In the business of making terrible movies, one way to guarantee success is to make films that people will still pay to see regardless of their quality. Enter Paul WS Anderson. Aliens vs. Predator, Resident Evil, Death Race. All preexisting IP’s with built in markets. Who cares if the movie sucks as long as the tickets sell? I still went to see AvP, despite the fact I knew it was going to make me bleed out of my eyes. Who is the bigger idiot? PWSA for making that piece of shit or me for paying to see it?
But it wasn’t always like this. Back in ’95 he started his major movie making career with an anomaly – a film based on a video game that was actually pretty good. It’s time to begin…
“MORTAL KOMBAT” Cue dance music.
That intro will immediately transport you back to the 90’s with it’s techno soundtrack. It’s so bombastic and insane that you can’t help but like it. If you didn’t have the fortune of having sampled the dance culture of the 90’s, you’ll probably wonder what the hell has happened to the sound. No one makes it like this any more, and like velcro shoes or TV’s without pre-remote controls, you’ll wonder how this shit ever caught on.
It’s over pretty quick as we open on some weird temple. We’re all educated enough to realize it’s Asian (actually, to be really specific, it’s Thai). But it’s not some nice summer day or what have you. The sky is cloudy and dark and freaky looking. It’s blatantly CG and, like the music, is one of the only dated things in this movie. Anyway, two dudes are fighting. Well, one little guy Chan (Steven Ho – TMNT 2: Secret of the Ooze) is getting his ass handed to him by the larger bastard in a cool-looking trench coat, Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa – Showdown in Little Tokyo). Tsung easily defeats his younger opponent, but instead of bowing and offering him respect, he steals his soul out of his back, sort of like the Predator.
Suddenly, elsewhere, Liu Kang (Robin Shou – Beverly Hills Ninja) wakes up from a nightmare. It was all a dream or rather a dream of what really happened. See Chan was Liu’s younger brother, and because he failed to protect him from the evil Shang Tsung, he feels totally responsible and guilty. It’s a double whammy burger of self recrimination though as Liu was originally meant to face Tsung in a battle as part of his Shao Lin monk destiny. Instead he buggered off to America to play video games and drive cars and chase tail. Chan took his place. So that’s a really shitty sandwich he’s chewing on right now.
Meanwhile, Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson – I Know What You Did Last Summer) and her partner Jax are some special forces police who are tracking an underworld kingpin called Kano (Trevor Goddard – Men of War). He’s got a cyborg eye and he killed Sonya’s last partner. So she’s really pissed off about it, and while their jurisdiction isn’t really spelled out in the film (she tracks Kano from the US, to Hong Kong, to some weird Island in the pacific), I get the impression this manhunt is off the books. She nearly catches him in a nightclub, but shoots some goon instead. You know it’s the 90’s as none of the ravers even move. The beat is just too hardcore, obviously, unlike those poor bastards in the Technoir in Terminator. Anyway, the goon spills the beans and says Kano is gonna be in Hong Kong, at some pier. But this is not by accident. See it’s all planned. Shang Tsung is paying Kano to lead her to “the tournament”. What a tricky bastard!
We don’t dwell on it for long as we cut to some warehouse where a limo pulls up. Out comes Johnny Cage (Lindon Ashby – Sniper 2), a cool looking dude with expensive sunglasses. He’s approached by a bunch of heavies. They all have various hand weapons like a taser, a chain, a stick etc. Cage simply says “lets dance” then kicks the shit out of them all. Save for the last guy, who doesn’t want to fall down. “This is where you fall down”. He falls down. “Cut!”.
Oh, I see, we’re on a movie set. Johnny Cage is actually a big time movie actor. But he’s got the skills to back up all the kicks and punches. The media all think it’s rubbish though, and nobody takes him seriously. It’s only after his old master (Peter Jason – Marked for Death) turns up and tells him the only way he’s going to win respect is by winning The Tournament. It’s some major event that’s only held “once a generation” (yeah, it’s that specific). All he has to do is take his weird invitation (written in blood on a scroll) to pier 40 Hong Kong tomorrow night. Johnny is immediately interested, especially after seeing some local rag that brands him a fake. Screw the rest of the film he’s making, he’s got asses to kick. What he doesn’t see is that as his master walks away, he transforms into Shang Tsung. An evil scheme is clearly underway.
Liu Kang is now back east and heads to his old temple stomping grounds. His grandfather takes him to where Chan was killed. He doesn’t understand why Chan challenged Tsung in the first place. Because he believed, says the old man. It’s all nonsense; mere fighters don’t decide the fate of the Earth, counters Kang. But regardless, he wants to represent the Order of Light at the tournament. Why? Because Tsung will be there, and he wants terrible, terrible revenge.
“That’s why you left the temple” says a mysterious, powerful voice from off-screen. A figure approaches in a grey robe and one of those pointed hats. We all know he’s badass and powerful because the monks all bow down as he walks by them. “The great tournament was too much responsibility. But vengeance, that’s so much simpler”. He looks up and we see it’s Christopher Lambert (Highlander) in a convincing grey wig. “Lord Raiden” cooes Liu’s grandfather, but Liu think’s he’s just a simple beggar. He’s not their God of Thunder and Lightning, surely. Raiden asks Liu to show him how he’s going to win the tournament, then throws him on his ass with little effort. To be fair, he could have just been a beggar who happened to know a bit of judo. However the following rumble of thunder and the lightning bolts emanating from his eyes kind of clues into the fact he’s the real deal.
I really enjoyed Christopher Lambert in this. Despite, not even being that old at the time, he’s playing the Sean Connery mentor role from Highlander – the teacher who is badass enough not to be trifled with. In some meta twist of fate, the producers had even wanted Connery originally to play the part. Similar to Connery, Lambert has such a distinctive accent that it lends an otherworldliness to the character. And like Shang Tsung, he’s pulling strings and nudging people in the right direction to his own ends. But as a character he’s quite playful, almost a prankster. One bit I laughed out loud at was when Johnny Cage low-blows the four armed monster Goro (more on this later). Raiden laughs and actually punches a nearby Shang Tsung minion in glee. He apologies immediately.
One really sweet story I read about Lambert was that he was getting paid a handsome amount for like four weeks filming. Due to the budget being so tight, they couldn’t afford him to go out to Thailand. So they were going to use body doubles, then shoot the close ups of him on a sound stage. Lambert got wind of this and for the sake of the film, decided to go out to Thailand for free. He even paid for the wrap party! What a class act.
Anyway, Liu Kang is gonna go to the tournament with or without their blessing. He doesn’t seem to even have a cool invitation like Johnny Cage, but that doesn’t stop him turning up at Pier 40 the following night. They all board a weird, dragon-headed boat where Cage runs into an old friend called Art Lean. He’s a martial arts buddy who knows Cage ain’t fake. This is sort of like Enter the Dragon where there’s loads of badasses all on the same ship heading off to fight in some crazy “to the death” competition. We even get some funny “stranger in a stranger land” shit with Cage here. He originally think’s Liu is just a dockworker. Liu plays along but ends up doing a dick move by chucking one of Johnny’s cases in the ocean. Just because he’s wearing everything he owns, it doesn’t mean he can go about destroying other people’s property. Even if he is the chosen one and Johnny Cage was being a bit racist. Bad form Liu Kang.
On board, Johnny runs into Sonia Blade, whose here purely to get Kano who she saw board earlier. His attempts to seduce her fall flat. Instead she’s all about getting Kano. She heads down into the bowels of the ship where Shang Tsung greets her and also tries to win her affections. Liu and Cage appear to offer backup, but she’s all “I don’t need your help”. Spoke too soon though love, as Tsung isn’t alone. Two ninja’s both wearing the same outfit just in different colours enter. You’ve got the blue ninja dude Subzero and the yellow ninja dude, Scorpion. Shang Tsung says they’re the deadliest of enemies (in the lore Subzero killed Scorpion, who was then resurrected as a skull-faced killing machine), but they’re slaves under his command.
Shit is about to kick off before Raiden appears out of a ball of lightning. He reminds Tsung that he’s not to interfere with the tournament, before laying out the actual story to trio. Basically, The Emperor of another realm called Outworld wants to invade the Earth. But in order to open a portal for his armies, his warriors (Shang Tsung etc) have to win ten consecutive victories in Mortal Kombat. This will be the tenth tournament, so the stakes are high. Raiden can’t intervene because of some mystical gentleman’s agreement; only mortal men and women can save their world. It’s not stopped Shang Tsung stacking the deck though by recruiting shitbags like Scorpion, Subzero, Kano and various other bastards.
So it falls to the trio of fighters to systematically dispatch each sinister opponent, while Shang Tsung does his best to prevent them (specifically Liu Kang) from winning. As Raiden says with a laugh, the fate of billions will depend on one of them. Heavy, heavy stuff…
I must have borrowed this film off my mate Tristan on VHS a hundred times. It featured good action, a decent story, some cool effects, Sonya Blade in cut-off shorts and vest top (very important to teenage lads). And it was also one of those rare gems that you watch all the way to the end of the credits. This wasn’t because it had some stinger, like the Marvel films. It was simply because the sound track was that good. In fact, it was the first electronic dance music album to ever go platinum. Good-going composer George S. Clinton. He’d go on to do the music for the Austin Powers movies (for better or worse).
Twenty years later and coming across Mortal Kombat again on a streaming site I was worried it wouldn’t hold up. Lets be real here. It’s no Ong Bak or Raid. The martial arts is that of a pretty standard Americanised chop-socky movie. And as is typical of the genre, most of the actors without martial arts backgrounds are carefully shot to make them look way better than they actually are. But I still enjoyed it. I still got a buzz out of the music, the hilarious shouts of “MORTAL KOMBAT”, the awful CGI, and the actual “kombat” itself. I guess the take away is that you can still have as much fun getting drunk on a cheap bottle of cider as you can with an expensive wine.
The story is simple enough; a group of people are recruited to defeat a roster of badder-than-bad warriors in a simple tournament. Yet unlike those films (Best of the Best 2, Enter the Dragon, American Samurai, Bloodsport), they aren’t fighting for money, a woman, their lives or honour or anything lame like that. They’re fighting for the fate of the Earth. Each character has their moments, their lines and their own moves. Even the bad guys. Lindon Ashby (who does the majority of his own stunts) almost steals it from Christopher Lambert in terms of likability. He’s an arrogant bastard. But like Han Solo, he’s an arrogant bastard you can’t help but like him. In fact, it’s very much a Star Wars fighting homage. Liu is Luke, Johnny Han, and Sonja Leia. They even have a weird old mentor (Raiden) who has a history with the prime baddy (Tsung) who is only actually a lieutenant for worse evil off-screen!
Robin Shou is perhaps the most gifted of martial artists here (being a former stuntman who worked with Jackie Chan), so his stuff is pretty hardcore. His acting ability isn’t bad either with his “woe-is-me” backstory dialed down just enough for him to not come across as some emo gimp. I’ll give credit to Bridgette Wilson too – she took over the role from Cameron Diaz who broke her wrist in training. Wilson literally had a few weeks to learn all her stuff. She starts off as a bit grumpy and gung-ho but lightens up towards the end. I guess she does snap Kano’s neck with her legs, so mission accomplished right?
The great Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is also fantastic as Tsung. You’d swear he was British from the convincing accent he puts on. Some of his expressions are priceless too, all usually at the expense of his useless minions. He has a low tolerance for failure clearly. Like a gameshow host he also gets to spit out Mortal Kombat catchphrases like “Finish Him” “Fatality” and “Flawless Victory”. I enjoyed these little fan-moments. Some of them are obvious, but fit perfectly well into the movie. Easily my fave is Johnny Cage dropping a signed photo of himself at the burning corpse of Scorpion after their fight. “To my greatest fan”.
They spared no expense with Goro either. He’s a full blown animatronic. It’s a good thing too, as the CGI is truly shocking by today’s standards. But like the shark from Jaws, he was apparently a nightmare to get working. His fight with Johnny Cage is noticeably short due to this. But still, I love all the moments where he just raises all four arms in victory. I do take umbrage with that low blow against him though. What baffles me is that like in Bloodsport no one bats an eye at that shit. I guess it’s so we know this really is a no-holds barred contest. Plus I suppose it’s par for the course in a tournament where people are flinging about ice bolts and monster-headed grappling ropes. Fuck, continuous dick kicks would be my go-to move too if I was facing a dude with four arms.
Mortal Kombat came at a good time for the video game series too. Similar to Street Fighter 2, the sequel could perhaps be considered the best in the game lineage. By time MK3 hit it had become bloated with all sorts of nonsense characters like cyborgs, centaurs, and Goro’s girlfriend/sister/whatever. By taking characters from the first game only the story was allowed to remain pretty streamlined, affording each character some cool moments and fight scenes. Except for poor Art Lean who is just there to get fucked up by Goro.
In terms of video games becoming films, it remains one of the few nuggets of gold amidst an ocean of shite. Released only a few years after Super Mario Bros, and a year after the critically panned Street Fighter, it’s amazing it even got made in the first place.
So what sets it apart from Street Fighter? Ironically, Street Fighter featured the better, more well-known cast (JCVD, Raul Julia, Kylie Minogue, and Wes-Fucking-Studi) and a bigger budget. But it was terrible. Just terrible. Why? Probably because it tried too hard to be fan friendly. By focusing on making each character almost identical to their game counterparts, the filmmakers forgot they were making a fighting movie. And the fighting is utterly horrendous. That’s kind of a death knell for any martial arts movie or movie based on a game that is all about martial arts. It’s kind of like making a cash-in Fight Club video game purely based on fighting. It’s missing the point. Oh wait, they did make a Fight Club beat’em up?! Dibs on playing Bob I guess.
Traditionally there is a difference in philosophy between SF and MK too. While the baddie of Street Fighter is trying to take over the world, the entire game is still more grounded in realism. Yes, it does feature a guy with rubber arms and legs and a green dude who can channel electricity, but it still lacks the mysticism of Mortal Kombat. Shit like Outworld, the Emperor, Thunder Gods, Shang Tseung stealing souls and all that. It’s just way more interesting.
Plus the game also featured insane gore and invented the idea of a Fatality. “Finish Him” is as much a part of the cultural landscape as “Round One, Fight”. While the gore doesn’t make it to the film, fatalities do. Did anyone actually die in Street Fighter (except for Kylie Minogue’s acting career and Raul Julia for real – RIP)? People die in Mortal Kombat. People get frozen in ice, exploded, crushed, dropped off cliffs, beaten to death, necks snapped, souls stolen. What more could you want? Get it watched.