Mortal Kombat: Looking back at the 1995 film
Leslie Byron Pitt | On 08, May 2021
Director: Paul WS Anderson
Cast: Linden Ashby, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
A crowd of masked fighting monks line up to form a human channel. Two men appear on either side. The first, dressed in a blue tabard and mask, forms his fighting stance and waits patiently. On the other side, a second masked man, barrel-chested and aggressive, shows off an array of kicks and punches. The lines of men watch in silence. The second man hurtles towards the first. Full pace. The first man begins to summon mystic blue energy. The air alters around him. The second man leaps feet first towards him. In a flash, he is hit by a freezing substance. The ninja steps aside at the now-frozen challenger. The human popsicle slams against a wall and shatters into pieces. Flawless victory. Welcome to Mortal Kombat.
The 1992 video game Mortal Kombat was a phenomenon. Jumping from arcade sensation to home console smash, the one-on-one beat-um-up sold 3 million copies worldwide in its first six weeks. One of the most iconic games of its era, its controversial violence and amusing self-awareness made it a refreshing alternative to the dominant Street Fighter series. The game left its mark on history as its violent nature led it to be used in congressional hearings by US senators. In response to the title’s controversial violence, the ESRB was formed – an organisation that still holds a continuing presence of rating gaming content to this day.
That blend of provocations, edgy marketing and intuitive gameplay soon established it as one of the most successful fighting games ever made. Now Mortal Kombat is a multi-titled franchise that remains popular to this day, with brutal fatalities that are even more bone-crunchingly vicious. The advent of games such as Grand Theft Auto ensured that targets for controversy were set elsewhere, but Kombat’s longevity (MK 11 was released in 2019) only seems to highlight there was more to the seminal franchise than simply upsetting the white picket curtain-twitchers.
In the early 90s, plucky producer Lawrence Kasanoff spied an opportunity. The game sold like hot cakes and, with the right combination of elements, there was a great chance for someone to strike while the iron was hot and release a movie that could perhaps shake the difficult tag that sub-genre already held due to earlier turgid adaptations. Super Mario Bros, Double Dragon and Street Fighter may be “cult favourites” to some but they were not fondly remembered. (To be honest, the likes of Double Dragon were not remembered by many at all.)
Mortal Kombat, directed by Paul WS Anderson, was released in US theatres on 18th August 1995, hitting number one at the box office. Its overall box office total reached a then-decent $124.7 million worldwide – making it, at the time, the most successful video game movie ever made. At the time of writing this piece, the website The Numbers lists Kombat 95 lounging in 20th with the likes of The Angry Birds Movie (2016) and Need for Speed (2014) ahead of it in the money-making charts. Not like that matters: Kombat 95 was certainly of its time. The absurd melding of high-flying martial arts, pulsing techno and crunching heavy metal is still an alluring mixture that justifiably connects with its small cult community of fans. The film made box-office bank based on its name and 90s status, but its legacy as one of the only video game movies with some redeeming qualities remains formidable.
Taken from writer Kevin Droney’s screenplay, Kombat 95 borrows liberally, narrative-wise, from Mortal Kombat 1 and 2. It zeroes in on three characters – Liu Kang (Robin Shou), Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) and Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras) – chosen to represent Earth in the infamous Mortal Kombat tournament. The event is held every “generation” between combatants (Kombatants?) of Earth and Outworld and was conceived by the elder gods amid an approaching invasion of the Earth by Outworld. If Outworld wins 10 consecutive tournaments in a row, then its ruler Shao Khan (mysteriously known only as “The Emperor” in the film) will be allowed to invade Earth at his pleasure. The Earth’s entrants, under the guidance of the thunder god Raiden (Christopher Lambert), must first defeat their inner conflicts before joining forces in defeating reigning champion Prince Goro and sorcerer Shang Tsung to save the world.
Sound like bobbins? This writer did not even mention that Goro has 4 arms…
Paul WS Anderson is very much the B-movie Anderson filmmaker. Whether or not you consider that an insult lies one where you stand on B-movies in general. Anderson alongside Uwe Boll is possibly the closest thing to an auteur the video game movie sub-genre has ever had. Never really considering himself a “British director” Kombat was the filmmaker’s first American film after the failed release of his debut Shopping in 1994.
The story for Mortal Kombat is utter nonsense – fun for an adolescent (or middle-aged, lapsed gamer-turned-film critic), but absolute codswallop for many others. Anderson’s best decision for Kombat 95 was embracing the chaos and steering into the curve. Super Mario Bros took the awkward route of having directors who did not want to make a video game movie, something that shows in nearly every frame of that movie’s running time. Did Anderson even play Mortal Kombat? Who knows, but one thing that makes his Mortal Kombat tick is that it holds the essence of its source material.
Droney’s script gives the threadbare plotting of the first Mortal Kombat games some surer footing, regarding structure. This is before the convoluted mythology lumbered down the games within an endless parade of sequels and spin-offs; Anderson’s Mortal Kombat is a rather stripped-down affair, keeping mostly with the original game’s roster, with some additional characters from the second entry. A wise decision.
The film also is not bogged down by a plethora of baggage. Watching Kombat 95 in the present day is now rather quaint. This is before modern internet culture. It is also before The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is no Bombadil syndrome, involving endless queries or rants towards why such and such a character was not involved, or why a plotline was exorcised. There is a balance to proceedings: Kombat 95 is a fantasy martial arts movie that is broad for a layman, but with enough reverence for a then fan. Particularly one who would have been starved of the small number of films getting video games right. One could say Hollywood still does not have the knack. At least Mortal Kombat feels like Mortal Kombat.
This is not to say that Kombat 95 is cinematic Shakespeare. It is a story consumed by inconsistency. Its Saturday-morning-cartoon-come-Enter-the-Dragon plot is still flimsy. Moments of the film will stop dead for needless action, such as the sequence mentioned in the first paragraph. The trio of Cage, Kang and Blade have no real chemistry and no reason to even speak to each other than the screenplay saying they should. Then there is the hilarious situation of Art Lean, a Black character not in the original games whose sole aim is to get his head kicked in. (A scene in which characters get to rightfully mourn his death was not used, but the film shoehorns him so haphazardly that his presence is jarring.)
It’s not like this gets in the way of why anybody watches a film called “Mortal Kombat”. Flimsy narrative and rushed character dynamics are one thing, but Kombat 95 excels in its moments of action, production design and visuals. A fight between Hollywood Johnny Cage and Lin Kuei warrior Scorpion is still a far more robust and memorable fight scene than some modern sequences. The same goes for most of the various action sequences. Each one raises a smile, partly due to smart choreography and editing and mostly because the film throws caution to the wind and embraces its video game elements. People came for fireballs, spear attacks and Goro pummelling helpless fighters. Kombat 95 duly gave people what they came for. It also has a penchant for a cheap gag or two, dutifully doled out by its enthusiastic cast. Kudos should be given to Bridget Wilson-Sampras performing her stunts, and Christopher Lambert for being the guy who knows what type of film he is in.
Kombat 95 set the scene for Anderson’s flashy style of filmmaking, where the bizarre nature of his film’s universes does not matter if they aim high and look good. A fan of high-octane American features, his films have always embraced such ideals. Kombat landed in the middle of the 90s and certainly feels like it, from its warehouse raves, over-use of slow motion and uneasy relationship with CGI and compositing to its curious and now iconic music choices. The synergy found in Kombat 95 never felt like a marketing ploy of a corporate stooge. The tub-thumping mix of EDM and hard rock is very much one of the reasons this writer has a fondness for the movie. (It’s a shame I lost the original soundtrack CD – it’s now out of print and costs a bomb.)
It is easy to scoff at Kombat 95 now, especially after the Wachowski sisters altered the landscape with The Matrix (1999), yet it delivers on what were low expectations at the time with its outlandish story, high-energy fisticuffs, cheap gags and dedication to the source material. We should not lie: 1995’s Mortal Kombat is not high art. But the film is a solid B-movie actioner that video game movies could do worse to follow. It was no surprise that fans came out of the digital woodwork when I mentioned that I was watching the film on social media. Kombat 95, for all its faults, fought for its fans and earned them. Shang Tsung may spend a lot of the running time claiming the souls of warriors, but the film itself is far from soulless.