MORTAL KOMBAAAAT! I did it. With two simple words the techno beats of 1995’s Mortal Kombat are now vibrantly thumping within your head. Brain worm mission accomplished. Don’t try to fight it…the more you resist the more it’ll carve its way into your cerebral cortex and bash around in there like a brick flailing around in a washing machine. Even after reading this article you’ll be humming it to yourself whilst whispering ‘Fight,’ and ‘Flawless Victory’ under your breath. People may look at you strangely, but it’s okay. We’re here to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Mortal Kombat and the best intro could only be realized with the techno music pulsing in your veins.
It’s possibly one of the most iconic shrieks in all of video gaming, even if it’s not even technically from the game itself. Who exactly is the ‘yell guy?’ It’s still one of the internet’s unsolved mysteries, and I for one remain ignorant. Perhaps the sheer power of his scream created a vortex that sucked him from Earth into Outworld, but yelling Mortal Kombat at the top of his lungs set the scene for one of the better game/film adaptations of the time. God bless that man.
“Enter the Dragon (1973) by way of Big Trouble in Little China (1986) infused with hammy acting and melodramatic 90’s sound design.”
Video Game adaptations in the early/mid ’90s had a bit of a rough deal finding their demographic, and this, unfortunately, has been a trait that has carried on throughout the decades. The first major triple A video game adaptation, Super Mario Brothers (1993), fell short of expectations with the producers ultimately taking one too many liberties with the source material. offering fans a dystopian themed parallel world with animatronic dinosaurs, de-evolutionary laser guns and a scene-chewing Dennis Hopper. Street Fighter: The Movie (1994) was a charmingly campy and self-consciously silly action flick, offering a fast-cut, colourful and unmistakably early-90s take on video game culture. So what makes Mortal Kombat stand out from the pack? Perhaps it’s one of those rare video game adaptations that could be considered one of the better examples of utilizing the source material in a coherent and subjective way. Though, that’s not terribly surprising since the game itself was already a mishmash of Hollywood and Hong Kong movie tropes. Or could it be that they had the perfect director to film it?
Paul W.S. Anderson doesn’t get enough credit for his extensively eclectic career as a director. He has never once made any sort of pretension to being an artist, and that’s why he keeps on doing what he’s doing. If you’re going into a cinema to watch a Paul W.S. Anderson movie, you’re aware that things will inevitably blow up, dudes will punch out other dudes, they’ll likely be a CGI monster at some point in the film and they’ll be over-the-tippy-top machismo and action, served in bucketloads. He’s never made a critically acclaimed movie in his life, (okay, okay I’ll give you 1997’s Event Horizon) but sometimes you just gotta roll with the punches and remember that movies can be gosh darn fun to watch.
If you’ve not had the pleasure of watching the shlock-tastic fight fest, Mortal Kombat is about martial artists Johnny Cage (played by post-fight one-liner King Linden Ashby), Liu Kang (playing it soberly by Robin Shou) and Sonya Blade (played by ‘Where’s Kano?’ Bridgette Wilson). They’re humanity’s last hope of saving Earth from tyrannical sorcerer Shang Tsung. For reasons nobody can figure out and which the movie actively refuses to explain, the Old Ones set up an interdimensional mixed martial arts tournament that happens on a regular basis between Earth and Outworld. If Outworld wins ten tournaments in a row, they claim Earth. Shang Tsung’s legion of ninja martial artists and his ace-in-the-hole Prince Goro have won nine so far, so our heroes must pummel everyone to death with their bare hands to ensure this doesn’t happen. There’s a secret Bond villain type island where all the participants are brought to, there’s ninjas, half-dragon creatures and slow-motion roundhouse kicks.
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Mortal Kombat wasn’t made for the plot. Although not as campy as Street Fighter: The Movie, Paul W.S. Anderson knows exactly what his jam is. He’s not expecting you to take his movie about otherworldly Thunder Gods and four-armed half-human, half-dragon creatures remotely seriously. This is Enter the Dragon (1973) by way of Big Trouble in Little China (1986) infused with hammy acting and melodramatic 90’s sound design.
But to its credit, Mortal Kombat does a few things different from other video game adaptations of its time. Each of the three hero characters perform one of their ‘special’ moves in the film – Liu Kang performs both his gravity-defying bicycle kick and later his fireball to Reptile and Shang Tsung respectively. Johnny Cage executes his split-leg crotch punch to Goro and Sonya uses her legs to incapacitate Kano. I don’t know what the move is called but it looks cool AF. Any Mortal Kombat gaming veteran will know that there’s a whole host of different characters from the roster that could be included in the film, but unlike Street Fighter: The Movie where they tried to focus on too many different characters at once, the three real protagonists onstage here are Johnny Cage, Liu Kang and Sonya Blade. Yeah, we get to see Jax, Kitana, Raiden, Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Kano and a very sketchy early 90’s CGI Reptile, but they’re in the background. They’re used merely to push the plot forward or a fight scene.
Although Liu Kang is the archetypal hero within Mortal Kombat’s plot, for me it’s really Johnny Cage’s character arc that gets the best progression within the narrative. Cage has an ego the size of a small planet. He’s vain, sexist, and an all-round douche canoe. But it’s hard not to like him. At the start of the film he’s frustrated by the media’s representation of his martial arts. They’re calling him a fake, so he enters the tournament to prove himself. His façade of sarcastic one-liners and whimsical nature has been unveiled but by the finale of the film, he’s learnt the greatest lesson of all the characters: that he’d be willing to sacrifice his own life and directly challenge Goro (arguably the strongest character of the tournament) to save his friends and the other Earth realm challengers from certain death.
The other character’s development within the framework is a little lackadaisical, however. Liu Kang starts off by entering the tournament to avenge his brother’s murder by Shang Tsung. Throughout the film, Raiden (played by French scenery-chewing Christopher Lambert) turns up every now and then to offer some advice, to generally act as the mentor figure for the fighters of the Earth realm. But his teachings don’t really come across to the viewer. Maybe there’s some deleted scenes of Raiden and Liu Kang sparring, or an enlightening scene where he’s teaching him about focusing for the upcoming battle was cut from the finished version, but there’s a segment where Raiden tells Liu Kang that he can learn nothing more from the god of lightning. What exactly has Liu learned? That he needs to traverse three stages of the sorcerer’s fight to win? That he shouldn’t feel responsible for his brother’s death? It’s not exactly soul-searching stuff going on. Answers on a postcard, please.
Perhaps the worst offender in the Mortal Kombat character arc barrel is that of Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson). The Special Forces officer’s main motivation is basically the same as Liu Kang’s – vengeance. She enters the tournament to face off against her partner’s killer, the crime lord/half cyborg warrior Kano (Trevord Goddard). Her interactions with Johnny Cage, to begin with, are prickly and she treats him like the clown he is, telling him that she can fight her own battles and she doesn’t need anyone to save her, but once she’s accomplished her objective her role becomes basically that of the damsel in distress. It goes against everything she’s been portrayed as at that point and it’s sloppy to show one of the more capable and powerful characters of the gaming series reduced to a mere imprisoned figure in the background while all the men do the fighting.
Let’s talk about the choreographed fight scenes, for a moment, shall we? That’s what Mortal Kombat is all about, right? I hadn’t seen the film for many years and was genuinely impressed to see so many fights. Some of the fights look by the numbers, with fast edits to hide any missteps, and Sonya/Kano is probably the worst of the bunch, but overall, there’s some great moves on display here. It was surprising then to discover that initial test screening audiences loved what they saw onscreen but thought there weren’t enough fights. Extensive reshoots were done to extend the Johnny Cage/Scorpion fight, as well as add in the fight between Liu Kang and “human” version of Reptile. In the original cut of the film, Johnny Cage was supposed to defeat Scorpion with the shadow kick in the forest as opposed to being sucked into a portal created by the latter. As for the Reptile scene, it originally ended with his reptilian form being sucked into the gargoyle body (as seen in the final cut), but not actually morphing into the green ninja.
Basically, this implied that the gargoyle had become his tomb, and no actual fight took place, also confirmed in the novelization. Ironically, these two fights are considered the best of the film, most likely because Robin Shou who played Liu Kang was the exclusive fight choreographer for the reshoots as opposed to the credited choreographer, Pat E. Johnson. For these fights, Shou used wire-work martial arts techniques that he had employed as a stuntman in Hong Kong. Although these techniques became mainstream following the release of The Matrix (1999), Mortal Kombat was the first big Hollywood film to use them.
“[…] an amusing and nostalgia-filled trip to our youth. The practical effects for Goro alone should be any film viewer’s highlight.”
Mortal Kombat is very much a product of its time and place. It remains a time capsule of the mid-90’s era when pre-established properties were slowly becoming the big thing in the wake of costumed heroes. With R-rated animated versions having just been released Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge (2020), twenty-five years later, the original remains an amusing and nostalgia-filled trip to our youth. The practical effects for Goro alone should be any film viewer’s highlight. Now, you can continue singing the iconic music in your head…..MORTAL KOMBAAAAT!
Do you have fond memories of sitting in front of the tv for while afternoons playing Mortal Kombat? What did you think of Paul W.S. Anderson’s live-action adaptation when it was first released back in 1995? Let us know over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!