The 1995 Mortal Kombat movie was the first movie based on a game that I ever saw in a cinema. At the time of its release, Mortal Kombat was one of my favourite games. My dad used to take my brothers and I down to the local shopping centre to play the arcade machine (which often had a line). Despite what you would expect if you believed the hysteria at the time, not one of my brothers, no I have ever been convicted of a violent crime. This fascination with the series continued right up until Mortal Kombat 3 which I used to play on a big screen arcade machine before it was ported to consoles. I did enjoy Street Fighter II but there was something about Mortal Kombat that I liked better. I think the violence and fatalities were certainly part of it but I also liked the more realistic aesthetic and found it more accessible (or maybe easier) than Street Fighter II.
As I saw the Mortal Kombat movie when I was around 12, I had a different perspective than I do now. At the time I was very funny about cartoons or games being turned into movies if they weren’t 100% accurate. For example, in the Super Mario Bros. movie, I was annoyed that Luigi didn’t have a moustache and I was annoyed they changed Splinters (far more horrifying) origin story in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. So seeing Mortal Kombat as a kid, I was actually quite happy with just how much they kept the same. I also enjoyed the action and especially the music. The dialogue was bad enough that I actually understood most of the jokes too.
Now that I am legally, physically and pretty much mentally what you would call an adult, how do I look back on a movie like Mortal Kombat? The answer is: highly favourably. This is in contrast to most video game films which I find unbearable (though have yet to watch an Uwe Boll film).
I’m going to admit straight away what will go against me when talking about this movie. To the average viewer, the acting, dialogue and the entire plot are terrible if not absurd. I admit this but I wouldn’t be being honest if I didn’t say this about Army of Darkness as well. Sometimes movies, games and books don’t need to check all the boxes to be loved.
When someone tells me they hated a video game movie, I usually want to respond with, “What did you expect?” This is usually all but sometimes I want to go further. I remember a few years ago when the Dead or Alive movie trailer was released and seeing comments on a video game forum complaining about how they had ruined it. Having played enough of Dead or Alive to deserve an opinion, I fired back:, “DOA is about breasts and fighting. As far as I’m concerned, this is the most accurate video game movies ever made.” DOA is one of those movies that you really have seen if you merely watch the trailer. My opinion did not at all change after actually seeing it. The only thing I would add is that it failed in not having the female cast members sport far bigger breasts. Some might point to my ignorance of the games story but I did once read the DOA2 instruction booklet and I feel pretty satisfied I understand it. I remember having a similar back and forth about the Resident Evil movie (which I like) but that’s for another post.
The point above is merely a question about what you should actually expect from a movie based on a video game or even a comic. Despite my purist attitude as a child, you have to expect that certain elements have to be changed and sometimes changed a lot. There are many reasons for this. A major reason is that the plot to a video game has to take the gameplay into account and it has to be paced in a way that benefits gameplay. This means that on paper or screen that a direct translation might not look so good. Another reason is that in the past, video game plots (even for successful series) were very minor things. The plot to Super Mario Bros. and Street Fighter started out quite simple. They often weren’t written by anyone with a talent for writing and since they served as the basic encouragement for the player — they never really needed to. And these two games were two of the earliest game movies! Even games that I often hear praised for their plot are often very shallow rip-offs of action movies. You only need to start counting all the games with space marines to assist with that.
The Mortal Kombat movie keeps the plot of the game intact with only negligible differences. This was fairly easy to do as the game clearly spells out the plot and gives a small background to each character. This is more than enough to work with. What’s more there was an obvious protagonist, antagonist and a few in between to make all the conflicts work. One thing I was disappointed with as a kid was the way Sub Zero and Scorpion were changed into mindless minions but now I think that a conflict between those two could have been one subplot too many. Something else that helped Mortal Kombat was how easily it could fit into the already established genre of martial arts. This is something that the Street Fighter movie really should have tried to do more consciously as well.
If you look at Mortal Kombat as a martial arts movie, you have to be pretty happy. Even with some wonderful movies released after, the combat sections of the movie were excellent. With the possible exception of the fight between Kano and Sonya the fighting sections were plentiful and highly entertaining. A particular favourite would be the dungeon fight between Scorpion and Cage. This fight was unique mostly for the way they fought downwards on a collapsing scaffold. Taking inspiration from the game, they also had unique locations for each fight and I particularly appreciated the variety of colour. You had dungeons, mountains, the beach, a wasteland and the climax was fought above a large spike pit; a tribute to one of the most memorable stages in the original game.
The fighting sections were heavily complimented by the music and sound effects and indeed the most positive thing mentioned about the movie is usually the soundtrack — which I still own on CD. It has an excellent mix of rock and electronic music along with some nice drum heavy instrumentals. Most people remember the thumping opening track, Test your Might which is used about three or four times in the film and shamelessly in the terrible sequel. But the soundtrack is much more than that track. It is still one of my favourites of all time and one of the few I am happy to listen to without the movie. As mentioned, the sound effects are great but particularly the sounds for punches and kicks. At the time and still now, I hadn’t ever felt violence more viscerally in a movie. From the opening back breaker to the climax that I will not spoil. In fact, the next time I felt like this was watching Dwayne Johnson smash a man across the face with a burning log in Welcome to the Jungle (The Rundown) along with pretty much every fight in Ong-Bak.
Christopher Lambert, much like Bruce Campbell, is a very likable if not talented actor. Although being an unusual choice for Rayden, he carries his role well and is makes Rayden a far more entertaining character than I ever imagined. I never imagined Kano as Australian before the film and now I couldn’t imagine him as anything else. Shang Tsung was also much more interesting as a younger villain than the old man in the original. And one thing that really helps you ignore the shortcomings with both the scripting and acting is the half serious way the actors play each scene. There is a lot of humour and the less intentional is by far the more enjoyable. From the early scenes between Sonya, Cage, Liu and Rayden to the over the top acting from both Kano (Trevor Goddard) and Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), there is a lot to make you smile and a lot of this seems to be aimed at fans of the game more than a general theatre audience. Goro did look a bit odd but I still can’t imagine an easy way to do a live action character like that. He was believable enough as a formidable opponent.
Mortal Kombat is perhaps made more for the fans than many of the other video game adaptations and this is probably its greatest strength. I’ve conceded quite openly that there is enough wrong with the movie to write it off for the serious critic but knowing its origin, helps immensely to overlook it. Considering the source material is a combination of stereotypes about East Asia rolled into an excuse for extreme violence; nobody had any right to expect more than they got and I would extend this to many other video game and comic films as well.
It is fair to argue that a film should be enjoyable without knowledge of its source material or intention. It is equally true that encouragement to switch your mind off does not excuse bad acting, scripting and direction. However even with all my faculties active, I enjoy Mortal Kombat and still occasionally watch it to this day.