It’s been 20 years since the Mortal Kombat movie was in theaters. This is particularly shocking to me because I watched it several times in the theater the fall of my freshman year of college. Where did the time go? In my opinion, it seems that it was one of the only truly great video game movies. Now, that might (emphasis on might) change next year when Michael’s Fassbender’s Assassin’s Creed is released on December 21st, 2016. But, if you’ve played any Assassin’s Creed, you know that the present day memory-time-travel bit will be a little confusing to put on screen.
Most video games these days have great stories behind them, and have profits to rival movie profits. However, back in 1992 when the first Mortal Kombat game was released, stories were simpler. Essentially Ed Boon and John Tobias created a martial-arts fantasty-themed fighting game that quickly became famous – or perhaps infamous – for the high levels of insane cartoon violence. Oh – and replacing “C”s with a “K” (time to kollect your koins to spend in the krypt).
It also had ‘finishing moves’, so that if you beat your opponent, you then have the option of completely dispatching them in a horrific way – provided you can figure out the combination of buttons to push. I do remember playing MK1 in the arcade at the movie theater and at home, and figuring out Scorpion’s finishing move – and then being really impressed with myself. To be fair – it was down, down, punch – so not too complicated.
The plot of the original game was that there are multiple realms created by the elder gods, who then decreed that the ruler of any one realm could only conquer another realm by defeating the realm’s greatest warriors in ten consecutive Mortal Kombat tournaments. So – the game is the tournament. The first game was somewhat groundbreaking in that it was made with digitized sprites based on film actors. Essentially – it was motion capture before motion capture was a commonly used thing.
I love these games, I bought my PS1 so that I could play Mortal Kombat Triology. I bought my PS2 so that I could play MK Deadly Alliance and Armageddon. I bought my PS3 so I could play the reboot and MK vs DC Universe – and I finally bought a PS4 to play MKX. My favorite was the Deception/Deadly Alliance/Shaolin Monks trilogy which basically all told the same story.
In Deception – you play as Shujinko, who starts as a regular kid, but ends up aging to an old man over the course of the game as he travels from realm to realm studying with all the different game characters. This one did insist you try to learn ridiculous combos to use for each character – but let’s be real, you don’t remember any of that when playing the game – it’s just button mashing.
By the time they got to the later versions of these games, they had started to take on a very cinematic quality. This is the opening to Armageddon.
In 1995, the first movie was released – which was somewhat inevitable, based on the success of the game. It was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (Event Horizon, Resident Evil, AVP, Death Race, Resident Evil 4, The Three Musketeers, Resident Evil 5, Pompeii – and RE 6 will be out next year), before he met and married Milla Jovovich, which is why she’s not in this. Basically – he took the plot of the first game, and translated it into a silly and fun movie that had great action and martial arts fights.
The movie starts with people receiving their invites to the tournament, and we follow former Shaolin monk Lui Kang, military officer Sonya Blade (who was the most popular character in the very first game), and martial arts movie star Johnny Cage. During the invitation-receiving scenes, we learn just enough about each character to learn what their flaws are and clearly understand that they will have to overcome those flaws to make it out of the tournament. No part of this movie is subtle. Liu is looking for revenge for losing his brother to the sorcerer Shang Tsung; Sonya is obsessed with finding criminal Kano – and refusing to ask for help from anyone; and Johnny – well, Johnny just seems to be a bit of a dick whose insane amount of luggage is repeatedly used for a gag.
They all get picked up by a mystical ship that comes in with the fog. While on the ship – the sorcerer Shang Tsung greets them, and gloats about how he has both legendary ninjas Scorpion and Sub-Zero under his power and working for him. As the gloating starts to turn into what could become a fight – Raiden shows up and interrupts everyone by lightning around the boat – because he can turn into lightning.
He then very clearly provides some quick exposition about the tournament and what flaw each of our three heroes will need to overcome, in case you missed the heavy-handed character development earlier. Upon arrival at the tournament island – Shang Tsung does some more gloating by laying out a huge feast, and bragging about Prince Goro, and how he’s undefeated. We get to see SubZero demonstrate his power, and then everyone is sent to bed without eating.
Instead of heading to bed, our heroes start sneaking around the palace. Liu sees Pricess Kitana, and immediately gets smitten – Sonya sees Kano eating with Goro, and Johnny continues to be a dick. They get into a fight with some guards and finally call it a night. The next day – we get to see some of the tournament fights.
Johnny takes on Scorpion – Sonya eliminates Kano by using some of her trademark moves from the game; and Liu gets a warning from Kitana in a fight with her that I think he lost. He then uses the heavy-handed advice from her to defeat SubZero.
We then finally get to see Goro in action as he takes on Art Lean (a character so fun that my brother and I still quote his lines back and forth to each other – “I’ve seen some of your movies, you can’t fake those moves!” an average line made great by fun delivery).
Our heroes put together a loose plan which involves Johnny challenging Goro – winning by nut-punching him to knock him off a cliff (again, a move of his from the game); Shang Tsung panics and grabs Sonya, then heads to Outworld - a different realm, basically cheating. What? The bad guy is cheating?!? Raiden gives some last minute advice as Liu and Johnny head through to finish it. Liu fights Reptile while Johnny seems to disappear for a moment, then they get to the final fight, and spoiler alert – he defeats Shang Tsung by learning to conquer his own fears – they rescue Sonya (which is something I hated, she’s badass – she shouldn’t be getting kidnapped and needing rescue…maybe it was a setup?). Then they all head back home, just in time to chat with Raiden about how he had faith in them the whole time right before that Shao Khan decides to try to invade anyway.
That’s a lot of things, but there were actually things that got cut that would have been awesome. There was supposed to be more of a love story between Liu and Kitana, which probably wasn’t necessary. There would have been a battle between Sonya and Jade – which would have been cool. There was supposed to be a scene where they buried Art Lean under a statue of Kung Lao. What we did get was a terrible sequel – and while Brian Johnson was a pretty good Shao Khan, the rest of the movie was terrible. They butchered my favorite character Mileena, but had a pretty awesome Jax.
Paul W.S. Anderson is great on visuals, and this movie first and foremost, looks amazing. The pieces that were shot in Thailand are beautiful.
The fights are all fantastic and the movie benefits from casting real martial artists in the roles.
- Robin Shou had done plenty of movies over in Hong Kong before doing this as his first American movie (which he followed with the Chris Farley comedy, Beverly Hills Ninja). If you want to see a fantastic movie with him and Cynthia Rothrock – watch Honor and Glory. He centers the movie as Liu Kang, being the only one not surprised by what’s happening all the time. Russell Wong, Dustin Nguyen, Keith Cooke and Phillip Rhee all auditioned to play Liu Kang, but I’m thrilled that Shou got it. He’s amazing – plus – that hair! Spectacular!
- Bridgette Willson-Sampras (she’s married to tennis start Pete Sampras) played Sonya Blade after Cameron Diaz broke her wrist in training before filing began. She was fine, but honestly, I would have preferred more of a fighter, but she was certainly capable.
- Linden Ashby played Johnny Cage, after it was offered to Jean-Claude van Damme. He was a green belt in karate, and did his best to be the smarmy Cage. He was really fun – especially at the beginning before his redemption. Anderson used him again in RE3, which may have been my favorite of the RE movies.
- Talisa Soto played Princess Kitana – and aside from her one fight with Liu, in which she definitely used her fans, she mainly does a lot of standing around looking intensely at Liu Kang.
- Trevor Goddard played Kano who was never Australian in the game, but after Goddard’s performance, he certainly became Australian in any other incarnations. Goddard was big, beefy, and chewed all the scenery! I still have no idea if he's claiming his knife put a big smile on Sonya's partner from "here to here" or "ear to ear". Either way - ewww.
- Chris Casamassa (my absolute favorite WMAC Master – Hakim Alston also shows up in the movie) played Scorpion,, and does get to do his finishing move.
- Francois Petit played SubZero, very slick and fun. Both he and Casamassa are excellent martial artists, and really elevated the fight sequences.
- Kenneth Edwards played the plucky Art Lean, who was super fun right up until he ran into Goro.
- Christopher Lambert – who was amazing in Highlander – played Raiden, or Rayden, depending on what version you’re playing at the time. He brought a sense of fun and lightness to the movie that would have not been there otherwise. Also – he paid for the wrap party on his own, since the production had run out of money by then.
- Easily the best part of this movie is Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Shang Tsung – endlessly quotable, perfectly cheesy, and seethingly evil, he’s just fantastic. He glides through this movie like he’s having a great time. In real life, he's a very chill Hawaiian with a ton of martial arts skill - but here, he's creepy, especially when lusting after Sonya.
- And Goro was animatronic. Nowadays, he'd be CGI - back then, he was a big time puppet.
Overall, it’s tons of fun. Yes, the story is lame, and yes, the acting isn’t great – but the scenery is beautiful, the fights are awesome, and the soundtrack was all EDM before EDM was a thing! Here’s that song, good luck getting it out of your head.
10 out of 10 – one of my all time favorites.
Bonus Video 1: Okay - maybe it had some flaws...
Bonus Video 2: Mortal Kombat Legacy – Machinima made several short episodes of this, and it’s a little more R-rated. Okay - a lot more R-rated. Honestly, it made me really happy the movie was PG13. Yikes.
Bonus Video 3: Speaking of more R Rated, Conan sat down to play the new MKX game with the Patriots Rob Gronkowski and the Seahawks Marshawn Lynch before the last superbowl.
Bonus Video 4: Mortal Kombat Conquest – the short lived TV show set before the movie and focused on Kung Lao. Yeah, this was totally a thing.
Bonus Video 5: Behind the scenes fun: