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Now that we’ve all seen the new MORTAL KOMBAT reboot, I think we can all agree that the original is still better…
Director: Paul Anderson (the other one)
Stars: Robin Shou, Bridgette Wilson, Christopher Lambert
An actor, a federal agent, and a guy who actually knows how to fight are all called to participate in an interdimensional martial arts tournament that will decide the fate of the entire planet.
Note: If you’re looking for coverage of MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION, undoubtedly the much, much, much worse movie in this series, I refer you to Jesse Shade’s excellent Awfully Good Movies video.
First things first: 1995’s MORTAL KOMBAT has probably the best theme song of any movie, video game or otherwise. More feature films need to have title tracks where someone just repeatedly screams the name of the movie. I defy you to think of a film in which this would not be amazing.
Imagine Russell Crowe fighting a tiger in the Colosseum with EDM music blasting and some random guy yelling “GLADIATORRRRRRRRR.” Or Tom Hanks hanging out at an airport as a sick dubstep breakdown drops and a robot voice shouts, “THE TERMINAL!” Or Dolly Parton picking up a guitar while Julia Roberts dies of kidney failure and just betling out, “STEEL MAGNOLIAS!!!!”
But I digress…
And in the end, the real Mortal Kombat was the friendships they made along the way…
It’s funny to think that the original MORTAL KOMBAT movie is still considered one of the better, if not best, films based on a video game. Following on the heels of early 90s disasters like DOUBLE DRAGON, SUPER MARIO BROS. and STREET FIGHTER, it didn’t take much for this to be viewed as the superior adaptation at the time.
But with its dated special effects, cheesy acting, and even cheesier script, you’d think another video game movie would’ve come along in the last 25 years to caim the title by now.
When Thanos returned with four Infinity Gauntlets, the Avengers knew they were f*cked.
Granted, the plot (pretty much a supernatural take on ENTER THE DRAGON) is simple and pretty hard to screw up. But the film still recognizes the source material’s appeal and makes the right choice in using elements from the game in not-so-subtle ways. You get nods to Mortal Kombat’s classic character designs, signature fighting moves, iconic catchphrases, and more. Unfortunately, the PG-13 rating means the violence is much more kid-friendly and you won’t see any of the game’s famous hardcore fatalities, but they do manage to work around that in fun ways.
I might not love every Paul W.S. Anderson movie, but at the very least, you get the sense that he appreciates and respects what’s great about the original game and what people enjoy about video games in general. Honestly, I don’t know why this seems to be such a difficult lesson for Hollywood to learn. We don’t need you to elevate the property, instill it with unnecessary drama, or pretend it’s high art. Give the people what they like about the thing you’re adapting and they might actually like your movie. Simple.
And that’s when Liu Kang realized he was about to be canceled.
I also enjoy that the 1995 MORTAL KOMBAT doesn’t waste time giving you more story than you really need. Sure, the plot isn’t particularly intricate or interesting, and the characters are paper-thin, but it provides just enough so you can enjoy people fighting in some semblance of context.
The setup follows the game pretty well: Earth is one of many realms in the universe. The evil Emperor of the most savage realm wants to take over our planet, but in order to do that, the powers-that-be decreed that his best fighters must first beat Earth’s best fighters in a generations-long martial arts tournament, called—you guessed it—Mortal Kombat. (I sort of love that they never bother explaining why “Combat” is misspelled. Maybe other realms aren’t great at grammar.)
Our world’s chosen champions include Liu Kang, a Shaolin monk running away from his obvious destiny to win the contest; Johnny Cage, an arrogant Hollywood actor who does his own fighting and stunts; and Sonya Blade, a Special Forces officer looking for revenge for the death of her partner. Together, with the help of their wiseass mentor Rayden, the trio are forced to take on the Emperor’s sorcerer Shang Tsung and his roster of legendary fighters.
This style of fighting brings new meaning to the phrase “Finish him!”
What I used to consider the worst part of MORTAL KOMBAT I now find sort of endearing. And it’s the fact that you just cannot have a movie predicated on featuring the best fighters in the world… and then hire actors who mostly cannot fight.
Bridgette Wilson not only lacked any martial arts experience , but she was also shooting BILLY MADISON directly before this and had zero time to train. She essentially had to learn how to fight during filming and it definitely shows. Linden Ashby acquits himself a little better as Johnny Cage, having time to actually prep and learn the choreography. But he’s woefully unconvincing as what someone in the film refers to as “one of the best martial artists in the world.” (Cage and Sonya’s romance, which enters the “I would die for you” stage after maybe three minutes of knowing each other, is equally not believable.)
The only convincing fighter out of the three is Robin Shou, who you might also recognize from BEVERLY HILLS NINJA and STREET FIGHTER: LEGEND OF CHUN LI. Shou was an experienced martial artist and stuntman in Hong Kong before making his American debut and he carries this entire movie (along with the other stunt performers) when it comes to the action. Out of everyone in MORTAL KOMBAT, Liu Kang is the only one who feels like he actually belongs.
“Excuse me, Ms. Vaughn? A Mr. William Madison asked me to inquire about a certain hiney.”
Even if they don’t always feature great fighters, the fights are still mostly memorable for other reasons. I mean, Robin Shou does some amazing work here, but the main thing my friends and I talked about after seeing this in 1995 was Johnny Cage doing the splits and punching Goro in the balls. Sub Zero and Scorpion each have their moments to shine, even if their legendary rivalry is waved off with a line of dialogue. Hell, they even give Reptile a legit great fight scene, complete with an off screen narrator saying his name at the start, as if his character has been selected by the audience for kombat.
Other things to love about this movie include Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa, who is iconic as Shang Tsung, selling every cheesy “Your soul is mine!” and turning the character in to a great villain (even if he also ends up also not being a great fighter). And then there’s
Tom Jane Christopher Lambert, who makes the conscious decision to play Raiden (or Rayden, as the film insists it be spelled) as a walking joke—speaking with a voice that’s part Bale-era Batman, part William Shatner, and just a smidge Christoph Waltz. His pep talks to the fighters throughout the film are super unhelpful and his jokey attitude to the world-ending situation is an odd, yet entertaining choice.
I’d also be remiss not to give kudos to the team that pulled off four-armed demon warrior Goro as a really well-done practical effect. He’s enormous and lifelike and they do a good job shooting around the animatronic during the fight scenes to make him feel like a real threat, even if the script sort of treats him like a joke. And the expression they manage to capture on his face when he gets punched in his monster nards is so realistic. Just fantastic work all around.
Okay, so not all of the effects were great…
With everything that it gets right, MORTAL KOMBAT does sadly sort of fall apart in its underwhelming ending. Johnny Cage, Sonya, and Kitana (oh yeah, she’s in this movie too!) literally do absolutely nothing in the third act except sit around and watch everything happen to Liu Kang, which honestly might be for the best. Unfortunately, that final fight between Liu Kang and Shang Tsung is also disappointing. The three big tests that were built up (“Face your enemy, face yourself, and face your worst fear.”) laughably take the hero 30 seconds to complete before he dubs himself “the Chosen One.” Even Shang Tsung ends up being kind of a dud when all is said and done. The power of a thousand souls that he’s been bragging about the entire movie amounts to a few easily-disposed henchmen (including B-movie legend Gerald Okamura!) before he himself is beaten without putting up much of a fight.
And then there’s the extra ending tag, which was clearly a reshoot added in later, that is just corny and embrassing, functioning only to set up a sequel that I think most people would rather forget ever existed.
After she gets kidnapped, they throw Sonya Blade in to a ridiculous skimpy outfit for no reason.
Take a shot or drink every time:
- Someone says or screams, “MORTAL KOMBAT!”
- Someone says, “It has begun!”
- Someone says, “Fatality” or “Finish him!”
- Raiden’s eyes glow
- Shang Tsung takes a soul
- Someone says, “Flawless victory”
Double shot if:
- It’s an actual flawless victory
Thanks to Stevee, Morgan, Dana and Pramod for suggesting this week’s movie!
Seen a movie that should be featured on this column? Shoot Jason an email and give him an excuse to drink.