The video-game-to-movie genre is a difficult one to master. Some of the more successful ones (“Silent Hill”) have been able to maintain the mysterious allure of the game while crafting a scary, visual experience for moviegoers. The genre’s failures, such as 2005’s “Doom,” do little but litter their films with nods to the game’s fanbase, leaving no room for story. The 1995 film “Mortal Kombat” falls somewhere in between. With a toned-down and fitting screenplay, as well as several homages to the popular game that inspired it, the film isn’t perfect but is solid entertainment from start to finish.
When “Mortal Kombat” first hit game consoles, players and critics alike were enamored with its inclusion of blood during battles and gruesome fatalities – finishing moves characters were able to complete on one another at a match’s end. Amidst this the story of the game became lost, which the film sought to revisit. The basic premise here is that a group of fighters is lured towards a contest called Mortal Kombat, unaware that its reigning champion – minions of a shadowed emperor from a place called Outworld – will be able to take over Earth if they win this time around. Earth’s contenders are gently cajoled into taking up this massive fight by a mysterious thunder god named Rayden (“Highlander’s” Christopher Lambert).
What “Mortal Kombat” does right is that it never once feels like a video game. It feels part sci fi, part fighter movie, and mixes the two throughout with some nods to the game’s fans that don’t really feel out of place. Sure, there are some supernatural elements, such as two fighters named Sub-Zero and Scorpion (the former who creates ice blasts with his hands and the latter who can fire a living snake-like harpoon from his hand), but these fit into the backdrop of a tournament that takes place on a hidden island, draped in mystery. The ship that takes the fighters to Mortal Kombat leaves a secret pier in Hong Kong amidst the shadow of night, and is one of the more well done set pieces in the film.
Cinematically “Mortal Kombat” fares well, its’ fights full of martial arts and hard hitting blows, more “Bloodsport” than video game. The choreography of the fights is well done, given that for most of the film the combatants face real flesh and blood adversaries, and not some of the more sinister monster-like fighters from the video game’s finale. Amidst the intense battle scenes, the film uses CGI sparingly, and this is where the film starts to show some weak spots. The filmmakers do their best, but a four-armed villain named Goro (voiced by Kevin Richardson) just don’t fit in with a film full of human characters. Likewise, viewers will likely take umbrage with inclusions like Scorpion’s spear (in the game the character was a mostly humanoid who threw a real spear); pound for pound, Scorpion and Sub-Zero had more appeal in the video game and are more or less lost amidst the noise here.
The heroes of the film – Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby), Liu Kang (Robin Shou), and Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras) all have good chemistry together, as well as with Lambert’s Rayden throughout. The script requires them to have some adversarial, getting-to-know-you type dialogue, but the film is quick to align them together as heroes against a common foe. That foe here is not so much the unseen emperor, but a sorcerer named Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) who steals the souls of defeated opponents. Tagawa conjures up the right amount of menace here, and seems to fit the bill as a fighter to be reckoned with.
In line with this, as the fights progress, it seems Director Paul W.S. Anderson knows what he is doing, and raises the stakes accordingly. One fight between Liu Kang and a creature named ‘Reptile’ is the hardest-hitting and fiercest fight of the contest, and shows how much Kang has progressed along the way. Additionally, the set design of the contest’s main fighting area, as well as that of Outworld, are fitting, and highlight the seriousness of the tournament as it moves towards its’ conclusion.
All-in-all, “Mortal Kombat” isn’t perfect, and works hard to make its appeal to fans of the video games that inspired it. Those who have never heard of the game, or are not fans, will probably finish the film feeling unsatisfied. However, the film gets enough right to make it both an entertaining fight movie and video game adaptation. With a share of lesser attempts on the market, you could do a lot worse than “Mortal Kombat.”
– by Mark Ziobro