Thursday, March 4, 2010

MORTAL KOMBAT (1995) - 2/5 stars

Release: 1995
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Writer: Kevin Droney
Cast: Robin Shou, Linden Ashby, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Bridgette Wilson, Christopher Lambert, Talisa Soto, Trevor Goddard, Chris Cassamasa, Francois Petit
Soundtrack: George S. Clinton
Claim to fame: film adaptation of the popular 90's arcade fighting game, one of Paul W.S. Anderson's more tolerable movies, a very 90's soundtrack
Rating: 2/5 stars

If you're old enough, think back with me to a time before "The Matrix" and superhero movies dominated the multiplexes, back when there was nothing cooler than ripped blue jeans, Big Gulp slurpees from 7-11, and the arcade at your local mall. And when you combined all three together, well, you were in for one hell of an afternoon. Now if you were at the arcade, chances are you were playing on a Mortal Kombat arcade cabinet - or at least standing behind the guys that were good at it, watching them juggle Shao Kahn into the air with Katana's fan blades and beating the game with quarters to spare.


Insert coin to play

As such, it's no surprise that when "Mortal Kombat" movie hit the big screen in August of 1995 it was hotly anticipated, even by kids - like me - who were probably way too young to be watching it in the first place.


Yup, not for kids

The film performed solidly at the box office, grossing over $100 million, though it was trumped handily by it own soundtrack which went platinum in less than two weeks. For a little while it seemed like the stigma against video game-to-movie adaptations had been cast aside, at least until the sequel to "Mortal Kombat" came along two years later and bombed horrifically. What can you do? That's pretty much the relationship the public has with these kinds of flicks.



In the 90's, there were very few kids who didn't want

to see Scorpion brought to life on the big screen

Revisiting "Mortal Kombat" in 2010 via high definition streaming from Netflix - which looked quite nice and bodes well for a future well blu-ray release - I found a lot to like about it. Okay, well, SOME things to like about it.

What I like about "Mortal Kombat" the movie

1. Robin Shou as Liu Kang

-Robin Shou is a good guy who paid his dues in the Hong Kong film industry long before he ever starred as Liu Kang. He had small roles in HK flicks like "City War" and "Tiger Cage 2," both solid movies all around, and trained in the Wu Shu martial arts and stunt work. He pretty much shot his credibility by starring in "Mortal Kombat," which is a shame since now most people don't know his background.

I'm not saying he was great as Liu Kang but that's mostly because the script underwrites his role, depicting him as the Stoic Asian Hero who, of course, can't have a love interest or any character insight outside of being the "Chosen One," which means he's nothing more than a plot device, really - the secret weapon against the bad guys. Acting isn't exactly Robin's strong point either but he LOOKS and moves exactly like Liu, which is basically what counts in a video game movie.

MK 2

Rippling muscles? Check. Bad 90's hair? Check

2. Linden Ashby as Johnny Cage

-Again, the script lets Linden down by turning Cage into a complete prick instead of a lovably superficial actor type, but Linden does the best he can with the role. This guy was sort of like Owen Wilson back when Owen Wilson was just waiting tables, and he brought a natural charisma to the role. Few will remember Linden's short-lived TV show, "Spy Games," which ran for a scant six episodes before being cancelled, but that was another vehicle for Linden as a cocky action star that worked quite well.

One of my favorite shots in "Mortal Kombat" is Goro reflected in Johnny Cage's sunglasses right before their match, which is right before Goro crushes them in his oversized mitts. That right there captures the essence of what the movie should have been all about.

MK 5

"Those were $500 sunglasses, asshole."

3. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Shang Tsung

-The filmmakers have stated that Tagawa is the only actor they had in mind for the role of Shang Tsung and it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role. He's got the "evil older Asian guy who can still kick your ass" vibe down to a science. And you can tell he just loves spitting out lines like "Your soul - is MINE!" while his face completely scrunches up.

MK 8

Shang Tsung is on a mission to collect your soul

4. The production values

-The film was shot in both studio backlots in Hollywood and on location in Thailand. The stuff that was shot indoors sticks out like a sore thumb - with the garish, subdued-Schumacher lighting we've come to expect from director Paul W.S. Anderson ("Event Horizon," "Soldier") - but the sections of the film shot in Thailand look great. The scene early on where Liu Kang visits the Temple of Light to seek blessing to enter the tournament is appropriately epic and makes you feel like you're actually witnessing an ancient struggle between good and evil and not just a video game movie.




At times, the sense of scale is pretty impressive for a video game movie

There's a lot of weaksauce, totally flat mid-90's CGI that's indistinguishable from a Full Moon Productions direct-to-video movie of the same era, but that's almost to be expected.


And this is supposed to be...?

Goro is, thankfully, a large, human-controlled puppet and while his movement is slightly limited he looks and talks just like you'd expect Goro would.


That is one incredibly long torso you have there, Mr. Goro

5. The soundtrack

-I mentioned earlier that the soundtrack went platinum in less than two weeks, and for good reason. Sure, it's kind of generic, amped up mid-90's "electronica"/industrial music like KMFDM, Napalm Death, Sister Machine Gun, Fear Factory, and Orbial...but in the context of the film, it works wonders. I love how the title track starts playing as the New Line Cinema logo is still forming on the screen, getting you totally amped up for some "Mortallllll Kombattttttttttt!" Without the pumping soundtrack, half the scenes in the movie would fall flat on their face. The music really props this film up.

What I don't like about "Mortal Kombat" the movie

1. The screenplay

-Structurally, the screenplay is sound. It opens with a series of disconnected vignettes, introducing us to each of the key players, which would admittedly be slightly confusing to anyone unfamiliar with the game.


Where are we again? Oh, okay. Thanks.

But once the characters are in place and transported to Outworld, the movie has some semblance of linearity. The problem is that the dialogue is so half-hearted, so cornball, it's like the writer didn't even try. To think that someone was paid thousands of dollars to write this tripe is definitely a knife in the gut of every talented but unemployed screenwriter out there.

To give you some idea of how bad it is, without having to quote it: writer Kevin Droney's sole other film credit is the screenplay for the "Wing Commander" movie. Yeah. And you know you're in trouble when you deliver exposition to the audience by having the heroes eavesdrop on the villains while they're having dinner. What is this - an episode of "Scooby-Doo"?


The script also frequently doles out Sunday school lessons to our trio of heroes. They're lectured -- more than once - about how Liu Kang needs to let go of his thirst for revenge, Johnny Cage needs to let go of his ego, and Sonya Blade needs to learn to ask others for help. Yay, do you all want to hold hands now? It's like Screenwriting 101 that you SHOW, don't tell this stuff. "Mortal Kombat" is the perfect avenue to illustrate internal character conflicts through the fight scenes. It should have been obvious!

2. Christopher Lambert as Raiden

-Don't get me wrong. I love Christopher Lambert, particularly in the "Highlander" movies, and I'm not even opposed to him playing Raiden for the reasons most people are (re: the fact that Raiden is the Japanese lord of thunder and not, um, some European dude). Lambert himself was supposedly a fan of the Mortal Kombat video games but he approaches the character all wrong. He plays the role less like a deity and more like a joking trickster a la Loki. Even though he claims the fate of the world is at stake, he's constantly laughing, winking, and cracking lame in-jokes like he knows he's just in a movie.

A lot of times screenwriters or studio execs will claim you need a more down-to-earth, human character for audiences to relate to when there's all sorts of mystical stuff happening in the plot but…that's what friggin' Johnny Cage, Liu Kang, and Sonya Blade are for! Playing Raiden for laughs was the absolute wrong way to go, especially for a character that's supposed to be an actual god and especially in a movie that's supposed to be as dark as "Mortal Kombat." Compe him with Tagawa's take on Shang Tsung and it seems like the two of them are acting in completely different movies. I also didn't care for Bridgette Wilson as Sonya Blade but she's not in the movie enough for me to give her her own bullet point.


Christopher Lambert - the first actor to ever be typecast as an immortal

3. The fights

-"Mortal Kombat," by its very nature, is all about the fights. And there are plenty of them in the movie. But I wasn't enjoying them at all and I didn't understand why until about halfway through the movie. Then it hit me: they're overly choreographed. Unlike "Street Fighter," which lends itself to more carefully rehearsed martial arts and occasional wire-work, "Mortal Kombat" is all about…blood. It's about blood, sweat, uppercuts, and fatalities. You need to feel every blow, hear the snapping of sinew and the cracking of bone. None of that is communicated in this film. Characters flip off walls, strike fancy poses, and roll and tumble together like a ballet. That's not "Mortal Kombat."


The one fight that really worked for me was Liu Kang vs. Reptile - it's fast and brutal, largely because Liu Kang is getting his ass kicked. I felt like the stakes were high and each punch and kick carried the impact I'd expect from "Mortal Kombat." It was flashy but not as rehearsed as the rest of the movie. And Liu Kung got to use his Bicycle Kick (always a plus in my book)! The final bout between Liu Kang and Shang Tsung is handled in a similar fashion, so the climax of the movie doesn't disappoint.


Also, there are way too many fight scenes between characters who aren't from the video games at all and who have no discernible supernatural abilities. This seems like a mistake to me. I would have kept the cast smaller and provided the characters with more moves from the game (both Sonya Blade and Kano don't get to use any of their abilities from the arcade games). Considering that the entire tournament takes place in another dimension, it doesn't really make sense that there are normal human fighters up against sorcerers and demigods.


It may look like there are more things that I like about this film than I don't like. But considering that the script and the fight scenes are the only thing that would hold a movie like this together, you can understand why I'd rate this thing 2 stars. I enjoy "Mortal Kombat" as an entertaining 90's artifact. A few well-cast roles and cool-looking Outworld sets mean that the movie is still fun enough to revisit every so many years, and when you consider the other movies of its genre - "Double Dragon," "Street Fighter," "Resident Evil," etc. - it definitely stands above the competition. Then again, that's not saying much.

"I'm in a hostile environment. I'm totally unprepared. And I'm surrounded by a bunch of guys who probably want to kick my ass... it's like being back in high school."-Johnny Cage




You know you love it

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