Flawless Victory: Why the 1995 Mortal Kombat Film is So Good
For anybody of a certain age, Mortal Kombat the 1995 film by perennial schlock-jock Paul W. S. Anderson holds a special place in their heart. The series of videogames it is based on is a juggernaut of a franchise that brings ultra-realistic violence (at least that’s how I remember it) to the fighting masses. I still remember my first experience with Mortal Kombat 2 on the (at the time) cutting-edge Super Nintendo Entertainment System. From my first fleeting glance, I was enthralled as I watched an older, cooler boy from my friendship group play with such gusto that I believed he could rip a person’s head off with his bare hands. I remember rushing to my local independent game store (remember those?) and dropping a not so insignificant 50 bucks of my hard-earned paper-round money on a shiny grey cartridge. The ride home on my Boxer bike was filled with thoughts of fatalities and dragging people through the air with chains while shouting, “Get over here.” Of course, my experience with the game wasn’t quite as fluid as my friends but after many hours of practice and perusing a guide in a videogame mag (no Google here) I started to rip pixelated spines from twitching bodies with ease.
Even as the lure of the game waned, the experience I had with it was firmly embedded in my mind and when I heard a movie version of the franchise was set to hit theatres in the balmy summer of 1995, I almost wet myself with excitement.
Looking back now to those heady days of youth the question is, are rose-tinted spectacles clouding my judgment or are my fond memories of the film justified? Errr… let’s be honest, the film is a turd of a movie… but it’s the type of turd I will happily watch over and over with a beer and a warm, fuzzy feeling that reminds me of a simpler time when a man and his games controller could beat pixelated meat bags into dust. What, you can still do that? Shit, I’m getting old. Anyway, onto the story of Mortal Kombat… You have to scream the words in a deep voice for that sentence to work.
The Mortal Kombat Story — Playing a Different Game
The story of the 1995 Mortal Kombat film plays on the beats of the first and second Mortal Kombat games. On the surface, it seems a pretty faithful adaption of the source material but a longer look with an expert gamer eye reveals that the nods and winks hide a slightly tepid story that just about manages to keep the games charm… sort of. In the words of Eric Morecombe, the film, “Plays all of the right notes but not necessarily in the right order.” As a teenager besotted with the games, the notes were easier to see, but with age, they have hidden behind a plot with so little substance I could write the film’s synopsis on a matchstick.
You could argue that the plot of the game is also light but with so many characters showcasing their own personalities, backgrounds, and styles, the film had more than enough material to work with. In fact, the bareboned nature of the games gave filmmakers a veritable sandbox to play in. But instead of delving into the possibilities with open arms, they chose to focus on the main part of the game — the fighting — while providing a modicum of fleshing out for narrative purposes. I guess in this way the film is incredibly faithful. Does it suffer as a consequence? No. The story is not beholden to its video game roots but is equally not ashamed of them. It revels in its silliness and has just the right amount of knowing nods and narrative direction to keep fanboys like me happy.
On With the Story
*** Major spoilers ahead ***
Mortal Kombat, as it is in the game, is a fighting tournament pitting representative of the realms of Earth and Outworld against each other. We are told early on that if the realm of Outworld wins Mortal Kombat ten consecutive times, its Emperor will be allowed to invade and conquer the Earth-realm. With nine wins on the bounce, this Manchester City of fighting groups is about to take over the world… that is unless somebody can do something about it.
A motley crew of Earth-based combatants are chosen by Raiden (Christopher Lambert), the god of thunder and protector of Earth. They include Shaolin monk Liu Kang (Robin Shou), movie star Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby), and military officer Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson). Each has their reason for wanting to fight but these are explored in so little detail that they are more or less irrelevant. Getting the group together is little more than an excuse to throw our intrepid heroes into one bloody entertaining (but relatively blood-free due to the films PG rating) scrap after another.
With the trio punching and kicking their way through to the later rounds of the tournament (which seems to be incapable of drawing them against each other) evil demon Shang Tsung (also the game’s main protagonist) hatches a plan to win using the ‘unbeatable’ Outworld monster Goro as his puppet. Goro rips through every competitor he faces. With the fate of the Earth in the balance, Cage challenges Goro and beats him on one-on-one combat. Tsung, not one to be beaten, kidnaps Sonya and heads to his castle in Outworld. There the group confront the demon and Liu manages to impale him on a conveniently placed bed of spikes, thus winning the tournament and bringing peace and harmony to Earth forever… or until the final scene when the Outworld Emperor suddenly appears and declares he has come for everyone’s souls.
All in all, the film does little to extend the basic premise of the games, which in many ways is a good thing… and in others not so much.
What Mortal Kombat Got Right
From the impressive fight scenes to the un-ashamed homage to the source material, there are many things that Mortal Kombat 1995 gets right (Which is unusual when you consider the dogshit adaptations game fans have been subjected to over the years).
One thing the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie does really well is to elicit the adrenaline-bursting quality of its video game counterpart. From the far-out and motley band of characters to the shonckily (I think I made up a word) choreographed fight scenes themselves, the movie offers up a brilliant blend of goofy action cheese you just don’t get anymore.
Anderson’s movie contains a smorgasbord of eccentric battles with punches thrown at lightning speed and bodies flying around the place like its Saturday night in the mosh pit. Admittedly subsequent watches show the fight choreography to be weaker than remembered 25 years ago, but the sheer kineticism (I think I just made up another word) is still a marvel to behold. And while Anderson may not have created the stellar high-class action film he was aiming for, he did make a movie that understood the game and what it offered to those that played it. That can only be applauded.
Faithfulness to the Core
But action isn’t the only thing the film gets right. It also displays a level of homage and faithfulness to the source material that will keep any fan of the game happy. Yes, the premise of the game is incredibly bare-boned but the characters are anything but and include some of the most visually unique characterisations ever seen in entertainment. The film does an excellent job of recreating every one of them while giving them purpose.
Goro in the game is a real beast and tough as old boots to beat. The film understands this and makes him a real monster of a character.
Shang Tsung, if anything, is better served in the film. Rather than the fleeting appearance he makes in the original game, he is more fleshed out here and feels like a genuine threat while keeping to the look and feel of the game.
Other fan favourite characters like Kitana and Raiden also have their moment in the sun and while they don’t have much going for them as characters, they bring a little element of fun to the plot. The movie tries its best to includes as many of the game’s denizens as possible and rarely does anybody feel shoehorned in.
Oh, and of course Sub-Zero and Scorpion are just fucking epic as hell.
There Be Meat on Them There Bones
While I criticised the script earlier in the piece for being ‘light’ it does have enough meat to make it at least a little interesting. Sure, the film aims to get from one set piece to another as swiftly and efficiently as possible but at least it provides a reasonable attempt at creating narrative strands to do so.
Liu Kang, the films main protagonist, has a modicum of convincing motivation to join the Mortal Kombat tournament and the film dispenses with the, “Look I’ve been dropped into this absurd shit,” vibe you get in other videogame films. Sonya, the main female character, is equally well-served (for a film of this type) with a back story that gives her at least some purpose to exist beyond being “the girl”. Cage, while being the least rounded character, plays as the comedy relief and provides some great comedic beats as the story progresses. All of this gives the film a personal element beyond the glossy and off-the-wall action it otherwise presents.
So, Mortal Kombat Was Good?
Fuck no. Mortal Kombat 1995 is a campy disaster of a movie that reduces the game to its bare-bones and becomes an over-the-top PG-13 bloodless action fest. And for everything I love about the movie (and I do love it), there are a million reasons that should make me hate it.
When I think about the film, I’m often reminded of the poem Julie Stiles character Kat reads at the end of 10 Things I Hate About You. In the poem, she lists all the things she hates about Heath Ledger’s Patrick Verona before stating, “But mostly I hate the way I don’t hate you. Not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.” I feel much the same about Mortal Kombat. I hate that the story is little more than an excuse to get from one fight set-piece to another. I hate that the special effects look like they were designed on a Super Nintendo. I hate how the dialogue is often unintentionally hilarious and how the actors offer more woodenness than the sets that seem to blow in the breeze. But most of all I hate that I don’t hate it. Not one little bit. Not even at all… Oh, except for the distinct lack of gore. I really fucking hate that.
Finish Him Indeed
Mortal Kombat the videogame is an unashamedly gore-soaked bloodbath of brain splatter, spines being ripped out, and arms being pulled off. It wears its “adults only” warning on its sleeve and has no intention of pulling its punches. The 1995 Mortal Kombat film, on the other hand, is far more concerned with box office than blood and sticks rigidly to its PG-13 rating. With little leeway for fatalities or gore, the fight scenes build to climaxes that are never fully realised. In the game, you know that one well-timed combination will lead to an explosion of body parts. In the film, the action loses momentum once you realise that the most you’re going to get is a snapshot of a beaten bloodless face and a cutaway to the next part of the story.
It’s such a shame that the filmmakers didn’t have the conviction to go for a higher rating. Films like Logan and Deadpool have shown since that adult age ratings and good box office can go hand in hand. Hell, the rebooted Mortal Kombat releasing later this year looks to have embraced its roots judging by the Red Band trailer that dropped a few weeks ago. Let’s hope that this version of our beloved franchise captures much of what made the 1995 film good and wraps it in a bloody gore-soaked bow.
Mortal Kombat: My take
All in all, Mortal Kombat 1995 is a rollicking good time of a film. It is cheesy, pulpy, and totally absurd. I’ve often heard it referred to as the “least bad” videogame to film adaption but calling it so does it a disservice. I liken it to one of those dog-eared comic-books I would store under my bed when I was young. Getting progressively worn as I pulled it out for a quick comforting read every once and a while at the expense of newer more sterile comics. Yes, I may be viewing the movie through a blood-soaked fatality fuelled haze, but I’d argue that stacked against its more recent peers (I’m looking at you Sonic) it would still come out on top with a Flawless Victory.