To this very day, I am still a Street Fighter II gamer fan, but I have never seen either of the live action movies based on that video game property. Instead, Mortal Kombat is the one that I have always greatly enjoyed. I was subscribed to a few video game magazines back in the day when I owned my Super Nintendo, and I remember all the hype and articles that were published on the making of this film. With how poorly received the Street Fighter movie was, fans were clamoring for Mortal Kombat to succeed and dominate at the box office, which it did. Although, I’m glad my tastes matured to realize how bad this film’s sequel was, but this rather impressive first film by, of all people, Paul W.S. Anderson still holds up rather well today.
Summoned to the mysterious land of Outworld by the sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), three martial arts warriors engage in the ultimate battle of good against evil – the supernatural tournament of Mortal Kombat. The honorable Liu Kang (Robin Shou) seeks to avenge his brother’s death, action film star Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) desires a validation of his skills, and the dogged law enforcement agent Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson) hunts a murderous underworld criminal. They are all brought together under the guidance of Lord Raiden (Christopher Lambert), God of Lighting, to put them on the path to victory, or else Earth will fall to the forces of darkness forever.
Movies adapted from video games have been a notoriously bad film genre. So many filmmakers find it difficult to adapt the material into a recognizable product, but Mortal Kombat had a very well fleshed out story built into it. Still, Hollywood seems to make a habit out of screwing up the easiest of adaptations, but here, it is a stunningly near faithful job. Sure, Kano is changed from Chinese to Australian, and maybe a few details are messed with here and there. However, this film is executed exceptionally well from a fairly good screenplay with a lot of fun to be had.
The only real shortcoming this movie has, which does date the film, is the quality of the digital effects. The filmmakers really kept the budget down under $20 million, which was very smart on all levels, but especially in 1995, that really limited what CGI could do for them. Even the bad CGI of today is better than what we get here. However, if the film is good enough in story, characters, and entertainment value, I can forgive substandard effects. The most impressive effect, which is done entirely practically, is the towering Prince Goro. Surely, if made today, he’d be 100% CGI, but these filmmakers made the smart and economic choice of creating an animatronic character. He can be a little stiff at times, but frankly, I’d take a well implemented practical creature over a cheap CGI one, which we do get in the form of Reptile.
What really makes this film work, in my opinion, is that it does take the property fairly seriously, but keeps the tone comfortably open for humor and light fun. There are bright, cartoonish characters like Kano, Sub-Zero, and Scorpion, but there’s a firm enough sense of danger and gravity attached to them to make them formidable, not funny. There is an emotional story for Liu Kang to traverse dealing with fate, destiny, grief, guilt, and his own inner strength. That gives the film its weight of drama and heart, but it’s never bogged down by heavier subject matter. Anderson hits that right balance to give the film some substance, but maintain a tone completely conducive to fun. It’s sad to say that many of his subsequent films couldn’t achieve that respectable balance.
They say a hero is only as good as his villain, and in this case, we have a great villain in Shang Tsung perfectly cast with Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. He is a rock solid serious threat enveloping himself in a dark, haunting mystique. You can tell he was enjoying playing this meaty role. He has an authoritative presence, but wisely maintains a low key, confident manner showing that Shang Tsung is truly in control every step of the way. However, Tagawa can unleash a vicious mean streak when the moment calls for it. He just portrays a great, smart, subtly charismatic, and cunning villain that I have always thoroughly enjoyed. Better yet, he gets to speak all of the game’s signature lines such as “flawless victory” and “finish him!”
While Johnny, Sonya, and Liu are treated fairly equally through most of the film, it is indeed Liu Kang that is the intended lead hero. Robin Shou does a very admirable job taking Liu on a progression from the skeptical, slightly arrogant young man to a wiser, stronger fighter. Shou shows he can handle the lightly introspective and soul searching qualities of the role very well, and is a very capable martial artist. I really like the journey he takes Liu Kang on, but the film, almost wisely, doesn’t dwell on these character development aspects. I have no doubt that Shou could have done more with it had the script called for it, but the film maintains a tight and consistent pace of excitement. So, there’s hardly a lull in the action or momentum, and Paul W.S. Anderson fits everything comfortably into a 101 minute runtime.
Johnny Cage is charismatically portrayed by Linden Ashby. He really is a well-rounded fit into this group of characters adding in the needed arrogant wiseass comments, but being charming and likable all the way through. It’s interesting to note that the role had been previously offered, supposedly, to both Jean-Claude Van Damme and Brandon Lee. Van Damme chose to do Street Fighter while Lee had tragically died before production began. It’s interesting to think how the film would have been different with either of them as Cage. Regardless, Ashby proved way more than capable, and really shined flawlessly in this role.
Of course, Christopher Lambert is just delightful. I could probably watch a movie of any quality as long as Lambert is having fun in it, which says a lot for why I own the first three Highlander sequels. As Raiden, he brings both a weight of wisdom and levity of charm into the mix. His slightly raspy voice really lends towards the ancient mystique of the God of Lightning. Lambert, overall, just delivers the dramatic, thematic weight of these warriors with Raiden’s perceptive words of wisdom, and just makes things a little more fun and charming at times.
Many of these actors really deliver on the physical and martial arts demands, and the film throws some regular action scenes their way. While none of it is the best martial arts fight choreography you’ll ever see, it serves its purpose towards an exciting and thrilling movie. The only weak link is probably Bridgette Wilson as she doesn’t come off as a very skilled fighter using very basic kicks and punches. Even taken as just law enforcement training, it’s still nothing special. Shou and Ashby show off much more diverse and dynamic skills, and are much more interesting and fun to watch in their fights. Thankfully, they are the ones given the most opportunity to show off those skills.
Of course, the possible biggest point of contention is that the video game was famous for being a very graphic and bloody video game, but this is almost an entirely bloodless PG-13 film. However, this movie does its job quite well enough that the absence of blood and gore has never bothered me. Certainly, many fans likely still wanted to satiate their cinematic bloodlust when the end credits rolled, but this Mortal Kombat movie is still primed to please, regardless.
While I wouldn’t say there’s anything special to say about the cinematography as a whole, Anderson does have everything shot very smartly. A lot of sets are utilized to create the exotic feeling of Outworld, and enough is done with lighting, camera angles and framing, and a little bit of haze to make these sets work solidly. There are some very visually sharp moments utilizing some light, shadow, and fog to build up mystique, which is really the film’s strong suit. There’s a respectable amount of atmosphere in this film which creates the sense of unease and danger for our heroes. Everything is being fought on Shang Tsung’s world and his terms, and that world is indeed very intriguing with some very smart production designs, borrowing from some Asian cultures for a little added exotic flare.
Mortal Kombat really does succeed in putting the concepts and characters of the video game into a respectable feature film package. Unlike the live action Street Fighter, this movie is able to retain its tournament format as it is entirely connected with the larger plot. Fight and lose, Earth falls to Outworld. Fight and win, and we are free from their impending tyranny. Every character motivation and arc is intertwined with that very logically, and the film smartly contains its cast of characters to avoid spreading itself thin. Everyone has the right amount of screentime to flesh out their roles and progress the plot forward in just the right ways. While the script is nothing spectacular, it hit all the right marks and kept everything very manageable in story structure and characters for its director to make the most of the concept under fairly tight constraints.
Mortal Kombat might not be a flawless victory, but it was a very solid first step forward to one that never happened. Believe it or not, I actually gave this film’s sequel a positive review upon its theatrical release. An avid video game friend of mine made me realize the error of my ways a few years later, and I retracted and rewrote that review in a much more negative, yet honest light. Anyway, what we’ve got with Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1995 live action film is a surprisingly damn good movie filled with a consistent current of energy flowing through it, which is electrifyingly reflected by its intense electronic techno dance remix soundtrack. Overall, it’s just a fun martial arts action fantasy film that is definitely one of the best video game-to-film adaptations ever done. I really, seriously love this movie completely. It’s a great piece of exciting entertainment that will get you jonesing to play one of these games all over again!