Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
In the waning days of the arcade's dominance over the video game market, one of the more successful arcade titles was Capcom's fighting game Street Fighter II. Though while its popularity and its influence upon the medium are not disputed, one could argue that it may have been surpassed by an imitator that garnered not only the same amount of recognition as Street Fighter II, but caused an insane amount of controversy as well. First released by Midway Games in 1991, Mortal Kombat featured incredibly graphic violence and gore that brought it instant notoriety, and along with Doom, it even helped to bring about the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. It was also an enormous hit, and a series of sequels saw release during the '90s both in arcades and on home gaming consoles. As the franchise's popularity grew, it was decided that Mortal Kombat would venture into the world of live-action movies. And though its release closely followed the disastrous cinematic adaptations of Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon, and Street Fighter, the Mortal Kombat movie proved that it was possible to make a video game movie that could reach for a plateau higher than previously thought.
Once every generation, an ancient tournament known as "Mortal Kombat" is held, organized by the mystical Elder Gods in order to pit the finest fighters on Earth against the dark realm known as Outworld. If Earth's fighters lose in ten consecutive tournaments, the forces of Outworld will be able to invade our plane of existence and conquer it. And it just so happens that Earth has lost nine in a row, and as our story begins, the tenth one is preparing to start.
But while the team representing Earth in this tournament are united in protecting their home, each member has their own reasons for participating in Mortal Kombat. Action movie star Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) is out to prove that his martial arts skills are the real deal; Special Forces agent Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson) is after the blood of Kano (Trevor Goddard), a particularly vicious criminal who has entered the tournament just for the fun of it; and Chinese monk Liu Kang (Robin Shou) has signed up in order to avenge his brother's death at the hands of powerful Outworld sorcerer and Mortal Kombat's master of ceremonies Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) in the previous tournament.
And although they have Outworld princess Kitana (Talisa Soto) and one of the Elder Gods, Lord Rayden (Christopher Lambert), on their side, Earth's defenders are up against tough odds. To be victorious, they'll have to go through not only Shang Tsung himself, but through his minions: the supernaturally-powered masked ninjas Scorpion (Chris Casamassa), Sub-Zero (François Petit), and Reptile (Keith Cooke), and Mortal Kombat's reigning champion, a four-armed leviathan named Goro (the voice of Frank Welker).
Since its release, Mortal Kombat is often acknowledged as possibly the best video game adaptation of all time. And I won't argue with that. But that doesn't mean it's a great movie. It's actually just a silly B-movie whose legacy time has been quite kind to. I don't want to sound like I'm dogging the movie or anything like that, but while the movie is a very strong adaptation of the games, it probably would have either flopped or gone directly to video had it not carried such a marketable brand name. I'm not even sure the movie would have been made if it weren't for the super-hot success of the Mortal Kombat games. However, it must be said that the movie actually a lot of fun. The movie might be goofy and could be accused of being mediocre at best, but it's an entertaining flick that, despite a lack of the game franchise's trademark blood and gore, is the best Mortal Kombat movie they could have hoped to make.
First up is the direction by Paul W.S. Anderson. Working as a director for only the second time in his career at this point, Anderson seems to understand that the movie is pure Saturday matinee schlock, and he films the movie as such. He and cinematographer John R. Leonetti craft a movie that doesn't take itself too seriously, a movie made simply to be entertaining and let its audience have a good time. Their work on the action scenes is especially good, which goes a long way since the movie revolves around its fights. It also helps that Anderson's effects teams do a good job too. The CGI work, especially in Scorpion's trademark spear throw, isn't all that bad, considering that the idea of computer-generated effects were still relatively new in 1995. The makeup effects, primarily Goro, are especially well done. An eight-foot-tall monster with four arms would probably created entirely with CGI nowadays, but the movie's effects team does some fantastic work in bringing him to life. Anderson's work is also assisted by a soundtrack very much influenced by techno and electronica, from bands of that style to the score composed by George S. Clinton (no relation to Parliament Funkadelic's George Clinton). The style suits the movie to a T, and goes a long way in helping establish the proper atmosphere.
Next is the screenplay written by Kevin Droney. The script is extremely light on plot, and sets things up mainly to move from one action set piece scene to the next. Not that that's a bad thing, since there wasn't a whole lot of plot to the original Mortal Kombat game either. While that aspect remains the same, Droney does deviate from the source material; had he stayed closer, the movie would have ended up being a overly-violent, potentially mean-spirited gorefest that would have made for an unappealing movie despite being a fun game. Droney has written a fantasy film that has its tongue planted firmly in cheek, allowing the movie to form a playful silliness that makes it appealing. While his dialogue is wooden at times and many of the gags are above-average at best, it doesn't stop the script from being charming. And really, that's all I personally wanted out of it.
Last but not least is our cast, the majority of whom do a fine job. Christopher Lambert of Highlander fame is good as Rayden, taking a role that was somewhat limited and making it seem bigger. Robin Shou and Bridgette Wilson both hand in acceptable performances, while Linden Ashby and Trevor Goddard are both quite entertaining in their roles. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is hammy but fine as our villain, while Frank Welker contributes some intimidating voice work as Goro. And though practically nothing is asked of Chris Casamassa, François Petit, and Keith Cooke outside of a fight scene or two for each of them, they're not bad at all. Unfortunately, Talia Soto is unfortunately just kinda there. She doesn't really do anything to stand out, though I'm sure it's mostly due to her character being one step above filler.
In the more than ten years since it hit theaters, Mortal Kombat's reputation has, for the most part, gone unequaled and unrivaled. It is the one video game movie all others are compared to, and it's for good reason. Though not the first movie based on a video game, it certainly is one of the best. It's thoroughly engaging and frankly, a lot of fun. It's an easy movie to like if you go in with the right attitude, and it works well as 101 minutes of pure escapist entertainment. So I'll give Mortal Kombat three and a half stars and a solid thumbs up. The only really bad part is that it inspired that lame sequel. What did anybody do to deserve Mortal Kombat: Annihilation?
Final Rating: ***½