Directed by: Paul W. S. Anderson
Produced by: Lauri Apelian & Lawrence Kasanoff
Starring: Robin Shou, Linden Ashby, Bridgette Wilson, Christopher Lambert, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa & Talisa Soto
Budget: $18 million
Box office: $122.1 million
Release date: August 18, 1995
Anybody that’s as big a fan of gaming as I am will tell you that in the early to mid-nineties the two dominant forces of the beat-em-up genre were Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. These two brawlers captured our hearts and minds with their cutting edge (for the time) graphics, huge and varied character rosters and brutal, particularly in the case of MK, fighting.
Naturally, Hollywood got a hold of both and in 1994 we were treated to the John Claude Van Don’t disaster Street Fighter. Despite sucking more than the hoover that I didn’t buy for my place it made a nice piece of change and soon after, the aggressive promotional campaign for the Mortal Kombat movie began. The trailers and ads promised a violent and sharp production on par with the games and did it deliver? Well, not exactly. Currently holding a mere 33% on Rotten Tomatoes critics shot this one out of the sky for having a flimsy plot, poor and occasionally diabolical acting and for being surprisingly tame on the violence front. The PG-13 rating was a dead-give away for that last point and in defence of said critics the makers do deserve some criticism for selling-out to appeal to a wider audience. However despite some glaring problems that are part and parcel of all video game adaptations not all of MK’s weaknesses necessarily work against it and its pros are prominent enough that I actually enjoyed it.
Perhaps some of this flicks high points are more relevant to fans of the games, which this flick was aimed at, and I promise not to spend the whole review praising it for being better than Street Fighter. The list of films that aren’t could probably stage their socials in a phone booth. However, one of MK’s high points that failed Street Fighter is its authenticity. Liu Kang looks like Liu Kang, Scorpion and Sub Zero are literally identical to their video game counterparts in both likenesses and move sets and even Shang Tsung is easily recognisable, even if he does resemble his MK2 look more than the original. The plot is clearly drawn from the game as well; the warriors of Outworld invade earth and challenge its best fighters to a series of fights to the death. It’s simple and doesn’t try to be anything else. As a fan such dedication to the source material is greatly appreciated and shows that the creators tackled it with respect.
Although the acting is often so-so as previously mentioned and sometimes downright poor it is not without its charm. Christopher Lamberts portrayal of Raiden the thunder god is spot-on. He plays the role of a God who is clearly powerful and wise but still very human and he gets in some genuinely hilarious lines that often feel improvised, a scene where he seemingly breaks kayfabe and starts laughing at the hopelessness of the situation is a particular highlight. The character Kano is also very enjoyable. Despite having only a minor role Trevor Goddard portrays the criminal mercenary with a lot of flair and confidence. So much so in fact that the creators of the game actually redesigned the character to more closely resemble Goddard’s portrayal in later editions. Kano was an Australian gangster in the film but was originally intended to be Japanese in the games. Goddard even lied about his ethnicity at the audition; he is actually from Croydon but he believed in his portrayal so much that he convinced the casting agents that he was Australian. If the truth be told Linden Ashby gives a hammy performance as Johnny Cage. A performance laden with cheesy dialogue and poor one-liners but here is the thing; they are so poor, not just a bit poor, but so unspeakably poor that I dare you to watch him without at least chuckling.
As this film is based on a beat-em-up it isn’t unfair to expect some good fight scenes and my word MK delivers. Many of the bouts are at least 4-8 minutes long and feature sharp editing, clever and quick camera work and some genuine skill and command of the arts to pull-off, particularly impressive as the actors all filmed their own fight scenes without doubles. Cages battle with Scorpion and Liu Kang’s with Reptile are particular highlights.
Granted, budget restraints mean that the CGI is pretty average even for the time but Goro the three-armed giant is a pretty clever effect. Like many of the films weaknesses the bad CGI is bad to the point that it provides humour and has helped the film as a whole to ripen over time. This is true across all areas and the thumping soundtrack composed by George Clinton is consistently hard-hitting and well fitted throughout. Try not to get just a little bit engrossed in that famous opening theme and a number of the other tracks that blast over the superb fight scenes.
In all seriousness, if you go into MK expecting a cinematic masterpiece then you will hate it. It has average production values, poor CGI and questionable acting working against it. Yet despite this, if you go in expecting an un-bashed, unapologetic and cheesy martial arts B-Movie that happens to be based on your favourite video game then hop right in. You’ll undoubtedly have fun and find that the fore mentioned weaknesses aren’t necessarily working to the films detriment. It’s often easy to forget that cinema is primarily a source of fun and entertainment and MK provides tonnes of both.