Mortal Kombat (1995)
Plot: “MORTAL KOMBAT!!!”
This forthcoming weekend, beloved Jabootu authoress Eva G. Vandergeld, with the able assistance of the perspicacious Patrick Coyle, returns to these pages with an evisceration of 1997’s lunkheaded Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Certainly the film annihilated what once seemed a promising motion picture franchise.
In view of this, it seemed apt to pay homage to the original film. I am, I believe, quite suited to this task, since I quite simply love Mortal Kombat. I saw it opening night when it came out, went to see it a second time whilst it was in the theaters, and have watched it several other occasions since procuring the DVD. To me, Mortal Kombat is that all too rare object, the B-Movie done absolutely correctly. I find even its limitations endearing. To me no film has come closer to capturing the spirit of the old Harryhausen Sinbad movies.
Mr. Coyle in his Afterthoughts to the above-sited review keenly discerns one key flaw of the second film as compared to the first. I’ve no wish to steal his thunder, but I will note that I am not a video game person and knew no more of Mortal Kombat the game than I may have gleaned from watching the occasional TV commercial. Despite this fact, as noted above, I simply adored the end result.
This in itself marks the correct way to craft such an adaptation into another medium: Worry about placing the key elements into a structure appropriate for your new format, in this case a movie. In other words, choose wisely those elements that will work cinematically, and only then leaven in more obscure aspects as winks and nods for the amusement of the hardcore fans. (Note that Eva’s previous review subject, Dungeons & Dragons, failed in both of these areas. As a film, the movie sucks, yet moreover its adherance to the D&D gaming rules was intermittent at best.)
In this case, the scriptwriter—unlike the sequel, the first film boasted but one of these, rather than several, and that probably sums up a lot of the differences between the two—naturally concluded that the tournament aspect of the game was its most important characteristic. Therefore, he found a film template that the game could gracefully be dropped into. In this case, Mortal Combat the movie is basically a redo of the venerable Enter The Dragon. Not that there aren’t a billion other tournament chop-socky movies (Master of the Flying Guillitine, Blood Sport, Kill Or Be Killed, etc.), but Bruce Lee’s contribution to the sub-genre remains its acme.
Again, to me this film is almost a textbook example of how to make a genre film. Here’s some reasons why:
- We open with the cry “MORTAL KOMBAT!!”, immediately followed by the cheesy but eminently fun and rousing Mortal Kombat techno-theme. This overlays animated credits of flames spurting up through the fissures in a massive version of the Mortal Kombat dragon crest logo. Hearing this cry and the rousing music over a theater soundsystem immediately had me in a cloud of B-movie bliss.
- The film moves. Without seeming in the least bit choppy, we meet our three central protagonists and get a solid gist of their various motivations in the movie’s first four minutes. Liu Kang’s brother has been killed by the evil kung fu sorcerer Shang Tsung. Sonya Blade is a badass cop who will let nothing stand in the way of catching her partner’s killer. (She’s introduced in Hong Kong, matter of factly butting dozens of dance clubbers in the head with her riot shotgun as she makes her way across a dancefloor!) Johnny Cage is a film star whose martial arts prowess the press derides as fakery. He secretly fears this is true.
- The film is extraordinarily well structured. In the first several minutes, we meet our three protagonists, and learn as well that Shang Tsung is a) evil, b) manipulating our heroes for his own sinister purposes, and c) has mystical abilities. From here we watch the characters come to realize that Mortal Kombat is seriously weird, and finally that the fate of the world does indeed depend on its outcome. Only at the forty-minute mark do we get to the actual matches, although then we get several of them in a row. (My favorite, by the way, is Johnny’s battle with Scorpion. Man, I love that sequence.) Eventually Shang Tsung’s plot is revealed, and then the fights begin taking on their true importance. The climax, of course, pits Liu against his brother’s killer with humanity’s fate in the balance.
- Notably, none of the three human fighters display any magical or freakish powers. Johnny Cage’s ‘shadow kick,’ whatever the nature of that is, is used only once, and so quickly and with so little effect that I didn’t get it was a ‘special’ attack until I saw his doppelganger use it in the beginning of the second movie. Otherwise, the three fight their supernatural and/or otherworldly opponents employing only their earthly battle skills.
- Soon after, we learn more of Liu’s backstory. He’s the film’s inevitable ‘chosen one,’ trained since childhood by his monk grandfather to save the Earth itself in Mortal Kombat, although he seeks to deny his destiny as fantasy. Returning to his grandfather to learn more about his brother’s death, Liu meets Rayden (Christopher Lambert). The monks believe Rayden to be a god of thunder and storms, although naturally Liu derides these claims.
- Rayden quickly limns the plot. An evil emperor from another dimension seeks to invade Earth and enslave it. To gain the right to do so, his champions, including Shang Tsung, must win ten Mortal Kombat tournaments in a row. They have won nine. Thus the very fate of the world rests on our hero’s shoulders.
- As with our characters, this is all introduced quickly and with broad strokes. Several things separate the good genre filmmaker from the bad one. One is whether they’re smart enough to take advantage of the fact that their film is constructed of some assemblage of tropes well known to their putative audience. In other words, yes, there’s a lot of clichÃˆ stuff happening here. If you use this to your advantage, however, it means that you can set up your premise quickly and move on to the more interesting stuff. Think of vampire movies. If a film sticks to the traditional rules about the creatures, there’s no reason to spend a lot of time explaining their powers and vulnerabilities. A good filmmaker trusts his audience and assumes that they’ll quickly key into the general situation, and that only the fine details have to be established. Jim Cameron is a classic example of somebody who knows how to do this.
- One quick example of this: As I mentioned, we meet our central three characters in the film’s first four minutes. When we are introduced to Sonya, she’s already seeking her partner’s killer, a situation established via one or two lines of dialogue. We never meet the partner, nor do they bother to show his demise. And why should they? Sonja is a hardass cop looking for her partner’s killer. How much more do we really need to see or know? Shorthand, people, its all shorthand.
- Here’s a tip for the prospective genre moviemaker: NONE OF THE CHARACTERS IN THIS MOVIE ARE DUMB!!! They are flawed, and may occasionally do something impetuous or foolish, but never once do we roll our eyes and go, “Oh, come on.” Sadly, this sets this movie apart from seemingly 90%, or more, of genre movies.
- Shang Tsung, played by veteran heavy Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, is a villain worthy of the piece. Not only is he convincingly crafty and evil, but he has the ability to capture the souls of those killed at his command. Needless to say, this makes fighting the guy rather a bigger deal than if all he could do is kill you.
- Tsung isn’t stupid either. Avoiding the classic ‘overlord’ mistakes, he does everything he can to avoid facing Liu as his final opponent. Only when his schemes to trick Sonya and Johnny into accepting his challenge have failed does he confront the man who legend says is an agent of destiny. He still expects to win, but he isn’t taking any more chances than he has to, either.
- The film provides us with an actually likeable character in Johnny Cage, as played by Linden Ashby. Johnny is one of the rarest of cinematic creatures, the comic relief character who isn’t odious. Liu is the film’s hero, and its most conflicted character (while Sonya, frankly, is just a stiff), and thus spends most of the film either single-mindedly angry or determined. Johnny, however, is the audience identification guy. He makes wisecracks and chases skirt and seems a fairly shallow dude, but we are able to see that there’s more to him than that. Fittingly, while Liu is the film’s ultimate hero, Johnny gets his share of moments. His fight with Scorpion is one of the film’s highlights. His battle with the ten-foot tall, four-armed Goro, which some might view as anti-climatic, is in fact the proof that Cage is a savvy fighter. Were he to attempt to outslug Goro, the contest could only have one outcome. (This he learns after watching a friend of his fatally attempt to fight on Goro’s terms.) Therefore, Johnny cheats a bit, gets Goro pissed, and lures his gigantic foe up on a mountain ledge where his high center of gravity proves counter-productive. Bye, bye, Goro.
- Johnny’s best moment, however, occurs when an enraged Rayden rebukes him for foolishly challenging Goro to the above fight, an act of seeming suicide. Rayden is a god, and humanity’s immortal advocate in this Mortal Kombat. Even so, Johnny basically tells him to butt out. “This is our tournament, remember? Mortal Kombat. We fight it.” Then he stalks off. We expect Rayden to explode in anger, but instead he issues a delighted laugh. “Good,” he mutters. “At last one of them has understood.”
- This brings us to Rayden, who even more than Johnny is the film’s triumph. The guy that wrote this obviously knew his mythological archetypes, for Rayden is one of the most successful attempts at creating a god figure who manages to evince a distinctly non-human outlook. The key Rayden moment is when he spells out the importance of Mortal Kombat to Liu, Johnny and Sonya. “The fate of billions depends upon you,” he solemnly avers, following which he lets loose with a little laugh. He then catches himself—”Sorry,” he shrugs—but this spells out all we need to know. However seriously he takes his role (Appointed? Chosen?) as humanity’s corner man, he ultimately views us as the gods always have: As toys and tools for their amusement. I believe Rayden does have some affection for humanity, but in the end as long as we provide an interesting show, he’ll be satisfied.
- By the way, this explains why the gods are always so damn vague when giving their champions hints: They’re just screwing with us.
- More important to Rayden are the Rules, since these are matters, of course, for the gods themselves. He displays real passion only on such matters. When Scorpion and Sub-Zero illegally threaten “his fighters” before the onset of the tournament, he directly intercedes, flinging Shang Tsung’s henchmen around with obvious anger. Tsung cheerfully admits that he was nearly in violation of the rules, but then with mock servility reminds the thunder god that Rayden’s role during the actual contest will be much proscribed. Rayden takes umbrage at being so lectured. “My dominions are well known to me, Sorcerer,” he spits.
- This is a nice bit of expository dialogue, by the way. Shang Tsung is indeed telling Rayden (and, incidentally, us) something they both know. Usually, this sort of thing is quite obnoxious, in that such lines are generally patently exchanged purely to fill in the audience on plot points. Here, however, Tsung issues this statement so as to subtly insult Rayden. Thus the line is entirely motivated. If only we saw stuff like this more often.
- Rayden is extremely well played by Christopher Lambert. It should be noted that I’m not a big fan of his. I don’t even particularly like Highlander. Here, however, his odd inflections and facial expressions suit the part marvelously. Lambert usually, in my opinion, comes off as a bit of a stiff. Rayden provides him with a rare opportunity to really ham things up, and he seems to be having a blast. One wonders why exactly he didn’t return for the second film (if it was a matter of money, then the sequel’s producers were morons not to meet his demands), which is one of that picture’s more glaring problems. Lambert will always have a place in my heart for his work here.
- Another person who rises to the occasion is director Paul W. S. Anderson. Mr. Anderson has always struck me as a member of the competent-but-stolid Peter Hyams school, the sort of fellow one hires when seeking someone who will stick to the budget and the script. Certainly few people remember Soldier, Event Horizon or Resident Evil for their audacious directorial flamboyance. Even so, his work here is quite good. He films the fights with panache, and in such a manner that we can actually see what’s happening—a statement I can make all too rarely these days—and propels the story with a pleasing economy. Although I doubt it, maybe he’ll work similar feats with the upcoming Alien vs. Predator.
- Those fights are way cool, by the way. In the end, of course, this is what the movie lives or dies on. Luckily, everything works. There are numerous good battle sequences here, and they are often joyfully heralded by the cry “Mortal Kombat!” and accompanied by the pulsing theme music. As I noted before with Johnny’s match with Goro, they’re smart enough to give each fight its own pace and structure. Meanwhile, the super-powered foes are fun to watch, and although these opponents are given outrÃˆ abilities, the film manages to have our heroes defeat them all without placing undue stress on our credulity.
- One fight worth mentioning is an early one in which our three heroes team up against a bunch of highly trained but otherwise normal assailants. This is the first fight accompanied by the theme music exploding on the soundtrack, and the only time any team fighting is portrayed. (If only the second movie had taken note of this.) The sequence is nicely edited, with some judicious use of slo-mo. All in all, it’s a fun bit.
- However, it’s most instructive as an opportunity to observe the actors and getting a sense of their actual martial arts training. Unsurprisingly, Robin Shou, who plays Liu, is the best and most athletic fighter. He does a lot of leaps and stuff and acquits himself quite well. Linden Ashby, as Johnny Cage, has a decent spin kick and works well handling a staff. (Ashby might have missed out on the sequel because two years later he was starring in a short lived series called Spy Game. His fighting skills were generally featured in a big scene in each episode, and the gimmick was that he was a master at turning ordinary objects, whatever might be at hand, into weaponry. It was a fun show, and died too soon.) Bridgette Wilson, on the other hand, can’t fight. If you watch, they only film her making one move at a time and then edit these bits together. This also how they film actors who can’t dance. She moves well and looks undeniably hot in her various tight outfits—few women have worked a ponytail as well as she does–but she obviously hadn’t had much martial arts training.
- This brings us to another nice trait of the films. They make do with what they have. Wilson can’t really fight, so they work around this. She really only has one solo fight, and it’s pretty short. In the group fight, they work around her: One of her big moves involves raising her arm up so that a foe runs into it and collapses to the floor. As edited, it looks pretty impressive, and it’s only on close examination that you realize how little she’s doing.
- The film is also instructive in the savvy manner in which they spent their mid-sized budget. Much of it went to constructing some really gorgeous sets to hold the fight scenes in, ranging from lavish throne rooms to a torchlit cavern full of towering decrepit wooden platforms, and these settings lend the film an opulence well beyond what such a budget would normally provide. These are so eye-catching that the occasional misfiring CGI shot is passed off without comment. As the saying goes, it’s all there on the screen.
- In a very wise decision, Goro is realized via a costume and prosthetics rather than being computer generated. He in no way looks real, but in the manner of a muppet, we eventually accept him as a character and stop noticing this. Bringing him to the screen through practical effects allows him to interact with the other characters in a manner that no CGI creation, especially one of that period, could have possibly pulled off.
In sum, I’m in no way arguing that Mortal Kombat is some sort of classic or anything. It’s just a movie, like Smokey & the Bandit, that exerts a strange hold over me. However, looking at you makes you wonder what the hell is wrong with Hollywood. Here’s a film that knows exactly what its audience wants, is committed to providing it, spends enough money without going crazy about it, and manages to be simply a well-crafted piece of work, with the odd bit of flair, that doesn’t insult the intelligence of the people watching it.
So why, I mean, why, do movies like this come around so rarely?
Summary: “MORTAL KOMBAT!!!!!“
- Move on to the above referenced review of