Mortal Kombat

Nothing wrong with being fun
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1995
Director: 
Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring: 
Robin Shou, Linden Ashby, Christopher Lambert, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras
The Setup: 
Adaptation of the popular video game.
Discussion: 

A few weeks ago I tried to watch Street Fighter, but turned it off after a while, as it was a total bummer of dead action, celebrity cameos and silly, over-the-top characters. What a difference between that and this film, which just dives so wholeheartedly into it's silliness that it becomes, and stays, incredibly fun. This is directed by Paul WS Anderson, who went on to create enduring fun out of the Resident Evil series (until its lame latest installment) as well as other... kind of crappy things (Alien vs. Predator, for instance).

We open with a man screaming "MORTAL KOMBAT!!!" and launching right into techno music, which sets the tone. I assume this is from the video game, and I even went on YouTube to watch parts of the old game and see what elements were adapted. Anyway, it successfully has the excitement of those screens that cycle through before an old arcade video game starts, enticing you to play. We then have a sequence in which an adult man brutally beats and finally kills a boy of about 12. A bit violent to start, but okay. This is revealed to be the dream of Liu, who is clearly patterned after Bruce Lee in appearance. He stands and recovers in his room, which is suffused with green light. We soon meet our bad guy, who was the one in the dream, Shang Tsung, and find that he has a cute musclecub assistant with one robotic eye.

Then we meet martial arts film star Johnny Cage, who is white and has the clean-cut appearance of vintage Michael J. Fox. When a line of thugs appear, and you see the sight captured in the picture at right, you say "Okay, so Anderson has a decent visual sense," because you have the four parallel thugs against these vertical parallel lines, with a few diagonal lines setting things off. Johnny has an argument with his director, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Steven Spielberg. It would happen that Spielberg himself was supposed to make a cameo here, but dropped out at the last second. Soon a clean-shaven Gandalf-style wizard appears, and our scene shifts to this Tibetan-style temple, where all the monks bow in awe to the white guy! And this white guy turns out to be... Christopher Lambert! That was a totally unexpected bonus for me, having no idea he was in this. He's some sort of good genie or whatnot, and he's going to appoint Johnny, Liu and forthcoming girl to enter Mortal Kombat in order to save the universe from evil or something.

So Johnny and Liu meet at some pier, still unsure how they got there, but I don't need to know, and soon a spectral ship shows up, cute musclecub on board. They get on, and so does this blonde secret agent of some sort, who holds a gun to Johnny's throat before realizing he's the wrong guy. Now she's on a ship to a mystical land by mistake. Oops. Once they're out to sea, Lambert appears and tells them the deal. They're going to some spectral island where they will compete in the Mortal Kombat games, which is a martial arts fest that includes numerous non-human combatants. And the bad news is that there's this evil entity that is trying to manifest in the world by winning the games, so if our intrepid heroes fail, the world will perish. I didn't know that evil entities staked their takeover plans on sporting matches, but what do I know about the problems evil entities face? Lambert, by the way, is absolutely hilarious in the role, and affects this funny high-pitched voice or... is that really his voice?

They land on said mystical island. By now we've noticed that the film's special effects are cheesy, but really fun and quite numerous. We also have several examples of where CGI stood in 1995. But it's all in the service of creating fun otherworldly visuals. On this island is a giant with four arms who is not CGI, doesn't appear to be animatronic and doesn't quite appear to be stop-motion either and--I could NOT figure out how they did him. And when is the last time you couldn't figure out how they accomplished a special effect? With almost everything since, you simply say "Oh, on a computer."

Now, this was among the first films to be made out of video games, and clearly hails from a time when they weren't quite sure what to do about that. Their solution is to emulate the idea of the game: and thus the rest of the movie is little more than a series of matches, one after the other. It's a shame, because it makes the movie lose narrative momentum, while the visuals and sense of fun is still really strong. While we're looking at the historical context, we should also note that this movie was from a time before martial arts had made many inroads in American films, so you have these old-style, no wire-fu, no people-flying battles that are really quite fun. Anyway, battle, battle, battle, and that's about it from here on out.

Along the way we have to note several similarities to Enter the Dragon, none worth going into. And we'll note that the heroes viciously kill their opponents in a way they probably wouldn't today, since they come off at times like ruthless assholes. This movie apparently wavered between being R-rated, which would match the violence of the game, in which spurts of blood routinely fly, and PG-13, which would make it more friendly to its market of 13yo boys. Ultimately they went with PG-13. The battles are all fine, and it remains fun, if flirting with becoming rote. At a certain point, both Johnny and Liu scream "NOOOOOO!" when a character is killed... yet I don't think we had even met that character before. It all leads up to a big climactic battle, which isn't too much of anything, then it's over.

Fun! Maybe too long for what it is, and maybe too many battles without enough story, but you do get lots of creatures and fantastic sights and things remain on the amusing side. The cheesiness of the special effects only makes it more charming, and it's palpable that the whole thing really just wants to show you a good time. Nothing wrong with that.

Should you watch it: 

Sure, if you want a silly but fun movie.