Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, May 4, 2019

VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: Mortal Kombat (1995)

“Mortal Kombat” was a pop culture phenomenon in the nineties. The video games paired hoary kung-fu movie cliches – pretty standard for fighting games – with sci-fi and fantasy elements. Mostly, the game's gory Fatalities sparked controversy like the video game world had never seen before. The initially secret nature of unlocking these graphic moves and the calls for censorship made “Mortal Kombat” the hottest topic among playground debates. To cash in on the video games' popularity, there were comics, a best selling album, and, of course, a movie. The cinematic “Mortal Kombat” would become an unexpectedly big hit in 1995, staying atop the box office for three weeks. It was a movie I watched and loved a lot as a kid so I'm curious to see if it'll hold up.

The video game “Mortal Kombat” was inspired by films like “Enter the Dragon” and “Bloodsport,” so it's fitting the film similarly draws from these sources. Once a generation, a fighting tournament is held between the forces of Earth and the forces of Outworld, a diabolical separate reality. Outworld's champion is soul-stealing sorcerer Shang Tsung. Among Earth's chosen heroes are Liu Kang, a former monk who wants revenge against Tsung for killing his little brother; Sonya Blade, a special forces agent who is hunting gangster Kano; and Johnny Cage, a martial arts movie star eager to prove his ability. With the guidance of thunder god Raiden, these three face off against the forces of Outworld. Such as the multi-armed Goro, the demonic Scorpion, and the superpowered Sub-Zero.

“Mortal Kombat: The Video Game” was notorious for its bloody finishing moves. Even if those original Fatalities come off as hopelessly tame by modern standards, ripping off someone's head in a movie will still probably get you an R-rating. In order to appeal to the games' core demographic of young boys, the cinematic “Mortal Kombat” was rated PG-13. Even without the games' famous decapitations and heart-rippings, the movie still gleefully embraces the franchise's 12 year old boy aesthetic. This is a movie that not only has the balls to introduce a ten foot tall, four-armed humanoid – played by slightly stiff but still solid animatronics – but then punches him in the balls. Save for the blood, the film perfectly captures the juvenile spirit of the games.

This knowingly ridiculous embrace of coolness above all else is evident in everything about the film. The production design is heavy on totally bitchin' stone statues and spooky old temples. The soundtrack is composed almost entirely of thumping techno and wailing guitars, the already established “Mortal Kombat” theme song playing twice. Mostly, we see this wonderful excess in Paul W. S. Anderson's direction. Fighting moves are often shown in slow motion. Fight scenes have tiger roars randomly inserted. There's gratuitous P.O.V. shots, of people and objects being punched or flying through the air. The camera whips, crashes, zooms, and flings throughout the settings. Anderson frequently employs extreme color grading, like ice cold blues or earthy purples, throughout the film. It's all horribly over-the-top, which means it's all perfectly suited to “Mortal Kombat.”

Yes, the writing is not especially sharp. The narrative is constructed largely to facilitate a series of action scenes. Once on the island, fights can begin at any time and frequently do. In the last act, the film leans on the cliché of a damsel-in-distress, Shang Tsung abducting Sonya Blade. Minor characters are introduced early on, just so they can die and motivate the protagonists later. Shoot-outs happen in crowded dance clubs and nobody even stops dancing. Kitana is a character that exists largely to spout exposition. At one point, she tells Liu Kang exactly the kind of challenges he'll face in his final fight. And then he faces them, in the same order he was informed. And this is discounting shit happening for no reason, like the CGI monster Reptile fusing with a random statue so he can turn into humanoid ninja Reptile for a big fight scene.

It's very, very dumb but the whole thing is so action-packed and fast-paced you hardly notice. Compared to the kind of Hong Kong-style action you might be expecting, the fights in “Mortal Kombat” can come off a little sluggish. Johnny Cage's introductory scuffle on a film set or a three-way battle between our heroes and a crowd of masked goons aren't as fast as they should be. However, things quickly pick up. Liu Kang's acrobatic kicks and leaps sure are cool. His fight with Sub-Zero, which is sometimes framed as in the video game, escalates nicely. Johnny Cage's showdown with Scorpion, in a hellish underworld setting, is by far the combat high-light of the movie. There's plenty of jumping, flipping, and mortal wounding. However, it does face some stiff competition between the gloriously over-the-top melee with Reptile and the final fight with Shang Tsung, which features some brutal and personal blows.

Holding this entire, very silly enterprise together is a series of tongue-in-cheek performances. Robin Shou is a gifted martial artist. Yet he also gives Liu Kang a puckish sense of humor, shown in the scene where he tosses Johnny Cage's luggage in the ocean. Shou is also capable of making the ridiculous, melodramatic dialogue sound totally natural. Sonya Blade is not an especially complex character, as she largely just gruffly bark dialogue while being a ruthless bad-ass. Yet Bridgette Wilson certainly does these things with style and grace. Linden Ashby provides much of the film's comic relief as Johnny Cage. Ashby gets a number of genuinely funny lines, about sunglasses and high school. Touches like these let the audience know that it's okay to laugh at this ridiculous motion picture.

The hammy supporting cast does that too. Christopher Lambert is odd casting for an Asian god of thunder. However, Lambert brings a surprising levity to the part of Raiden. He likes to crack jokes and make absurd observations, contrasting with his stately status as an all-knowing god. If Lambert is cracking jokes, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa plays Shang Tsung as high opera. He shouts every line with as much ominous energy as possible. The same overwhelming intensity is brought to his similarly exaggerated body language. Trevor Goddard is also entertaining as Kano, which he plays as a sleazeball who enjoys being so ridiculously evil.

In other words, a delicate balance of ingredients make “Mortal Kombat” surprisingly entertaining. The over-the-top direction could've been obnoxious. The thin story easily could've been distracting. The goofy performances might've strayed into the territory of grating. The cheesy CGI special effects, used to animated Reptile's native form and Scorpion's spears, could've been just shitty, instead of charmingly shitty. Somehow, when these elements are put together in just the right amount, “Mortal Kombat” succeeds. I watched the VHS tape probably fifty times as a kid and every time, the movie left me with a big cheesy grin on my face. Even my mom, who had no tolerance for video games and limited interest in action films, became a fan. Watching now as an adult, I still feel much the same way. [7/10]

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