In 1992, Mortal Kombat arrived at arcades, and caught people's attention thanks to its digitized graphics featuring live actors as the characters, and large amounts of violence and gore. The game became highly controversial due to its high levels of violence to the point where the ESRB rating system was created. While the gameplay wasn't as deep as its rival Street Fighter II, it was still fun to play, and made up for this aspect with its originality, and an actual interesting storyline. It featured tons of hidden content, such as finishing moves known as Fatalities (where you kill your opponent in an over-the-top fashion, such as ripping his spine out), and an actual hidden character to fight. Mortal Kombat became extremely popular to the point where it spawned numerous sequels, and was featured in merchandise such as action figures and comic books.
At the height of the game's popularity, producer Lawrence Kasanoff (who was the co-founder of Lightstorm Entertainment, and had worked with James Cameron on Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and True Lies) made an agreement with New Line Cinema to produce a live-action Mortal Kombat movie. Prior to the film's release, several fans, and even producers were highly skeptical due to the failures of other video game adaptations such as Street Fighter, and Super Mario Bros., and also because of the movie being rated PG-13, which meant the over-the-top violence of the video game had to be toned down to appeal to the fanbase, which mainly consisted of kids and teenagers.
The film was released in theaters during the Summer of 1995, and surprisingly, it was very successful. Produced on a budget of $18 million, the movie grossed over $122 million worldwide, and was generally well received by fans of the video game, despite mixed reviews from critics (aside from Gene Siskel, who gave the movie a thumbs up). To this day, Mortal Kombat is often considered by many gamers to be one of, if not, the best film based on a video game. 20 years later, it's time to find out if that's still the case.
The plot centers around three fighters; Liu Kang - a former Shaolin monk (played by Robin Shou), Johnny Cage - a film actor (played by Linden Ashby), and Sonya Blade - a Special Forces agent (played by Bridgette Wilson-Sampras). They have been chosen by the God of Thunder known as Raiden (played by Christopher Lambert) to compete in an ancient tournament known as Mortal Kombat. The whole purpose behind the tournament is that the emperor of a desolate realm known as Outworld wants to take over our world, but in order to do so, his best fighters, led by the demon sorcerer Shang Tsung, have to win 10 of these Mortal Kombat tournaments, and so far, they have won 9. Despite being chosen to defend the realm of Earth, the three heroes enter the tournament for different reasons. Liu Kang is competing to get revenge on Shang Tsung for murdering his brother, Sonya is there because she is after a criminal named Kano (played by Trevor Goddard), and Johnny Cage is entering to prove that he's not a fake like film critics believe him to be. Raiden begins to guide the three heroes into the right path, and teach them how to overcome obstacles such as their opponents, and inner fears in order to win Mortal Kombat, and prevent the Earth from being taken over.
The film follows the basic premise of the first game while adding in characters and elements from Mortal Kombat II. Much like the game, the plot of the movie is heavily inspired by the Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon. Normally, I get pissed off by a movie ripping off another one, but in this case, I think it works very well, considering the source material, and it also adds the Fantasy aspect into the mix, which makes it rather refreshing. The writing is generally decent (let's face it, you're not going into a fighting game movie expecting Shakespeare), and offers some nice moments of character development with the three main heroes learning how to overcome their fears. The film incorporates moments of humor, which work very well, and gives it a fun, and playful vibe, something which most Action movies today lack.
The casting is really good. Robin Shou (a Hong Kong Martial Artist/actor in his breakthrough American role) plays the main character Liu Kang, and does a great job as a rebellious, and reluctant hero who feels guilt for the death of his brother. It's a shame that Shou didn't receive more leading roles in Hollywood after this movie, I mean, you'd think he'd get more since this movie was a huge hit, but what the fuck do I know? Hollywood are pricks. I feel he truly is capable in both Martial Arts, and acting ability, he especially would have done well in the straight-to-video market. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is excellent as the villain Shang Tsung, he gives the right balance of over-the-top and charisma in his performance. Christopher Lambert is also great as Raiden, he portrays the character as a bit of a joker in addition to being a mentor that you wouldn't want to fuck with. Linden Ashby is spot-on as Johnny Cage, who is mostly the comic relief of the film (in addition to the aforementioned Raiden in some parts), and yet, he still manages to be likable, and not annoying. The only weak spot with the cast is Bridgette Wilson-Sampras as Sonya Blade, who tries to be tough-as-nails, but comes off as rather pouty, and ultimately whimpy near the end of the film where, *spoiler alert*, she gets taken prisoner by Shang Tsung. The characters are generally faithful to their game counterparts, and are given a good amount of screen-time, with the exception of Scorpion and Sub-Zero, both of whom are arguably the most popular characters in the Mortal Kombat games, and are portrayed as mindless goons for Shang Tsung rather than mortal enemies.
While the violence and gore has been toned down, the movie makes up for this with the large amounts of Martial Arts action one expects from a fighting game movie. The fight scenes are well done, and bring in more of a Hong Kong style to them, which was something rather new at the time seeing that there weren't many Hong Kong influenced Martial Arts movies in America in between Enter the Dragon, and Rumble in the Bronx. My two favorite fight scenes in the movie are Liu Kang vs. Reptile, and Johnny Cage vs. Scorpion, both of which were choreographed by Robin Shou when main fight choreographer Pat Johnson (who also choreographed The Karate Kid, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films) became unavailable.
The film is directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, whom has gotten a lot of flack for his work on the aforementioned Resident Evil film franchise. This was his first major American movie after he directed an independent film called Shopping (which received mixed reviews, but was praised for its sleek direction for a low budget). For his first big movie here in the United States, Anderson shows a lot of talent. The production design and cinematography are stylish, and keep in touch with the game's other-worldly look and feel with its use of bold colors, and exotic-looking sets. I personally feel his later work got progressively worse. This movie, and Event Horizon are his best films. Most of his other stuff, I either avoided, or hated (especially Alien vs. Predator).
The special FX were considered to be good, at the time, but over the years, many have began to notice how dated they look. The FX in this movie vary greatly in quality. Some of them still look good (Goro, the matte paintings and digital backgrounds, Sub-Zero's freeze), others look pretty bad (Reptile's lizard form, Scorpion's spear). Thankfully, while this is an FX heavy film, they use them when the movie really needs them, and they don't become the focus of the film.
The soundtrack proved very popular too as it went Platinum on the album charts. The movie features the catchy Mortal Kombat theme song by The Immortals, which is a great track to listen to, and it gets you amped up for kombat. While this song was never featured in any of the games, it is instantly recognized as the main theme for the franchise in general. Various Industrial, Metal, and Techno groups contribute to the soundtrack as well. The list includes Gravity Kills, KMFDM, Orbital, and Fear Factory. The movie also features 3 songs by Stabbing Westward, which weren't included in the soundtrack. All of the songs are awesome, and generally fit the tone of Mortal Kombat. The musical score by George S. Clinton is equally amazing, and brings in a mix of atmospheric, and adrenaline pumping cues.
Overall, I still think Mortal Kombat is great, and fun to watch after 20 years. Sure, it may not be a perfect film, but it's a film that definitely hits all the right notes. I personally think it's the best live-action movie based on a video game. It's a shame this was followed by the abysmal sequel called Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. For a good while, there has been talks of a 3rd movie, but nothing has ever came of it until recently when it was announced that James Wan (director of Saw, The Conjuring, and Furious 7) has signed on to produce the reboot. I personally hope they stay true to the game while adding in the large amounts of gore the source material is best known for, but if it fails, then that won't bother me as I will always stick with this movie. It has so much charm to it, that it's hard to not like it.