ComicsAlliance Reviews ‘Mortal Kombat’ (1995), Part One
Chris Sims: Hello everyone, and welcome back to our series of movie reviews focusing on the cinematic classics based on fighting games. This week, it's time to TEST OUR MIGHT as we take on 1995's Mortal Kombat!
Matt Wilson: Congratulations, everyone who voted for the video game movies. We're all going to have that theme music stuck in our heads for two weeks.Chris: I think that's actually the best thing about doing these reviews. For those of you who aren't familiar with the original game, Mortal Kombat is basically just like Street Fighter, but made for people who have no taste.
Matt: Specifically, people who prefer seeing spines being ripped out and digital people falling into pits over appealing graphics and smooth gameplay.
Chris: Right: The main appeal of Mortal Kombat, aside from the edgy decision to misspell half the title, came from the fact that it had a ton of blood and gore, and brutally murderous "Fatality" finishing moves, all of which were too complex for me to pull off even once in the past 20 years. Because of that, I'm really surprised that when it came time for the movie, they went with a PG-13 cut. I mean, on one level that's not surprising at all, since they were targeting teens and a PG-13 movie tends to make about eighteen truckloads more money than an R, but when your project's defining feature is how gory and violent it is, it's a bad step right from the start.
Matt: Apparently the original script was a hard-R, but the assumption was that kids who could walk into an arcade, know a few button presses and see a guy turn his opponent into ice and break him in half could not pay for a ticket to an R-rated movie. I can see how it put the filmmakers and studio in kind of a tough spot.
Chris: As much as I don't care for Mortal Kombat as a game, I still think a Mortal Kombat movie with just ridiculous Evil Dead 2 or Crank: High Voltage levels of blood and gore all the time would've been the perfect expression of the franchise. Instead, we have two hours of Christopher Lambert.
Matt: Avid video game fan Christopher Lambert, who, you have to admit, does seem to be having fun. Along those lines, say what you will about director Paul W.S. Anderson -- and a lot of it is warranted -- this movie does try to adhere to the feel of the first two games (and I think we both have to admit Mortal Kombat II is infinitely more playable than the first) and throw in a lot of little Easter eggs for fans, even without the super-violence.
Chris: It's been a while since I've seen it -- and I'm not sure I've ever actually sat down and watched it from beginning to end, rather than just catching a half hour at a time on TNT -- but I've always felt like it's a much better movie than Street Fighter from a technical standpoint, but infinitely less enjoyable. It has sets, for instance. And professional actors.
Matt: Anderson definitely has a slick style. Watch any of his Resident Evil movies and it's hard to deny it. Style certainly isn't everything, though, as we'll see. As far as the actors go, "professional" is probably accurate. "Well-known," not so much. Outside of Lambert and Bridgette Wilson, who plays Sonya, the cast does not feature a whole lot of household names. (And it's arguable to say Lambert and Wilson are that, either.)
Chris: Fair enough. So are we adequately prepared to step into Outworld and engage in Mortal Kombat with 101 minutes of this movie?
Matt: Let's get toasty.
Chris: I have to say, we're off to a pretty good start when the movie doesn't even wait for the studio logo to get out of the way before it drops the admittedly awesome theme song on us.
Matt: Even the club DJs of the world couldn't deny the pull of this theme song. That it stops playing once the title card hits seems like an early mistake on Anderson's part.
Chris: You mentioned before we started writing that this song should've played in the background of the entire movie, and you're 100% right on that. In fact, I'd be willing to say that this song should probably be playing in the background of every movie. Can you imagine how much more intense the opening of Inglourious Basterds would've been?
Matt: Christoph Waltz subtly bobbing his head to the track as he does his intimidation routine.
Chris: Alas, it's not to be. Instead, we go into a dramatic scene of Shang Tsung, our villain for the evening, beating up on Liu Kang's brother while yelling at the camera.
Matt: Though I said this movie doesn't have too many name actors in it, it does have its share of "Hey! It's that guy!" actors. Case in point: Shang Tsung is Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, an actor you've likely seen in a dozen things at one time or another.
Chris: Including both Baywatch and Thunder In Paradise!
Matt: He was essentially in every '90s thing. Turns out the brother beating was all a dream, as Liu Kang sits up in his very green room and walks over to his dresser to find a telegram that says, "Brother dead. Return home. -Grandfather." Not sentimental types, this family.
Chris: It's one step above a text message, and that's only because texting wasn't really a thing in Shaolin monasteries in 1995. From there, we're introduced to Sonya Blade, who is stomping through a heavy metal club smacking innocent rockers with a shotgun while spitting out tough-guy lines like a slightly more male-gaze-inducing version of Jesse Ventura's character from Predator.
Matt: This movie's soundtrack is really something else. It's such an odd mix of metal (Napalm Death and Type O-Negative are on there) techno (Orbital, the theme), f**king KMFDM and George Clinton. You think two of the producers just couldn't agree on which direction to go in, and this was the compromise?
Chris: The mysteries of Mortal Kombat are many, my friend. There is, however, a reason why Sonya's beating up a crowd at a GG Allin show: She's after Kano, who straight up has the same goofy half robot face that he does in the games. This is a good sign for those of you looking for faithfulness to the source material, and an amazing sign for those of us who love weirdo nonsense movies.
Matt: Kano and Shang Tsung discuss the trap they've set for Sonya, which is intended to get her on a boat to a mysterious tournament. Meanwhile, the audience gets its first look at Johnny Cage in a "it looks like a real fight but oh wait, it's a movie scene" fakeout. Six minutes into this thing, and we've already gotten "it's a dream" and "oh, it's a movie."
Chris: Cage is having some trouble with "The Press" because they don't think he's really a good martial artist, which seems like a weird thing to haunt someone's career. I mean, I'm pretty sure that Tom Cruise would lose a fight to all but the most asthmatic children, but he seems to do all right for himself.
Matt: It's such a strain on him that he gets into an argument with his Spielberg-lookalike director, who was originally supposed to be Spielberg himself. That's right. Steven Spielberg would have been in Mortal Kombat if it weren't for some scheduling snafu. He loves the games, at least according to IMDb.
Chris: I am having an incredibly hard time believing that.
Matt: Everything on IMDb is true, Chris! You know it is! Cage meets up with yet another character actor who has been in everything, Peter Jason, who appears here as a poor man's Kris Kristofferson/karate master to talk his student into participating in this tournament. You know, so that people will think this action star is really a great fighter. Seconds later, not-Kris-Kristofferson reveals himself to be a shapeshifted Shang Tsung.
Chris: I'll say this for Mortal Kombat: Very little of what we've seen has been interesting or compelling, but we do have our three main characters with three distinct motivations for getting involved in this big fighting tournament: Liu Kang and Sonya want revenge, Johnny wants glory. We can pretty much get right to the fighting now, so -- what's that? There's yet another layer of motivation that we're going to get from the star of Highlander? Well, if you say so, movie.
Matt: Let's also give it this: Where most movies would figure out a way to make Raiden fit into a live-action movie with actual people, he is no-question the god of thunder here. Liu Kang goes to visit his grandfather at his Shaolin temple, Raiden shows up and Liu Kang says he's a fraud. Then Raiden's eyes turn to lightning.
Chris: To be fair, it's pretty understandable why Liu Kang would think that Raiden was a fraud, since most Japanese thunder gods don't tend to look like French dudes.
Matt: Raiden was born in the United States, educated in the Swiss Alps, and then moved to Japan to become a god. Makes perfect sense. But really, this is kind of a ridiculous commitment to the world of the games, one where movie stars, earnest kung-fu guys and soldiers co-exist with gods, lizard men and Barakas.
Chris: Like you said, Lambert looks like he's having fun, which is good because he has the least intimidating voice of all time. He seriously sounds like a teenage girl telling secrets, albeit one who smokes four packs of unfiltered Camels a day. Back at the docks, Johnny Cage and Liu Kang have an allegedly hilarious misunderstanding over luggage, and then everybody gets on the boat. It's not very exciting.
Matt: Johnny Cage assuming any Asian guy he sees in Hong Kong is the paid help is the kind of mild buffoonery that passes for comic relief here, yes. As anticipated, Sonya follows Kano onto the boat, too. The boat in question here is basically a ghost pirate ship in the shape of a dragon. It has tatters for sails. It's even accompanied by ominous smoke and everything. It's met with only the mildest of consternation. I guess people in this world must be used to this kind of thing.
Chris: I think this movie might be in Big Trouble In Little China continuity. The first thing Sonya does upon getting on the boat is shove a pistol into Johnny Cage's neck, so of course he decides that she's a feisty one and follows her below when she goes to look for Kano. Incidentally, she asks him "Where's Kano?" and when he says "I don't know who that is," her follow-up is not "He's a cyborg with a giant glowing red eye." You'd think that would help track him down a little easier.
Matt: Below deck, Sonya runs into Shang Tsung and again asks about Kano. Tsung deflects the question by doing that thing guys with boats do to flirt with women, which is offer her a tour of the boat. Before she can reply, Cage and Liu Kang, who are now apparently best buds, walk up to back Sonya up. Out walk Scorpion and Sub-Zero to fight them. They've been reduced here from "most popular and recognizable characters" to "hypnotized thugs." Or as Raiden rasps after he easily dispatches them with some cheesy-looking lightning, "sideshow freaks."
Chris: They do get to have their super-powers, though! Sub-Zero freezes Sonya's gun and snaps it in half (which is also a nice way of explaining why she doesn't just shoot her opponents in the face when they get to the tournament), and Scorpion has his harpoon thing that shoots out of his hand. Except now it's a weird bird from Labyrinth.
Matt: Raiden makes really easy work of them before as much as a "Get over here!" can be uttered, and it actually addresses one of my big issues with the first game. If one of the fighters in a tournament like this was A GOD WHO CAN BECOME LIGHTNING, how would anyone else have a chance?
Chris: Raiden goes ahead and lays out the rules for this whole thing, too, and they're equally confusing: Why does Shang Tsung have to win ten tournaments before he can invade? Why not just one? And if these tournaments have happened over the past ten generations, how come none of these people have heard about it? You'd think it would be a pretty big deal.
Matt: Yes, someone (Sonya) finally has the presence of mind to ask what this tournament is all about, and Raiden explains Shang Tsung wants to enslave Earth, and he'll be able to do it if Team Earth doesn't win. That's all that really matters. He also says, "The essence of Mortal Kombat is not death, but life." Uh, I think any 13-year-old in any arcade in 1995 would have said the exact opposite.
Chris: There's also this weird moment where Raiden laughs, then apologizes and sheepishly walks out of frame that is just so bizarre. It's like something Lambert did on set that they left in the film.
Matt: Christopher Lambert is so delightfully weird. Like, I realize he's not very intimidating (at least here, he's better in the Highlanders), but he's just got this odd screen presence, almost like a Christopher Walken. He'll say the lines he's given, but put these twists on them that no one else would ever even consider.
Chris: Eventually, the Ghost Junk lands on Mortal Kombat Island, which exists out of normal time and space. We know this because Sonya cannot radio for backup and her compass doesn't work, but all that's really just an excuse for me to bring up her oddly high-waisted jeans.
Matt: That's after Raiden informs Sonya, Liu Kang and Johnny Cage that they're the only three fighters from Earth that matter (Then why bring anyone else? You're killing those guys just to kill them) and Shang Tsung does some skull-themed Laser Floyd in the sky. After Sonya's torso-hugging jeans and everyone else arrive at their destination, Cage further provides "comic" "relief" by flopping into the water while trying to carry like 25 suitcases.
Chris: Shang Tsung straight up summons the Dark Mark from the Harry Potter books. It's literally a skull with a snake coming out of its mouth glowing in the sky, which means that JK Rowling is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a Mortal Kombat fan. I've lost so much respect for her, but I guess it could be worse. She could be into Virtua Fighter or something.
Matt: I heard The Casual Vacancy had some long passages about Soul Calibur. Cage continues his luggage-themed shtick, carrying all those CGI rectangles up the many stairs to the ominous Shang Tsung Island Welcome Center, which is decked out with an awful, awful CGI statue of Reptile (which comes to life and is even worse CGI) and features Kitana just sitting around under an umbrella she doesn't need because there's no sunlight or rain in there.
Chris: I assume it's there to protect us from the heat of the straight-up f**k-me eyes she's giving to Liu Kang.
Matt: I can't argue with that. Team Earth settles into a very brown dining hall and soon enough Shang Tsung comes out to give a welcome speech like it's everyone's first day at camp. Then his hooded thugs rush in and ruin everybody's dinner so Sub-Zero turns a guy into ice and smash him to pieces. Again, a lot like camp.
Chris: Shang Tsung teases us a little by letting us know we're going to be seeing the current, reigning and defending champion Goro soon, and then we get another nice little game reference when he announces Sub-Zero's "Flawless Victory." Tagawa really savors the line, too, and it's pretty fun to hear.
Matt: It's concurrently fun and cringe-inducing. It's so blatantly shoehorned in there just to get it in there. But Tagawa almost makes it work, yeah.
Chris: It's no M. Bison shouting "GAAAAAME! OVAAAHHHHH!!!" but it's pretty good. Once dinner has ended with the Mortal Kombat tradition of cryogenic murder, Kang, Cage and Blade (the best law firm ever) wander around for a little while until they see Goro's shadow and get ascairt. It's seriously one "zoinks!" away from being an episode of Scooby-Doo at this point.
Matt: They do not, however, leave clouds shaped as themselves behind. Instead, they sneak up to a convenient vantage point to overhear a conversation between Kano and Goro about how Sub-Zero's over-the-top violence is sickening. I'd say that was almost clever. You know, Goro actually doesn't look too bad, considering how terrible Reptile looked earlier. If I'm not mistaken, he's totally stop-motion. This was one of the last times a big movie used that type of effect, I believe. And he's voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson. That's another plus.
Chris: The scene where he advances on Kano and slaps his wine goblet off the table has a pleasingly muppet-esque quality to it, and if you found this review by Googling "pleasingly muppet-esque," I'd like to be the first to apologize for our lack of erotic fan-fic. Check back in a few weeks when we're watching DOA. Now, I'm not as familiar with the storyline of Mortal Kombat as I am with other games, is it canonical that Kano is absolutely rock f**king stupid? Because he is comedically dumb in this scene.
Matt: He's a criminal Shao Khan hired for weapon training. That's about all you get from the little bios in the demo screens. Anyway, his idiocy is a convenient way for Goro and Shang Tsung to reveal literally all the exposition Team Earth needs to know, including that Tsung feels pretty strongly that Liu Kang and Kitana had better not team up, under any circumstances. So of course, he goes straight after Kitana when he happens to spot her on the way out.
Chris: Between the big four-armed monster, the hilarious stupidity and Kano's Dreadnokian accent, it's almost like an episode of Xena. And I mean that in the best way possible.
Matt: The lighting definitely has that syndicated TV feel to it, too, as Liu Kang heads into an all-blue room and runs into a transparent Reptile, who sprays some gunk in his face. I have to say it again: Reptile looks SO BAD. My wife and I saw Jurassic Park 3D just this weekend and it's hard to imagine that CGI predates this by two years. This is f**king embarrassing.
Chris: It really is, and it's made worse by the awful lighting. I think maybe it was meant to cover up how bad the CGI is, but instead, the bad CGI is the only thing that we can clearly see.
Matt: Team Earth tries to find Kitana, but ends up back in the dining room, where they're attacked by a group of Shang Thugs. What follows is just an okay fight scene accompanied by music that makes it 1,000 times more entertaining.
Chris: For those of you who haven't seen it, it's the theme song posted above again. It's still amazing. I honestly wonder if they piped it into the set to give the actors an extra push while they were doing their own stunts.
Matt: Bridgette Wilson actually insisted she do all her own stunts and fighting, which I have to say is pretty admirable. She's not particularly charismatic as Sonya, but she definitely nails the toughness of the character.
Chris: True, but my heart will always belong to Kerri Hoskins, who did the motion capture for Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat 3, and who also appeared as the villain in Revolution X, a game that has the most insane plot of all time. Go ahead, look it up. I'll wait.
Matt: Now that you're back, Raiden has arrived, too, with the explicit purpose of sending mixed messages. First, he warns Team Earth about a whole bunch of other thugs about to attack them. Then he scares the thugs off. He warns the team about the grave danger of fighting Shang Tsung because he can shapeshift, but says it kind of like he's setting up a joke. Lambert plays Raiden like he's the most eccentric of eccentrics. It's kind of great.
Chris: It does undercut these fight scenes to have the good guys' dad show up and yell at the other kids for picking on them, though. Either way, forty minutes into the movie, it's time for Mortal Kombat to begin! We head outside to watch a stick-fighting match between Liu Kang and a guy who isn't from the game and who, I believe, does not actually get named. Guess who wins.
Matt: It's a pretty well-choreographed fight scene, but it sure is loaded with a ton of unnecessary slow motion. One might be led to believe Visionary Director Zack Snyder learned a lot from Paul W.S. Anderson.
Chris: Liu Kang beats his opponent into unconsciousness, and Shang Tsung stands up and gives every indication that he's about to order Kang to "finish him." You know, like in the games? This is not what happens. Instead, Shang Tsung wanders over, sucks the dude's soul right out of his Zubaz, and then says, about what he just did, "FATALITY." It is the opposite of the earlier "Flawless Victory" moment, in that it is the opposite of charming.
Matt: It screams of a rewrite. My guess is that Liu Kang actually did the fatality in the first draft, then the soul-sucking thing happened. It had to be re-written for rating purposes, but someone also realized someone had to say, "Fatality." And that's what they ended up with.
Chris: It's the worst type of fanservice, too, in that it's the same words that you recognize, stripped of all context. Tagawa does have a nice delivery on "fatality," though. He and Lambert seem like they're having a pretty good time.
Matt: Up next, Shang Tsung does Sony the favor of offering up Kano for her to fight. It's a little weird that these fights are taking place on a beach, isn't it? That seems about as different as possible from all the arenas from the games, with their spike pits and acid baths. It once again gives the movie that Xena/Hercules feel.
Chris: Kano seems to have an unwarranted advantage in this fight, since Sonya's unarmed (and unlegged, having trimmed her mom jeans into cutoffs), while he's got a dagger that I am pretty sure is sold in fantasy catalogs under the name "The Cyber-Wizard."
Matt: That's the second mention of the Muppets in this review. Maybe we're onto something with a crossover. Consider it, Disney.
Chris: Sonya ends up taking Kano over with the least convincing headscissors of two dimensions, and he makes the fatal mistake of setting her up for a pun by asking her to "give me a break." She snaps his neck and, well, I guess that little character arc is over.
Matt: This fight is considerably less impressive than the last one -- maybe some stunt fighters would have been a good idea after all -- but it has just as much slow motion, and actually does end with a "Finish him," so that's something.
Chris: It's still pretty awful, though. It's easy to see why they kept it short.
Matt: At this point, we're basically just going from one fight to the next, which again, is perhaps too much adherence to the games. This time, it's Scorpion vs. Johnny Cage in the woods, where the woods are a place where there's a weird amount of equal space between each tree. Things kick off with the uttering (of course) of "Get over here," which leads to an inordinate amount of really awful CGI of Scorpion's living hand-grapple thing.
Chris: I'm starting to get the feeling that the producers of this movie play Mortal Kombat exactly the way I do, because Scorpion does nothing but stand there using his rope-knife move over and over until the match finally ends. Of course, in my case, the match did not end with Johnny Cage jump-kicking into the portal from Sliders, but, you know, artistic license and all that.
Matt: Scorpion eventually loses his hand monster (that's not a euphemism) when it squishes up against a tree, just before the fight moves into a room kind of like that spike-pit arena from the games, in that there are bones everywhere and there's a walkway. No spikes, though. Even without his rope-knife, Scorpion keeps saying stuff: "Come here!' "Welcome!" "Get down here!' and each time it gets dumber. Scorpion eventually tries his fire-breathing-skull fatality, but Johnny Cage blocks it with a spiky shield, which he then uses to slice Scorpion to pieces. I don't remember him having that in the game.
Chris: Be honest, though: If he did, would you have been able to use the right twelve-button combination to use it?
Matt: Only if I had a cheat sheet handy. Cage drops his trademark signed photo on Scorpion's charred corpse, you know, like he does in the game.
Chris: I will say, this is exactly what I wanted out of this movie. There's crazy glowing blood everywhere and a dude getting chopped up by a buzzsaw, and then his skull explodes and then the rest of his body explodes. If the entire movie was like this -- and, you know, it hadn't taken 50 minutes to get to it -- it'd be great.
Matt: Is the mutilation of skeletal Scorpion the closest this movie will get to the ultraviolence of the MK game series? I guess we'll just have to find that out next week.