Before the New Line Cinema logo fully materializes, the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie lets audiences know what to expect. « MORTAL KOMBAT! » Yells a voice, as the danceable techno song roars for the first – but not last – time in the film’s 102-minute run.
Mortal Kombat begins as it intends to continue. It’s a very silly movie, but strangely serious in its own way. The movie is not indebted to its video game roots, but it is not ashamed of them either. This is a movie that seems to have spent most of its modest budget keeping the fog machine running, but has incredible fun getting the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) to shout catchphrases from the game, such as « Kill him! », « Doom! » and « Flawless Victory! »
Mortal Kombat is the second feature film from director Paul WS Anderson. Anderson has worked steadily since the 1990s, but his filmography has been revalued in the last decade. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky praised Anderson’s « inventive – and sometimes even poetic – use of space. » Callum Marsh has classified Anderson as a « vulgar author », placing his work alongside that of directors such as Tony Scott, Paul Verhoeven and John Carpenter.
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Much of Anderson’s appeal lies in how little he is ashamed of the material he works with. Richard Newby says Anderson understands that his « movies exist on the same level as the bent-eared comics you used to keep under your bed, the scratched game disc your parents hid from you, and the shortened novels you got for a bargain. » R. Emmet Sweeney argues that Anderson’s work « is often overlooked because of the critically maligned nature of video game movies. »
As if to underline his point of view, most of Anderson’s Mortal Kombat praise tends to be framed as back compliments. For example, Jordan Crucchiola has called it the « least bad » video game adaptation. However, Anderson took the task of adapting the game seriously. « He was very aware of the Mortal Kombat phenomenon, and he was also steeped in the history of the characters, » Anderson recalls. « I knew what Mortal Kombat could be. »
Anderson’s Mortal Kombat is a B-movie. The movie was shot for a measly $ 18 million. It was a bargain by the standards of the time; Clint Eastwood’s tearful romance The Bridges of Madison County cost $ 22 million and did not feature a single animatronic monster or computer-generated lizard persona. Even the vulgar author Tony Scott couldn’t make his submarine thriller Black Tide cost less than $ 50 million. To be fair, Mortal Kombat is not trying to fool anyone about its budget.
Christopher Lambert is Mortal Kombat’s biggest star, playing Raiden. Lambert was (and is) best known for his work on the Highlander franchise. Many of the special effects seem to have been drawn directly from the video game itself, especially the introduction of the Reptile character and some of the green screen work around Shang Tsung. The film features a number of impressive sound montages, but uses them repeatedly to maximize the investment.
There is some knowledge in all this. Even the characters understand the absurdity of the plot, which is essentially a vaguely mystical riff on the classic martial arts movie template set by Enter the Dragon. When Raiden explains the film’s goals to the cast on a set that Kano (Trevor Goddard) later describes as « a hideous-looking ship, » Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson) asks, « Are a bunch of people in a leaky boat going? save the world? » Raiden responds: « Exactly. »
Mortal Kombat understands what the public is looking for and knows how to deliver it. The movie’s plot is far from solid, but it is a transparent vehicle for a set of character-driven showdowns. Although Anderson is not as competent a melee director as someone like Gareth Evans, he knows enough that each fight is unique in terms of geography and character dynamics. Mortal Kombat is many things, but it is never boring.
This feels true to the spirit of the game in all its pulpy teenage glory. Mortal Kombat knows how much audiences want to see Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) deploy his « ballbusting » move. It is more than a joke; The « ball breaker » was so important to the Mortal Kombat developers that it was the only move with specific responses to the character. In the game, Johnny couldn’t use it against Sonya. Interestingly, he could use it against Goro, but Goro doesn’t physically react to him, unlike in the movie.
Mortal Kombat features the monstrous four-armed character Goro (body of Tom Woodruff, Jr., voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson) made using animatronics. It’s an occasionally ridiculous effect, especially when Goro has to speak. However, he’s also strangely charming, and it seems like a fitting way to bring the character to the screen. In the video game, Goro had been inspired by the stop-motion figures used in classic films such as Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans.
Mortal Kombat never takes itself too seriously, and it works on those terms. Its star trio of human characters is fairly generic, and the script makes no real effort to qualify or complicate them. Liu Kang (Robin Shou) seeks to avenge the death of his brother Chan Kang (Steven Ho) at the hands of Shang Tsung. Sonya Blade also seeks revenge, against Kano for the murder of her partner. To balance these two, Johnny Cage is the ample comic relief.
There’s been a lot of talk about Johnny Cage’s absence in the casting announcements and in the trailer for Simon McQuoid’s upcoming Mortal Kombat reboot. After all, both Liu Kang and Sonya Blade feature prominently, played by Ludi Lin and Jessica McNamee. While it makes sense that Cage isn’t the central focus of a Mortal Kombat reboot, his absence in the reboot is telling. The Mortal Kombat reimagining doesn’t seem to have much room for comic relief.
The trailer for the HBO Max premiere suggests a movie that takes itself far more seriously than Anderson’s effort. If anything, the movie seems to be inspired by modern superhero movies; Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) uses his « superhuman abilities » to « tear apart » a trained military squad in seconds, while Sonya Blade tells a secret story that has been seriously uncovered. The characters reveal new abilities as if they were auditioning for the X-Men, while the trailer promises the arrival of « a new era. »
To be fair, this is part of a broader trend of pop culture « superherophication », reflecting the success of the superhero genre and the gravity it exerts on other types of stories; the western and the musical had a similar influence in their golden ages. It is an unspoken assumption that many of the biggest and most successful movies of the modern era are superhero movies, so of course those movies that want to be so big and successful will resemble superhero movies.
In Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, the villain Brixton Lore (Idris Elba) becomes a super soldier like Captain America. He even calls himself « Black Superman ». Similarly, Frozen and Frozen II find Elsa (Idina Menzel) using her ice powers in much the same way as ice-themed superheroes like Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) from The Incredibles and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) from the Incredibles. X-Men franchise. Still, the trailer for the upcoming Mortal Kombat takes itself very seriously.
The budget for the next Mortal Kombat is unknown, although Scott Mendelson estimates it at about $ 75 million. Even adjusted for inflation, that multiplies Anderson’s budget. Although Anderson’s Mortal Kombat was successful enough at the box office to spawn a sequel, the dire Annihilation, actor Ludi Lin has suggested that the reboot is designed to « build a Mortal Kombat universe » from scratch.
Mortal Kombat, by Paul WS Anderson, was a strange movie, but one that fitted in with the pulp sensibilities of the game. In his own way, he captured the visceral thrill and goofy sensibilities of the fighting game, never taking himself too seriously to have a little fun. It’s a shame the reboot doesn’t seem so unique.