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!
The recommendation to see this film came from an odd source. An internet radio show discussion about the biggest box office bombs of all time. Deep Rising did just over $11 million on a $45 million budget in 1998 with a cruddy January release date. This was undoubtedly a major failure on behalf of the marketing campaign because, for me, this is a fun, exciting, scary, and action-packed film that is designed as a crowd pleaser. This comes to us from Stephen Sommers whose follow-up would be the massively successful and entertaining The Mummy, and if you enjoyed that film I really believe Deep Rising should work just as well for you.
The most luxurious cruise liner in the world, owned by Simon Canton (Anthony Heald), is on her maiden voyage when it is damaged and attacked from beneath the sea. Meanwhile, John Finnegan (Treat Williams) and his crew, who have a policy of “if the cash is there, we don’t care,” transport what turn out to be a band of ruthless hijackers who intend to seize and rob the cruise. However, when they all arrive, they discover the passengers have mysteriously disappeared, but they are not alone. Something is lurking behind every deck and passageway, snatching the intruders one by one, and they all now must fight together to escape with their lives.
What pleasantly hooked me first is the good cast. It’s not a stunning set of acting jobs, but these are actors who were having fun with the material and strike a solid chemistry. I’ve been seeing Treat Williams lately in television guest spots, but as a fatherly figure. Him as more of an action centric lead was really good. He demonstrates a fun, lively charisma that keeps you invested in how this plot unfolds. He felt very capable and comfortable in this role, which was originally intended for Harrison Ford. If you can think of Air Force One Harrison Ford, I’m sure the idea fits fine in your head, but Williams really does a superb job in this lead role. One might expect having him and Famke Janssen billed as leads would add up to a particular romantic subplot. There is a relationship built up between them, but the film doesn’t slow down for them to develop it in a traditional way. It’s more of a bond built out of the intensity of the situation, but there’s some nice pay-off with them at the end. They work well together equally carrying the weight of the action nicely.
Famke Janssen’s character, Trillian St. James, is a thief who tries to use slight of hand to slip into Canton’s vault early on, and really only survives due to being locked in the brig. However, the character doesn’t have much to her after the thief plot has evaporated, and is certainly doesn’t show off Janssen’s incredible talent. So, it’s not a film that’s going to go deep into characters like Die Hard, but the action moves fast enough that you don’t really notice it. I also enjoyed the humor from Kevin J. O’Connor’s character of Joey, Finnegan’s fun and quirky mechanic. Stephen Sommers would use him very regularly in his films from here on out, and I think O’Connor is a very good actor showing a range from serious roles like in Lord of Illusions to outright comedy in The Mummy. It’s possible that not everyone would enjoy him as the comic relief, but for me, he’s a little charming and surely funny. I never found him obtrusive as he definitely works well with Treat Williams, but also has some good adversarial dynamics with the mercenary characters.
Wes Studi portrays the mercenary leader Hanover to great effect. The actor should be known to Michael Mann fans as he had a supporting LAPD role in Heat and a prominent role in The Last of the Mohicans. Here, the work as Hanover is not as demanding, but he portrays a solid adversary who holds a tenuous allegiance through this harrowing scenario with Finnegan. At anytime, he can be strictly in command, but he can be, usually, smart enough to know when to work side-by-side in order to survive. The actors portraying his mercenaries are very good especially Trevor Goddard who was Kano in the live action Mortal Kombat movie. I enjoyed him being in the movie so much that I wish he was in more of it.
I’m actually a big fan of Anthony Heald. I’ve seen him on screen a few times on Law & Order and Miami Vice, but my fandom is more from his great voice work on various Star Wars audio books. He’s got a lot of sly, ingenious talent, and he portrays Simon Canton very entertainingly. As the film progresses, you learn some unsavory, underhanded things he’s done, and Heald plays up that aspect more and more. He takes what appeared to be a very refined yet charismatic and cowardly character and deteriorate him into a despicable, enjoyably sleazy adversary. He was fun to watch, and the film deals with its less desirable characters with a lot of satisfaction. Overall, I think all of the actors do a good job as they seemed to all put their best foot forward for this fun thrill ride.
The pacing right out the gate is really solid. It keeps moving forward at a tight rhythm and pace to rarely ever linger on any one scene. This is aided by some signature Sommers humor that is sharp and succinct. The actors all have really good chemistry to make this work, and Sommers maintains the right balance to not sacrifice good tension and terror for laughs. Still, I was thinking about halfway through the runtime how the film was going to keep up this survival / escape plan plot for another fifty minutes, but it throws in a number of smart turns, dangerous obstacles, and thrilling sequences to achieve that. Sommers keeps the film rolling forward with a lot of momentum, and of course, people get picked off one-by-one escalate the peril. Sommers gives us a fine melding of horror and action with enough to satisfy whatever you primarily desire more. Plenty of people get killed and eaten in bloody fashion, and there’s more than enough gunplay and fiery explosions to amp up the excitement. Yet, overall, it’s just fun without taking itself too seriously.
By no doubt, this is a fairly simple plot. Deep Rising starts out as a covert heist mission on the sea, but intriguingly twists into a sea monster movie that requires everyone to fight to survive. Why they don’t just haul ass out of there is handled well as Finnegan’s boat needs hull and engine repairs. Yet, it’s not a simple task getting out of the luxury cruise liner as danger awaits at every turn and in every flooded deck. Even then, not everyone between Finnegan’s crew and these mercenaries can trust one another, and that plays nicely into keeping the adventure treacherous. This felt like a nice mix of The Poseidon Adventure and Aliens with a little dash of Die Hard for the thieves / mercenaries plot. I just really liked the close quarters feel of the ship which also reminded me of Friday The 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, but achieved with better results. There really is so much potential for a suspenseful movie set in that environment, and this film really delivered that to my satisfaction.
Still, as I was watching this I was waiting for something to pop up on screen to justify this film’s box office reputation. Just something stupid or low grade. I was enjoying it so much that I was expecting the CGI to be really bad, but quite frankly, in general, this is particularly good for the late 90’s. It’s rather on par with the digital effects in The Mummy for the most part, and the sea creature itself is impressively designed. That design is courtesy of Rob Bottin who was responsible for the groundbreaking and timeless creature effects in John Carpenter’s The Thing. There’s some traces of that in here, but Bottin is able to make it its own distinct creation. Tentacles are everywhere, and the long jagged teeth springing out from it are frightening. The tentacles frequently slither out from nowhere, or bust out from the hull or metal corridors. Sommers does a great job building up tension and suspense by gradually unveiling the creature. We get small glimpses of it, and even when you think you’ve seen it in all of its slimy, ferocious glory, the climax gives you the Coup de grâce. There are plenty of fun scares and thrills in how these dangerous scenarios unfold from well crafted tension to straight out intense action beats.
The action all around is just great with a really great, slick, high octane finale, and all of those thrills, tension, and intensity are well fleshed out with Jerry Goldsmith’s score. It just has a great driving rhythm and rousing, dramatic momentum to it, clearly reflecting the movie right on the mark. I didn’t expect Goldsmith’s name to be attached to this movie, but he really did deliver something solid that played up the strengths of it. It’s never going to amongst his revered legacy of work, but he did his job perfectly with this score by giving it just what it required.
Held together by some solid cinematography that always keeps the geography of these close quarters very coherent, and editing that maintains that consistent rhythm and tempo, I really have to say Stephen Sommers did an excellent job here. No one tried to make Deep Rising out to be more than what it was designed to be – a big, fun, suspenseful, action-packed ride. The film does have this sequel tease at the end, and while that was probably a fun final moment back in 1998, it’s not so much fifteen years later. Knowing the film bombed and no sequel was ever made, it just leaves you desiring a more proper conclusion to this adventure. Regardless, Deep Rising showed a lot of potential to be a hit. However, its failure was not the fault of the movie, but of a really underwhelming marketing campaign. The trailer feels like a slapped together direct-to-video trailer which conveys none of the film’s suspense or wider plot elements, and instead, relies a lot on CGI shots of the monster. That trailer sells this as a forgettable, cheaply executed movie. The poster campaign had some good teaser style ideas but lacked a big eye catching poster to encapsulate the film’s overall excitement and scare factor. It even resorts to promoting it as being “from the special effects team who made Total Recall and Star Wars.” How is that supposed to sell the quality of the movie? Beyond all that, a late January release was not a target for big box office success. Stephen Sommers made a really solid crowd pleaser of a movie, but was marketed lazily. That’s a real shame because this is a film I would’ve loved to have even seen back in 1998. It would’ve been a long time action favorite of mine. Still, I really like the tagline of “Full Scream Ahead.” Anyway, you can tell that I give Deep Rising a really solid recommendation. I thoroughly enjoyed everything it had to offer, and I think a lot of other people will, too.