My Two Cents: Mortal Kombat (1995)

Let me just say this right off the bat: director Paul W.S. Anderson gets a lot of totally undeserved shit on some of the geek message boards I frequent. Whenever his name is announced attached to a movie, the cry of outrage goes up (usually at Ain’t It Cool News, who I tend to agree with on most points). He’s directed a dozen movies, and I’ve enjoyed the holy hell out of every one I’ve seen.

Anderson’s first American studio movie was Mortal Kombat in 1995. I saw it in theaters back in Durango, probably 2 or 3 times, on video a few more, and just now for the first time in a decade. At the time of its release, Christopher Lambert was the biggest name in the cast. Cameron Diaz was supposed to play the Sonya Blade character but broke her wrist a week before filming and the impressive Bridgett Wilson stepped in for her, and I can’t imagine the movie any other way. No slight against Diaz, but Wilson (despite the jean shorts and too-red lipstick) is just a more convincing bad-ass. And Robin Shou who plays the main hero Liu Kang really deserves much wider recognition than he’s gotten.

So, what is it about Mortal Kombat that I find so delightful?

For one, Mortal Kombat is so blissfully self-aware. It acknowledges its video game roots by structuring the movie into a series of 1-on-1 martial arts set pieces with a spiritual nod to Enter the Dragon. Unlike many of the other video game movies which tried to take the characters and build some kind of broken plot around them, Mortal Kombat knew that plot and exposition was pretty much secondary to why people were seeing this movie. The characters were barely sketched in. Kang wants to avenge his brother, Cage has a ego that needs stoking, Blade wants the guy who killed her partner. None of these characters is Hamlet, you get what I’m saying? But the signature moves and backgrounds from the game were used. Even sound cues directly from the game were woven in. And then they just had fun with it. And ultimately, what more could you want?

The color palate was vivid. The first time we see Liu Kang, the room is lit with vibrant green. Other scenes skew a deep red or orange or even blue – whatever suits the scene. In a world where every movie seems high-contrast tones of orange and teal in every goddamned scene it is nice to see them play with some of the other crayons in the box.

The movie had prominent white characters, but then again so did the video game. But the big hero was Liu Kang, and they cast it perfectly. I can’t imagine what this would have looked like if, in current Hollywood trend, they had whitewashed the damn thing.

The fight scenes weren’t super chopped up, and you got several medium distance shots of good length that it felt real. It wasn’t always smooth. It wasn’t always the most convincing (though the Goro puppet/stop motion/howeverthefucktheydidit was genuinely cool for a giant 4 armed mutant), but it was better than a lot I’ve seen.

And there is a reason the soundtrack went double platinum. It rocks from beginning to end. It was one of only two techno/industrial heavy albums I ever owned. The other was Hackers, another under-loved movie from the mid-nineties. I’m going to have the theme from Moral Kombat stuck in my head for a few days now. Up top I’ve included a link of Utah Saints doing the theme song that’s been cut to a fun video of footage from the film. Enjoy.

So the big question is, does Mortal Kombat hold up 16 years later? Absolutely. There are a lot of shit films made for millions more by over-hyped directors every summer. Some of them have egos the size of small countries, so self-consciously trying to elevate themselves above their genre ghetto roots, or trying to elevate the medium. Fuck that. You know what Mortal Kombat is? It’s 1:45 of video game bad-assery that KNOWS it’s video game bad-assery. That’s all.

Netflix has it available on their streaming service. Invite some friends over, crack some beers, pop some popcorn, and revel in the fun. But whatever you do, avoid the sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. That pile or radioactive garbage is so bad it will curdle milk and make you go sterile.

4 thoughts on “My Two Cents: Mortal Kombat (1995)

  1. Nate,

    I rewatched this a few months ago, after having the awesome soundtrack (and really, you should totally relisten to the soundtrack) in my head. I enjoyed it, as it is a fun flick, but I realized why it wasn’t the Mortal Kombat film I wanted.

    See, there are many plotlines in MK — like you say, loose fiction to tie fights together, but still fun. There’s the Hero’s Journey that is Liu Kang vs Shang Tsung, the movie’s A plot. There’s the crime drama of Sonya Blade vs Kano, which the movie used to move some players around. There’s the comedy that is Johnny Cage, that Anderson added some romance to. There’s the story of Raiden, which depending on your version of the story is of an outcast god hero or of a trickster antagonist.

    Those are all fine ideas for a movie, but I was robbed of the movie I wanted to see. The motherfucking Hong Kong revenge film that is Scorpion vs Sub-Zero. If God had two testicles He created exclusively for getting his Fight On, he would name them Scorpion & Sub-Zero.

    Sub-Zero: “Hi, I’m a fucking ninja that FREEZES MY FOES. What you got, Mister Hollywood Shadowkick?”

    Scorpion: “I’m undead, motherfuckers! GET OVER HERE!”

    Is there anyone who is a match for them? Only each other. And that was neutered with a line from Shang Tsung, (to recall from memory), “Scorpion and Sub-Zero, normally the most bitter of enemies, are under my control.” How long does it take to deliver a line like that? A few seconds?

    It turns out it only takes a few seconds to neuter God.

    But there’s hope. There’s a trailer for Mortal Kombat Rebirth. Maybe it’s just a little trailer. Maybe it’s the seed of something more. But this could be the Morkal Kombat that I want. The Mortal Kombat that God deserves, my sons and daughters. (NSFW because holy shit it’s gory as hell. And it’s just a trailer.)

    Remember folks, FINISH HIM!

    – Ryan

  2. I would have this soundtrack and the Hackers soundtrack on right now if wife 2 hadn’t divvied up the CD’s while I was at work towards the end. Great soundtrack. Lots of memories. Obviously, not all of them good.

    I was only a casual player of the game, so the lack of a Scorpion/Sub-Zero smack-down didn’t seem lacking.If they had made Sub-Zero one of the good guys, I can see them working that into a fantastic sequence. But unless they made him someone the audience could root for, it would have just been two bad guys kicking the crap out of each other with no stakes for the heroes. As a writer, the wheels are turning on how they could have done that differently now. Hm. A fascinating challenge.

    I’ve heard about the Rebirth movie and seen a small teaser a few months ago. The trailer is new to me, however. Holy crap does that look fun. The game was one of the most violent things in arcades in the heyday. It stands to reason the movie adaptation should ramp up the blood. Thanks for the link!

    1. Wait. Wait. WAIT.

      Did you just suggest that Sub-Zero could be a good guy? Did you just throw away the sense of pathos that you can only get by having a lead character come back from the dead?

      Why do you hate freedom, Nate?

      (Also, I have a Rhapsody subscription, which is how I listen to the soundtrack.)

      – Ryan “Scorpion 4 Unlife” Macklin

  3. Huh. Will ya look at that! It appears that I did! I blame the anti-dead-folk zombie bashing media for that. It’s part of our culture.

    Then again, I also thing that once you discount the shock of Brandon Lee’s death from the equation, The Crow: City of Angels is a superior film to the original. So what the hell do I know?

    (Ok, City of Angels got bonus points for tying into the Dia de los Muertos celebration, and I loved the palate of the film. Plus I identified with this incarnation of the Crow a bit more. Angsty goth musicians…not really me.)

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