Should I Watch..? Mortal Kombat
What's the big deal?
Mortal Kombat is an martial-arts fantasy film released in 1995 and is loosely based on the video games of the same name. Directed by video game adaptation specialist Paul W.S. Anderson, the film stars Robin Shou, Linden Ashby, Bridgette Wilson and Christopher Lambert. The film tells the story of three different characters on Earth who are entered into a deadly martial-arts tournament against a variety of otherworldly beings whilst being guided in their efforts by the lightning god Raiden. Despite poor reviews, the film was warmly received by fans of the game and it went on to take a respectable $122 million worldwide. Its popularity resulted in a sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1) in 1997 as well as two short-lived TV series. An apparent reboot has been stuck in development hell since 2011 after the disappointment of the second film although ardent fans have banded together to create a web series while they are waiting.
What's it about?
The film describes the Mortal Kombat tournament arranged by the Elder Gods between representatives of Earth and the parallel dimension of Outworld. Should Outworld win ten consecutive tournaments then their Emperor Shao Khan will be able to invade Earth and claim it for himself and enslave humanity. To prevent such a catastrophe, three brave souls step forward - Liu Kang seeks to avenge his brother's death at the hands of the villainous host of the tournament Shang Tsung, Sonya Blade is a military officer tracking down Australian crime lord Kano (who allies himself with Tsung) while Hollywood actor Johnny Cage is seeking to prove to doubters that his martial arts skills are for real.
The three of them are guided in their quest by Raiden, a mysterious being who claims to be a God of Thunder. Due to his immortality, Raiden is prevented from entering the tournament but he endeavours to do what he can to help his mortal champions. But against the likes of the frosty Sub-Zero, the mutant Scorpion or the current champion Goro, what hope do these three have of prevailing and preventing Earth's imminent demise?
Paul W.S. Anderson
Kevin Droney *
Release Date (UK)
20th October, 1995
Action, Adventure, Fantasy
What's to like?
Considering the widely held belief that video games don't make great films, it's refreshing to find one that's entertaining at least - even if it's not exactly stellar. Mortal Kombat was released the year after its arch-rival Street Fighter (2) and certainly trumps it in terms of appearance, goofy fun and proximity to the source material. Characters look roughly like their digital counterparts and have the moves to match while the film's threadbare storyline matches that of the original game. It also manages to throw in some exotic locations and the scenes set in Outworld are almost convincing at times and suitably demonic.
There's also a slight tongue-in-cheek feel to the film as though the producers shied away from the ultra-violence the game was known for and plumped for something with a broader appeal. And while the heroes might be slightly wet in terms of personality, both Lambert and Tagawa deliver suitably bombastic performances as Raiden and Shang Tsung. They certainly enjoy delivering the film's clunky dialogue and give it plenty of blustery gusto. The other things to enjoy are the film's breakneck pace with its near-constant stream of fisticuffs, fireballs and occasional plot exposition and the mid-90's dance soundtrack which matches the film's searing energy. It sounded as though Orbital were in a really bad mood in the studio and it isn't strictly speaking to my taste but weirdly, it perfectly compliments the levels of action.
- A number of stars were set to feature but dropped out for various reasons. Jean Claude Van Damme passed on this to do Street Fighter so Brandon Lee was then cast as Johnny Cage but died before production began. Cameron Diaz broke her wrist in training for the role of Sonya and even Steven Spielberg was due to shoot a cameo but was unable to avoid scheduling conflicts.
- Chris Casamassa was originally hired as a stunt ninja but producers were so impressed, he was cast as Scorpion in the film.
- The film's noisy rave soundtrack went platinum in less than two weeks and was co-composed by Praga Khan whose work also features in Basic Instinct (3), Sliver (4), Virtuosity (5) and Strange Days (6).
What's not to like?
Before you run off and start claiming that Mortal Kombat is great because it's better than Street Fighter, it's worth remembering that the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle is not exactly a celluloid classic. It's like saying that the flu is better than cancer - at the end of the day, you'd be happiest with neither. And while fans of the game may lap this shtick up, I personally demand something with a little more refinement. Let's start with the cast who all look fine as their characters (apart from Kano's very plastic-looking skull plate) and do well in the rough and tumble. But ask them for charisma or convincing dialogue and you're barking up the wrong tree. Having said that, even Lambert struggles with the dialogue - maybe that explains why he keeps laughing to himself at inappropriate and random moments.
However, the cast are a real class act compared to the effects which are eye-wateringly bad. Yes, I know CG was still in its infancy back then but surely someone behind the scenes must have spotted how angular and ridiculous their reptilian beastie looked? I mean, The Matrix (7) would be released just a few years later and the gulf between that and this is the same gulf between Forbidden Planet (8) and Interstellar (9). Lastly, true fans of the game would be aghast at the sanitising of their gore-soaked games which were loaded with bloody fatalities and gruesome deaths - even an uppercut resulted in the claret being spilt! Here, every fight is overloaded with swooshing noises and there was nary a drop of blood to be seen anywhere. It was then that it hit me - what I was actually watching felt like the pilot of a possible TV show, in the same vein as Xena: Warrior Princess, and suddenly, any residual interest I may have had in the picture disappeared.
Should I watch it?
Yes, it's better than Street Fighter and its own low-budget sequel but this sorta feels like an injustice. Mortal Kombat is no classic but switch your brain off and you can enjoy it - the film's barrage of noise, violence and dreadful effects have the same weird numbing sensation on the brain that you get when you stare too long at a lava lamp. The film's acting, effects and non-existent storyline prevent the film from becoming a true cult classic but if you're after undemanding action with a pinch of salt then this might be what you're looking for.
Great For: 90's revival nights, die-hard fans of the games, martial-art junkies
Not So Great For: anyone looking for a good movie adaptation of a video game, cutting-edge visual effects, quality action fans
What else should I watch?
Watching Street Fighter is such a bad idea if you fondly recall the button-bashing beat-em-up from yesteryear because it's awful. No, I mean it - don't even think about it. It's almost as bad as DOA: Dead Or Alive (10) which provides lots of lovely women to look at but is an uneasy blend of soft-core titulation and middling action film. Only boys aged between 11 and 15 would enjoy it whereas the rest of you should avoid it at all costs. And if you thought Tekken (11) would be any good, think again because that went straight to video.
It doesn't get any better when the budget is upped either. The hideously expensive Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time (12) was an ultimately forgettable swashbuckler, neither Tomb Raider movie set the world alight either and the less said about Uwe Boll's In The Name Of The King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (13), the better.
© 2015 Benjamin Cox