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Mortal Kombat
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Robin Shou, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Christopher Lambert, Linden Ashby, Bridgette Wilson, Trevor Goddard

Written By: Kevin Droney Directed By: Paul W.S. Anderson

The Short Version

Iconic game moments and game changers are well represented.

Has a sense of humor about itself without going too far.

PG-13 = Kiss of Death = Fatality as far as being a legit martial arts movie is concerned.

Hope you like your characters with just one dimension.

Not a Flawless Victory by any stretch, but still fun enough for cheesy action and as a game flick.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Mild and pulls apart very easily, but still all right for snacking, even if it is a little short on flavor.

Pairs Well With...


This inexpensive beer was very popular back in 1995, just like this movie.  Now people tend to look back and make fun of it, just like this movie.  Though really, you could do worse on either count.

“Get over here!”

At the time of its release, Mortal Kombat was the best movie based on a video game that had ever been made.  Opening at the top of the box office and staying there for a few weeks, it was applauded by action gamers and casual moviegoers alike.  Thanks to George S Clinton, Buckethead, and a catchy dance remix theme song, Mortal Kombat even saw its soundtrack go platinum.

Time and perspective do their damage.

In the pantheon of video game based movies, Mortal Kombat is no longer the champion by any stretch; it doesn’t even get a spot on the podium as one of the top three.  It’s still a winner, but far from being the Flawless Victory many fans remembered from catching it in the theatres on one of its first few weekends, Mortal Kombat doesn’t even score a knockout.

And yet, though the mighty one has fallen and fallen far, it’s also not deserving of the rock-bottom rating it often gets from people who never caught its original wave or who came back years later and asked, “What the hell was I thinking?”

Mortal Kombat is, in the end, a mild-to-mediocre tournament action movie with strong video gaming roots.  It’s a flick to snack on while you dig the music, watch the pretty backgrounds, and wonder if maybe you can cut a deal with someone about who actually gets to win this thing.

So, with that in mind, let Mortal Kombat begin!

Mortal Kombat the movie sticks relatively close to the roots established in Mortal Kombat the game.  Various fighters of differing backgrounds – a Shaolin monk, a martial arts actor, a cop, a gangster, and so on – are invited to a once-a-generation martial arts tournament known as Mortal Kombat.  They all have their own reasons for going – ego, cash, revenge, and so on – but it’s not until they’re aboard to boat that will take them to the tournament that most discover the real reason for the fight.  It turns out that the fate of the very world is in their hands.  The other fighters they will be facing represent the forces of a realm called Outworld, and if a fighter from the Earth realm does not win this tournament, the gates will open for Shao Khan, the evil Emperor of Outworld, to step through and gain dominion over the Earth.

This, I’m sure you can imagine, would not be a good thing.

The story is serviceable enough, and for fans of the game, its frame is faithful to its roots.  The script gets definite kudos for having a sense of humor about itself without making the mistake of turning the movie into a farce, but that’s about as much mileage as you’re going to get here.  Most of the characters are one dimensional, and the screenplay’s forward progress is simple point and kick that is generally devoid of logic.  (The story may pretend at character growth, but it’s all lip service.)  Martial arts fans who are expecting an actual tiered elimination tournament structure will be scratching their heads wondering how completely random fights lead to a definitive conclusion; only one of the “scored” matches seems to mean anything at all, and even that’s debatable.

But then again, the key to enjoying Mortal Kombat is to not approach it as a straight up martial arts movie.  The structure isn’t there, and for the most part, neither are enough legitimate martial arts sequences.  (I’m not saying that there are none, but there is so much of a mix of fighters and non-fighter actors and special effects and “fights” that are conducted with very little real combat at all that Bloodsport this will never be.)  This is only multiplied by the fact that the studio wouldn’t take anything harder than a PG-13 rating (is this ever not a misguided goal on a studio’s part?), which is the kiss of death for any film that wants to seriously contend in the martial arts arena.  That’s why, instead, it’s best to retune one’s expectation of “martial arts” to “action,” and to have fun with Mortal Kombat as either cheesy light action or as a game flick.

On the action side, the quantity is definitely there.  Five minutes rarely pass without a punch or kick, and even if the martial arts purists in crowd may cringe, most of the sequences play well enough to be fun, given an atmospheric jolt by a high octane soundtrack.  Some of the stages upon which those sequences play out will be recognizable in their entirety from the games; the rest will very much look like they belong there.  Visually, there are just no complaints to be had against Mortal Kombat

…save one.  Prince Goro, the four-armed champion of Outland who looks like a California Raisin on steroids.  Hardly a frightening menace, Goro is simply ridiculous set alongside flesh and blood human beings, and as such, really doesn’t belong in this movie at all.  Sure, his silhouette was cool for the posters, but under light and on the screen?  Goro just looks dumb.  Still, with Goro being the only real visual strike against the movie, things certainly could have been worse.

Other gimmick ports from the game are far more successful.  For most fans, the crown will be taken by Scorpion, played by Chris Casamassa in the costume and given his iconic voiceovers by Mortal Kombat game co-creator Ed Boon.  I have heard people cheer at the words “Get over here!”, and I can definitely understand.  Even if you’re not familiar with the game, watch the scenes, and maybe you will, too.

Another successful favorite is Sub-Zero (Francois Petit), whose ice attack plays to superb effect in the first fight that occurs after the combatants reach the island.

A surprise, though, is Trevor Goddard’s portrayal of one-eyed underworld gangster Kano.  Though the character was originally Japanese in the games, Goddard’s transformation of Kano into a barely civilized Australian tough resulted in future versions of Kano in the games being remade to match Goddard’s Aussified performance.  (Goddard himself, it turns out, isn’t even Australian.  He just marketed himself that way.)  It’s easy to see why; he walks out as one of the easiest members of the human ensemble to remember.

Christopher Lambert also scores with his drily humorous take on Lord Rayden, God of Thunder and Lightning.  Lambert never has to fight in the film, but he attacks the mentor’s role with amused relish, and a cackle that can’t help but draw a smile.  Much of the script’s humor is his to deliver, and he makes sure that it comes across right, while still maintaining an authoritative presence.

Even Lambert’s presence, though, is overshadowed by the man who steals the show: Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in the role of our villain, the conniving wizard Shang Tsung.  Tagawa has a field day in the villain’s role, playing it up for all it’s worth and then some.  He plays Shang Tsung with the zeal of the MC of a carnival, and takes a character who on paper is just as shallow as the rest and gives him added depth by sheer force of will.  Tagawa steals every scene that he’s in, but you won’t complain about the theft.

Far less impressive is Robin Shou as Liu Kang, whom the script pushes at us as our ultimate hero.  Shou may bring the most legitimate fighting chops to our ensemble of Earthlings, but his acting is something else entirely.  Linden Ashby’s role of Johnny Cage may be scripted as the arrogant ass of the film, but Shou seems hell-bent to switch notes.  A wooden performance would have been preferable to the actively annoying sneer that Shou is determined to deliver every one of his lines with.

Close at his heels is Bridgette Wilson as Sonya Blade, though at least she can offer the defense that the script gives her even less to work with.  She takes the “bitch next door” archetype that the script suggests and adds “prissy” to it, made all the worse when the script decides to murder the one dimensional character it already crated and turn her into a damsel in distress.  Wilson also insisted on doing her own stunts, which while certainly laudable in some cases proves a disaster here.  It’s true the body doubles are often easy to spot and a distraction, and when one is playing the only significant fighting character, doing it all oneself can work.  Here, though, Wilson is surrounded by fighters, and doesn’t even come close; she’s so obvious, in fact, that she’s since become a poster child to many people for actors fighting badly.  With that said, I’m thinking she would have been forgiven more had her acting performance made up for it.

I’m just trying to forget Talisa Soto as Kitana.  Actually, I’m just trying to forget Kitana altogether.

And yet, no matter how many things that I can find wrong with this movie, I still smile when I watch it.  Many have suggested that Mortal Kombat doesn’t provide a hint of the great things to come from Director Paul WS Anderson, but for me, the very fact that I keep coming back to this movie says otherwise.  There’s something intangibly magnetic about Mortal Kombat, and it’s the kind of something that originates in the Director’s chair.  It comes out of the ring beaten and bloody (and with one arm tied behind its back thanks to the PG-13 rating), and yet, incredibly, this movie manages to win anyway.

Bottom line, for all of its flaws, Mortal Kombat still comes through as a cheesily acceptable little action movie for the causal viewer, and a fun one for people already enjoy the games.  Call it something to snack on that isn’t too spicy.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2011

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