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REVIEW: Mortal Kombat (1995)

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

In a nutshell: The world’s best fighters including a monk, a movie star and SWAT captain are recruited for a fabled tournament, held by the mysterious Shang Tsung (Cary Tagawa). The heroes are guided by Lord Raiden (Christopher Lambert) and discover there’s a lot more than glory at stake for the tournament, it’s also the fate of the world.

During the late 1980s, with the rising popularity of video games arcades and the growth of the home console gaming systems, it was no surprise that Hollywood came calling. Super Mario Brothers and Double Dragon were the first to be adapted, yet despite an established audience on hand, were massive flops. Street Fighter boasted star power in the form of Jean Claude Van Damme (JCVD) and err, Kylie Minogue and managed to bring in $100m at the box office. Sadly, it was still a stinker in fans and critics eyes.

Meanwhile, Mortal Kombat was quickly becoming an ultra-violent gaming sensation. Producer Larry Kasanoff instantly saw the potential, not just for a film adaptation but much more. Despite the competition all being box office misfires, Kasanoff convinced studio New Line to take a chance and set about pulling together a cast and crew.

Whilst New Line didn’t allow enough budget for any star power (save for Christopher Lambert in a supporting role) the game provided a solid foundation of source material to work with. It certainly helped that the game itself took inspiration from the movies like Enter The Dragon, Big Trouble in Little China, Predator, Star Wars and ironically, considering the Street Fighter movie, had a character closely based on JCVD (Johnny Cage).

Kasanoff needed a director who would treat the material seriously – thankfully he came across upcoming director Paul WS Anderson. Anderson was a gamer at heart, spending his free time between his London pitch meetings at the arcades – so he was more than familiar with Mortal Kombat. Eager to get the job, Anderson gleefully admits he bluffed his way into the job, reading up on visual effects, matte paintings and CGI, to make him appear less of a risk.

Anderson would go on to a figurehead for video game adaptations, with Alien Vs Predator, the Resident Evil series and upcoming Monster Hunter film. Being a fairly fresh director, Anderson chose to collaborate closely with his actors and for that, I would argue, is one of the reasons the film works better than most other game adaptations. Anderson encouraged his actors to ad-lib as the script was still being finished during preproduction, which added a lot more humour. 

In another smart move, Anderson cast Robin Shou as the lead, Lui Kang. Whilst, not an established name, Shou was an experienced martial artist and fight choreographer from Hong Kong. 

“Did you leave the dried ice machine on?”

Anderson modestly admits he looked to Shou to advise on the best ways to film a fight scene. Apparently, test audiences loved what they saw but wanted more fights. Thankfully the studio granted reshoots, with Shou overseeing two of the strongest fights in the film – Lui Kang vs. Reptile and Scorpion vs. Johnny Cage.

The mostly unknown cast does a decent job – considering the ludicrous story and creaky dialogue. Extra gravitas is brought by stalwarts Lambert and Cary-Hiro Tagawa respectively. Tagawa is a familiar face from 1980s and 1990s action films, and whilst he may be typecast, he does play the villain very well.  Both he and Lambert are tasked with bringing some very expositional dialogue to life, at least until the next fight is due, anyway. Despite losing JCVD to the Street Fighter film, Linden Ashby’s take on Johnny Cage brings humour, charm and swagger to a likeable douchebag – it’s a shame he didn’t go on to bigger things.

One of the most memorable things about the film, for good or bad, is it’s repetitive techno soundtrack, bringing onboard popular dance acts like Orbital and Utah Saints. Whilst it dates the film now, it was a bold decision at the time and you could argue it set the tone for future martial arts films, like Blade and The Matrix. Another thing that dates it is some shoddy (or over-ambitious) CGI, particularly for the Reptile character. It’s a shame as there’s some great set design and the animatronic creature effects for Goro mostly stand up.

Whilst, not a flawless victory, it’s one of the better video game adaption films – which I realise, is damning with faint praise. I partly blame nostalgia, I was a teenager when it was released, I had played the games and yes, I even had the soundtrack! Whilst it’s sequel would be deemed one of the worst films (never mind, video game adaptations) ever made, Anderson would go on to give us his magnum opus, the terrifying and twisted space horror, Event Horizon.

Coulda Woulda Shoulda: Sean Connery and Danny Glover were both considered for Raiden. Cameron Diaz was originally cast as Sonya Blade but broke her wrist before filming and had to pull out.

MVP: Robin Shou – for his amazing fighting skills and fabulous hair.

Alternative title: Unleash The Techno

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