Mortal Kombat is one of the most successful video game adaptations ever made. It is also the best. Granted, the bar is low, but I would stack the 1995 movie up against some modern-day blockbusters. Its style and straightforward simplicity in its own convoluted world while still maintaining an abiding sense of fun set it apart.
Paul W.S. Anderson occupies a strange place in the cinematic landscape. Likely more famous for his Resident Evil series, it’s easy to forget that Anderson directed the flawed but memorable space horror Event Horizon. He also produced the bonkers D.O.A., another video game adaptation, with more cheese, zaniness, and style, than an actual plot. But re-watching Mortal Kombat, I couldn’t help but be impressed with Anderson’s basic economy of exposition.
Within the first five minutes of the film, he has introduced the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), our heroes Liu Kang (Robin Shou) seeking vengeance for his murdered brother, Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson), a member of Special Forces seeking revenge for her murdered partner) and the martial arts movie star Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) seeking validation for his talents. Part of the successful succinctly of the character introductions is Kevin Dorney’s script, but Anderson executes it so efficiently and quickly it’s easy to miss how well done it is.
Each scene gives us the personality of each character while also giving us a glimpse of who they are and what they desire. Liu is the earnest hero, Sonya the dedicated, no-nonsense warrior, and Johnny is the wisecracking egocentric douche with a heart of gold. Dorney’s script lays the groundwork, but Anderson shows the rare ability to read the script and understand what needs to be done. That he also does it with a stark melodramatic style tells us he understands the assignment.
Anderson and Dorney attack the video game adaptation relatively head-on and with committed seriousness. The fun of Mortal Kombat is how seriously it takes itself while also letting us know that we shouldn’t, in any way, shape, or form, take the movie all that seriously. After all, this is a fighting game, not The Iceman Cometh. It helps that the cast, especially the impeccably eccentric Christopher Lambert, treats the material as such.
Lambert treats the dialogue of his character, Raiden, a god of the realm as if it is the dead earnest of reading matter. In one instance, he tells our heroes that one of them may get the chance to save billions of lives. After delivering the line, Lambert laughs before catching himself and apologizes.
I don’t know if that laugh and the apology are from Dorney’s script or if Lambert improved it on the set. I only know that it feels like something a mercurial God who oversees the fighters from Earth in a mystical fighting tournament would do. It fits, and Lambert’s laid-back but oddly mischievous manner livens up any scene he happens to appear.
Though Tagawa’s portrayal as Shang Tseung gives Lambert a run for his money. Tagawa has a pitch-perfect presence for villainy while also having a charisma that has us rooting for the guy, just a little. Not to mention Tagawa’s line “Your soul belongs to me!” is a classic of the decade. Entertaining, yet every bit as captivating as Lambert, the two give the broadest yet best performances of the film.
Mortal Kombat is a movie that could grow dull in a hurry. After all, it is essentially a movie that repeats itself over and over. Two people meet in a ring, or some other setting, duke it out, someone wins, and the loser has his soul sucked out by Shang Tsung. But Anderson manages to spice it up with the production design.
Compared to modern-day blockbusters, Anderson’s Mortal Kombat explodes with color and delightful macabre sets. Shang Tsung’s island, located in a realm called Outworld, seems like a place Indiana Jones might visit or see in his nightmares. One fight between Johnny Cage and Scorpion (Chris Casamassa) starts in the woods but ends up in an alternate dimension filled with the bones of Scorpion’s former foes, or so we assume.
The sets are the type that seems sparse, but as you watch the film, your eyes can’t help exploring the scene soaking up the scenery. They are more impressionistic than realistic and help feed the film’s atmosphere. I loved the decrepit ghost ship, which ferries the fighters from Hong Kong to Shang Tsung’s island. It is a wonderfully creepy and haunting design, the kind of ship kids dream about when we listen to or read stories about ghost pirates.
Mortal Kombat is form over function, as it’s hard to picture anyone living in these places. One scene has all the fighters seated at various stone tables covered with sumptuous and tasty delights. Only to have the guards, almost immediately, flip them over so they could perform some demonstration.
John R. Leonetti’s camera always finds itself in an unusual place. Unlike most other video game movies, Leonetti and Anderson strive to make each angle and shot, at the very least interesting. They don’t often succeed, and yes, dutch angles can get tiring, but the attempt to try and get away from shooting everything as if it’s “real” works.
Leonetti’s lighting helps highlight the mystery of each set. Much of the movie has the edge of the frames covered in shadows, while bright lights seem to come in from some other mysterious source. The result is a movie that looks good and teases our interest by hiding parts of the set design, making us curious to peer into the shadows.
Mortal Kombat isn’t tethered to any reality except its own. Granted, this can only take you so far. While there is much Anderson and team get right, there are also some that they do not.
Sonya’s entire reason for coming to the island, avenging her partner’s death at the hand of Kano (Trevor Goddard), is solved almost instantly. Though Shang Tsung seems to imply he has plans for Sonya, it’s never made entirely clear what those plans are and why he seems so delighted by them.
Anderson also has trouble figuring out how to frame each fight in an interesting or exciting way. But for being only his second feature, he acquits himself rather well. The only real weak fight is between Liu and Princess Kitana (Talisa Soto), one of the few Outworld residents who seem to want to help our heroes. Soto’s Kitana exists to be mysterious and to aid Liu and his friends whenever the screenplay needs them to find a way out of a tight spot.
But the true standout of Mortal Kombat is not the fighting, Dorney’s clever tongue-in-cheek writing, or Leonetti’s camerawork. The score by none other than Parliament-Funkadelic legend George Clinton takes the film to another plane entirely.
That and The Immortal’s track of “Hypnotic House,” the song with the infamous voice yelling, “Mortal Kombat!” The music has transcended the movie itself. Few pieces of music have infiltrated the popular consciousness quite like the Mortal Kombat theme.
Anderson and Clinton layer both the song and techno beats throughout the film, giving the scenes a livelier feeling than had they chosen a more traditional route. Not to mention the strange rhythmic beat of the soundtrack adds to the otherworldliness and the videogame aspect of the film. It is a stroke of genius.
Mortal Kombat is a relatively simple movie that traffics in the simple pleasures of humans and monsters beating the crap out of each other. Oh sure, there’s a story, somewhat. But it feels as arbitrary as the rules of the tournament.
None of that matters because the film’s genius is that it could care less what we think of it; it exists as it is, a thing of beauty unto itself.
Image courtesy of New Line Cinema
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