Plenty of critics dismiss the Mortal Kombat video game franchise as nothing more or less than gory, juvenile escapism. You know: crap. Plenty more go on to dismiss the very idea of a movie based on a video game. How can you blame them? Look at Street Fighter. Look at Double Dragon. Look at the anime version of Tekken if you can find the damn thing. Should I mention Super Mario Brothers? I could’ve brought that thing home and really given myself some ammunition for a good rant…but no. Instead, I’m gonna pick on this defenseless little excuse for a movie. Brainless monument to corporate synergy though it may be, Mortal Kombat has managed the strangest of hat tricks and become the high water mark in the perpetual kiddy-pool of video game based movies.
Which is amazing when you stop to consider it. Beat ‘um Up games like MK, by their very nature, are short on plot and long on action. A Character (you) is magically whisked from one flashy arena to the next and must hit an opponent until he/she stops moving. Repeat. In this respect, many reviews of this movie are correct: it is slavishly faithful to its source material in terms of both structure and style. Consequently, Mortal Kombat is light years away from being a good movie. Many of the things that made the video game so poplar are either truncated or forgotten in the haze of this (presumably) franchise-launching production.
First, a little history. In 1992, video game magnate Midway Entertainment opted to produce a fighter game, loosely based on the cinematic exploits of a well-known, very dead, martial arts star. Said martial arts star’s estate declined to participate. The result: Mortal Kombat. With it’s state of the art technology (and revolutionary ability to “block”), Mortal Kombat became a bigger hit than anyone ever dared hope. Suddenly, every fourteen-year-old in the country had a new reason to waste their time at the mall. A movie was inevitable. Once again we must beg the question, “Did it have to be as bad as this one? Did it really? Really?”
We open with a dream sequence, where series villain Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, fresh off his tour-de-force performance in Thunder in Paradise 3) beats all hell out of the unfortunate Chan Kang (Steven Ho, fresh from his tour-de-force in Rock and Roll High School Forever). Video game nerds will remember that series hero Liu Kang first entered the Mortal Kombat tournament to find his missing brother. Sure enough, Chan calls out to his elder brother just before Shang Tsung punches his ticket…
Cut to Liu Kang (Robin Shou, fresh off a respectable career in Hong Kong action films), who wakes drenched in sweat. As in the game, Liu is the prodigal son of an ancient Shaolin temple, the Temple of Light. But this Liu Kang decided he wasn’t having any of this talk of prophecy and destiny. So he ran away, Chan took his place…and died in it. To avenge his brother’s death, Liu returns to the Temple and announces his plan to fight in “the Tournament.” Damn the torpedoes if he happens to be driven by some unworthy cause, like revenge. Not even the Thunder God Raiden (Christopher Lambert) can dissuade him. After all, “there’s no one else.” Kind of a pessimistic deity, this guy.
Would that this were the only plot thread. Cut to Hong Kong, where Special Forces Lieutenant Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson, hot off Billy Madison…wait…that sound’s naughty) elbows her way through ravers, searching for her nemesis, Kano (Trever Goddard, fresh from the unforgettable Men of War). Kano killed her partner and so she will hunt him to the ends of the Earth, blah, blah, blah…
Cut to Los Angeles, where martial arts superstar Johnny Cage (Liden Ashby, in his greatest role since Slaughter of the Innocents…there’s something you don’t get to write every day) is taking a beating…in the tabloids. Despite his (cough, cough) talent, “the press” insists on calling him a big fake. Good thing there’s that Tournament his old master mentioned to him, a gala opening for the best fighters in the world. To win it is to win “their” respect…whoever “they” are, and assuming any of “them” survive.
Does Johnny take time to investigate this little enterprise? Hell no. Must’ve grabbed the next plane to Hong Kong because there he is on the pier, just in time to bump into our other two protagonists. The movie studios in this world don’t seem to care if their “talent” jumps ship in the middle of production to get himself killed on the other side of the world. As they reached the dragon boat sure to take them to “the Island” I looked down at DVD player’s clock and noticed, holy Bejesus, we’re thirty minutes in. And we’ve covered less than half of the needed exposition. The appearance of Sub-Zero (3rd Degree Black Belt (Judo) Francois Petit) and Scorpion (7th Degree Black Belt (Karate) Chris Casamassa) does lighten the load…but fear not! Raiden shows up before anything interesting can happen.
Our three leads have been chosen, you see…to compete in Mortal Kombat, the greatest Tournament in this or any parallel dimension…and the key to our planet’s survival. You see, the universe next door is a wasteland of a place called Outworld, ruled by the mad Emperor Shao Kahn. If Shang Tsung, the Emperor’s personal sorcerer, can win ten Mortal Kombats in a row, the portals between our realms will open and our world will be overrun by the Emperor’s otherworldly forces.
Now, let’s step back for a second. It’s not my intention to lambaste Mortal Kombat the game. I have nothing but fond memories of it in all its myriad forms. After all, these games do everything they need to do…and they’ve gotten it right with a miraculous consistency. Example: the characters. In the game, each one gets a flashy picture, a few paragraphs of back-story, and some vital statistics. That’s really all you need. You, the player, are supposed to provide your own personal stake in such matters. Because, frankly, that’s all you need.
A movie is a very different beast. (I should’ve named myself Dr. Obvi Ous.) Movies need characters. Well defined, human characters…or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Without this, you can stage a million action scenes and bore me half to tears. It’s not like I don’t know how this story ends. (In fact, I know at least seven different ways for this story to end…eight if you count the inevitable “Game Over.”)
Doesn’t matter how many times writer Kevin Droney stops the action to give us a quaint, character moment. I don’t buy any of them. Who would? The thirteen year-olds that make up this movie’s core demographic? Hell, they’re so jaked up on Ritalin they’ll be bouncing off the walls by the time “Kombat begins.” They’re here for the fights. And thirteen-year-olds beware: these fight scenes are not dressed for success. Not in this post-Matrix world of ours.
The back of the box proclaims that his film contains “amazing morphing sequences beyond your wildest dreams.” That sentence alone should clue you in to the quality of these special effects. Welcome to 1995, kids. Still, this is twenty-million dollars worth of Hollywood junk food. And the middle fights (Sonya vs. Kano, Johnny vs. Scorpion, Liu Kang vs. Sub-Zero) have aged quite well. Looks damn cool…but I’ve seen cooler, and I didn’t have to suffer this much.
Lord save us from Linden Ashby and his hateful take on Johnny Cage. The white-bread movie star spends the entire film confused and annoyed, perpetually whining or making some self-absorbed comment. Then, as the Final Battle draws near, he snatches a conscience out of thin air and decides to become a man-boy. To protect Sonya, you see. Because even when the fate of the world riding on his shoulders, the American Male still takes time out to protect the wimmin folk from harm. You forget, this is 1995, when Hollywood decreed that every movie should involve at least one underdeveloped love story. Otherwise, where’s the human interest? Hell, what else draws the chicks into the theaters, right?
Right. Okay. Tangent.
When he’s not growing a pair, Ashby’s Cage wallows in his own cynical brand of Odious Comic Relief. The fact that he occasionally speaks for us, the audience, only makes him more annoying. This pampered asshole is not my spokesman, no matter how “all-American” he looks. I’ve watched my Kung Fu movies, thank you. I’m rooting for the man with the the finely teased hair who takes off his shirt before he gets in a fight. At least Robin Shou can act.
Bridgette Wilson is another, horribly miss-cast story, the movie’s only (active) female protagonist. Her Sonya’s ruled by pouting and barking. When she has no lines, she pouts. When speaking, she must sneer through her dialogue with as much authority as she can muster…but from her slight, airbrushed frame, lines like, “If I want backup, I’ll radio for it,” sound about as threatening as…well…I was going to say “a high school cheerleader” but we all know how dangerous they can be. How about the class brain, who joined the Drama Club thinking it would look good on a college transcript? Was Miss Wilson ever a class brain?
We may never know, but one thing is for sure: her Comedies far outstrip her Dramas.
Am I giving the actors an unfair beating? Yes. Equal time must be given to writer Droney and director Paul (Resident Evil) Anderson. I swear, these actors would be more palatable if they actually had something to say. Instead they spend the film listening to Christopher Lambert as he sleeps through his performance as the God of Thunder. Droney manages to reduce my favorite character into the Boring Exposition Guy, and that’s a half-point deduction from the rabid fan who lives inside me. Nothing would have pleased me more than seeing the Highlander (or one of his stunt doubles) fly-kicking extras across the screen. Pitiful waist of a good deity is what this is.
Direction? What direction? Paul Anderson is no auteur. His career’s a laundry list of video game adaptions and action movies disguised as bad sci-fi/fantasy pictures. Most of his fight scenes are shot in middle range, with the unblinking eye rolling on as our two “kombatants” slug it out at close range. Exciting? Vaguely…but there’s no frosting on the cake. No cream in the coffee. No bells, whistles, or directorial flairs to add any resonance to these battles. Except for slow motion. Hope you love slow motion. Bowing to the video-game struture, basics of pacing and character development are tossed right out, in favor of the quick-fix solution that gets us right to the fight scene. And, as I said, they are still fun to look at…but Anderson gives us nothing to fill the gaps in between. Except talking heads.
So let’s see. We’ve got Leaden performances, pedestrian direction and chunky writing. Is anyone surprised? I’m certainly not. Best to let your fond memories of this movie rest in piece. Assuming you even bothered to see it in the first place.
Don’t. Rent the video game instead. That’s where Mortal Kombat really shines; where it remains a trend setter in its industry. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some Fatalities to practice.