seems to have metatextual omniscience. In other words, M. Bison, the madman of the film, is the only person in Street Fighter who seems to realize how deranged his reality is.
While all the other actors desperately try to give the film's totally insane premise gravitas, Julia's Bison preens and vamps and does whatever the hell he wants — it's hypnotizing. In Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, car dealer Dwayne Hoover interprets a science fiction story about everyone on Earth being robots as literal, so he commits horrendous acts of violence with a clean conscious. Similarly, M. Bison is evil because he probably thinks he's living in some bonkers fiction. Just watch the above scene...
...or this fine monologue, in which Bison happily acknowledges that his plans are nuts. Of course, supervillainous pithiness and logorrhea aren't unique to Julia's depiction of M. Bison — Dennis Hopper's King Koopa had similar quirks. But Bison also gleefully manipulates other characters into doing things that have no narrative logic. Watch the next priceless confrontation between Guile and Bison...
Did Julia intentionally portray Bison as a man who knew he was stuck in a Street Fighter movie? I doubt it, but his defining evil characteristic isn't menace or spleen, but joviality. We expect our villains to be dreary, dire folk, but M. Bison's having the time of his life screwing up a world that makes almost zero sense to himself or the audience. He is our liaison, our avatar. Like a kid at Showbiz Pizza mashing the fierce punch, Julia portrays M. Bison like a man who can do anything, because other people are pixels. No amount of Bison Dollars* can put a price on his performance...
...post-Queen of England kidnapping, of course.
ADDENDUM: I'm aware of the whole M. Bison-Balrog-Vega name switcheroo from the American version of Street Fighter 2. I'm just surprised the movie never tried to explain it.