Mortal Kombat 20 years later: On the only video game movie that actually worked

Twenty short/long years ago, on Aug. 18, 1995, the Mortal Kombat videogame franchise decided to “test its might” on the brutal battleground of the box office. Hampered with a small budget and low expectations, Mortal Kombat ended up defying odds, creating what could be arguably considered the only videogame movie that successfully captured the true essence of its source material. While the film was far from perfect, it actually managed to garner genuine translatable excitement across the whole franchise; making its targeted big-spending youthful demographic want to rush out of the theater and head directly over to the nearest arcade to rabidly pop tokens into the latest Mortal Kombat game cabinet.

A Most Unlikely Hit

At the time, the track record for videogame movies was already filled with recent shameful efforts like 1993’s perplexing Super Mario Bros. and 1994’s underwhelming Double Dragon. However, 1994 also closed out with the onscreen implosion of another adaptation with the fighting game phenomenon, Street Fighter. As a result, Mortal Kombat was coming to the table as a potentially unwelcome closer to the summer 1995 movie season as yet another questionable videogame adaptation effort. Not helping overall consumer confidence was the fact that it was just mere weeks after the lackluster performance of Universal’s $175 million boondoggle Waterworld left a crudely distilled, salty, ammonia-hinted taste in the mouths of moviegoers. Despite that array of inauspicious variables, Mortal Kombat not only achieved victory at the box office upon its $32.7 million weekend debut, but it also hit the proverbial fatality by dominating the field at the top spot for three consecutive weeks!

If there was a discernible formula that could tell us why Mortal Kombat stood above the pack, it certainly wasn’t evident during its formation. Granted, the game series, a blood-soaked brainchild of designers Ed Boon and John Tobias, was at the apex of its popularity with the celebrated sequel, Mortal Kombat 2, just hitting home videogame consoles that previous fall and with the just-released Mortal Kombat 3 sizzling at the arcades. However, the groundbreaking success of the Street Fighter videogame series did little to bolster Hollywood’s roughshod attempt headlined by star Jean-Claude Van Damme to propel itself off that franchise’s branding. Thus, the Mortal Kombat movie, while riding white-hot momentum from the videogame’s popularity, was nevertheless a seemingly low-cost cash-in effort.

Tellingly, New Line Cinema and Threshold Entertainment put up a mere $18 million budget and tasked the project’s direction to a newcomer British helmer in Paul W.S. Anderson (then going by “Paul Anderson”), who would eventually become a staple of another videogame adaptation with the surprisingly venerable, critically divisive financial powerhouse Resident Evil film series. Yet, at the time, Mortal Kombat seemed not so much destined for dominance as it was for a quick turnover to video store shelves. The 30-year-old director was coming off his debut feature with an intriguing, stylistic teen car-crashing crime spree drama in 1994’s Shopping, which starred Sadie Frost and a young fresh-faced chap named Jude Law. Transitioning from that to a project based on a popular game franchise the extent of Mortal Kombat represented a huge expansion in scope. (Although maybe not Colin Trevorrow going straight from Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World “huge.”)

With Anderson working off a script by television writer Kevin Droney, the narrative structure seemed to display a solid grip on the sensational spirit of the Mortal Kombat mania that swept across the videogame world. The early entries of the videogame series utilized motion-capture actors and presented a more deliberately paced, realistic tribute to schlocky, pseudo-mystical chop-socky cinema of yesteryear. While the game franchise sequels upped the ante in terms of over-the-top intensity, characters and themes, the debut film stays surprisingly methodical in its approach by opting to stick mostly to the storyline and genral tone established in the 1992 original Mortal Kombat videogame.

Sticking to the Basics

Because of its disciplined focus, Mortal Kombat is able to tell its story efficiently and accessibly to the non-gamers in the audience. Like the game series, the film depicts a grand tournament almost reminiscent of Bruce Lee’s template-setting Enter the Dragon in which fighters around the world are called to a mysterious island to do one-on-one battle. However, it turns out that this seemingly simple tournament has monumental global implications attached to its outcome. Representing an ancient pact between Earth and the mystical realm of Outworld, the latter side are closing in on a 10th straight tournament victory, thanks to a hulking four-armed immortal ringer in the fearsome creature, Goro (played by a movement-mimicking animatronic puppet). Frighteningly enough, another Earth loss will result in an interdimensional invasion.

While the film is an ensemble piece, the clearly defined protagonist is Liu Kang (Robin Shou), who comes to the island to seek vengeance for the death of his younger brother against the tournament’s powerful, reprehensible, soul-stealing master of ceremonies, Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). The other members of the protagonist team consist of Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson), an American Special Forces officer looking for a dangerous fugitive who killed her partner; Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby), an egotistical Hollywood action star looking to prove his legitimacy; and Raiden (Christopher Lambert), an uber-powerful thunder god who provides guidance/exposition (and little else) to the good-guy trio. Additionally, the beautiful and mysteriously motivated Kitana (Talisa Soto) provides Liu with critical clues about defeating some of the formidable adversaries in the tournament.

While the film is primarily rooted to Liu Kang’s journey using his Shaolin Temple-trained skills to inevitably wreak vengeance, enforce justice and save the Earth in one conveniently wrapped kiai-accompanied swoop, the film manages to balance the stories of Sonya and Johnny quite smoothly. Their respective arcs are weaved into the overall structure of Liu’s plot-central path in a way that’s complementary and fortuitously unifying. Sonya eventually finds her vengeance against the crass killer, Kano (Trevor Goddard), who was acting as a collaborator with Shang Tsung, and Johnny Cage gets the self-affirmation that he was seeking when his wits, martial arts skills and signature split punch to the balls garners him a victory over the ancient undefeated monstrous menace, Goro. And Raiden, well … he got to zap a few people, because that’s always fun. Serendipity, all around.

As far as their onscreen acting, that’s where the ironic adulation might taper off somewhat. Featuring a cast of relative unknowns (save for former Highlander Lambert), the performances were by no means compelling, and there are more than a share of moments, especially with Shang Tsung’s villainous clichéd dialogue, which could accurately be described as distractingly cheesy. However, those moments don’t diminish the film critically, and in an odd way they seem to adequately serve the fantastical nature of the material, even playing into the film’s evident genre tribute motif.

“Mortal Kombaaaaat!!!”

That signature shout popularized in the game’s television commercials became the unmistakable embodiment of the extreme attitude and unorthodox counterculture spirit surrounding the politically assailed ultraviolence of Mortal Kombat. While the movie might be lacking in persuasive performances and deep dialogue, the now-iconic scream-sampling track of the theme, “Techno Syndrome (Mortal Kombat),” exceptionally energized the film’s already impressive action sequences and struck a rare chord with audiences, even beyond videogame enthusiasts. The frenetic martial-arts action, over the top as it might have been, coupled with its pulse-pounding 1990s-era trance techno, elevated Mortal Kombat from being a mere videogame movie into something that permanently cemented the property in the zeitgeist.

It was through those tremendously intense fight sequences that the rest of the videogame cast also managed be filled. A duo of popular characters from the game, while lacking any backstory or even real dialogue, still show up in the film to fulfill their ass-kicking objectives yet do so in a substantive way that doesn’t just adhere to some imaginary checklist of character appearances. Among this group were the yellow-clad, undead, fire-spewing ninja Scorpion (Chris Casamassa), who is arguably the mascot of the series, and the blue-sporting ninja Sub-Zero (François Petit), whose fatal freeze-inducing powers of ice projectiles “let it go” well before Frozen’s Elsa made that power magical and cute. Some fans were disappointed that the movie turned the game series’ signature ninjas and famous rivals into little more than mindless thugs apparently under the malevolent influence of Shang Tsung. However, the movie was already packed with plot points, and adding more would have been infeasible. Besides, the duo’s participation in the film’s myriad melees, while inorganically choreographed, are nevertheless fun and indelibly defining moments of the film.

One downside aspect that’s also abundantly clear in the two decades since Mortal Kombat was released is that the film’s usage of nascent CGI effects did NOT age well -- notably, Scorpion’s signature projectile “spear” weapon, which, in the film’s rendition, emerges from his palm as a flying sharp-beaked chomping creature attached to a rope. The unpolished look of his key videogame attack comes across today as something that could be bested with home software from an amateur YouTuber. However, our eyes at the time, which surfed a primitive Internet on dial-up modems, were nowhere near as critical to such elements.

Oddly enough, there is another antiquated visual sequence that somewhat redeems itself in the diminutive lizard creature who follows our heroes around in Outworld. The creature, after unsuccessfully ambushing Liu Kang, is thrown into the chest cavity of a humanoid statue and goes through a quick metamorphosis, transforming into the original game’s hidden character and third palette-swapped ninja, the green-sporting Reptile (Keith Cooke). It was a pleasant surprise for fans of the game, and I can still recall the thunderous applause from the fan-filled theater audience when that surprising cameo occurred. It may have been a bit wacky, but it stands in stark creative contrast to other franchise adaptations that pack films with every conceivable character and trope from the game mythology without devoting any thoughtfulness to their usage.

Mortal Kombat’s Legacy

Mortal Kombat managed to “finish” its box-office opponents with an expectation-defying $122 million global gross, something that made it a viable candidate for a sequel film. Unfortunately, that only resulted in 1997’s wretchedly abysmal Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, a film wisely abandoned by Anderson, featuring only a portion of the original cast. That film could adequately be described as taking the exact opposite approach to every structurally positive thing I have described about the first Mortal Kombat. With a nearly doubled budget ($30 million) from the first film, the sequel only achieved half of its predecessor’s worldwide earnings at $51 million. Thus, the Mortal Kombat movies mercifully came to an abrupt end at the box office.

Of course, the Mortal Kombat franchise survived the cinematic sequel disaster, releasing a plethora of game sequels and revivals, with the latest effort, Mortal Kombat X, recently cited as having sold over 35 million units. The franchise has also seen brief television series, as well as the highly regarded 2011 Mortal Kombat: Legacy web series, which proved that an entertaining contemporary live-action Mortal Kombat is still a viable possibility. That idea has no doubt fueled the recent news that New Line, partnered with Broken Road, will be gearing up for a proper Mortal Kombat movie reboot. Already on board as a producer is James Wan, the contemporary horror maestro director of the Saw and The Conjuring films, as well as the recent monumental muscle-car mayhem of the $1.5 billion box-office hit Furious 7 and Warner Bros.' upcoming Aquaman solo movie.

Times have undoubtedly changed technologically and culturally since that first Mortal Kombat movie surprised prognosticators and audiences. With this reboot effort having Wan on board, it may indicate that the film could become a tonal mix of darkness and intensity. Hopefully, it will be mindful enough to follow the original film’s more disciplined approach to the adaptation process before injecting updated elements.

What do you think of the original Mortal Kombat movie? Does it stand the test of time? Should the reboot try to structure itself similarly? Jump into the comments section and let us know.

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