The Anti-Street Fighter: Revisiting Mortal Kombat

Rod gets into his fighting stance to stick up for Paul W.S. Anderson’s first attempt at bringing a video game to the screen. Happy twentieth!

Mortal Kombat (1995) celebrates its twentieth anniversary this month. It is a film adaptation of the video games of the same name. It was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, who had previously directed the little-seen cult film Shopping (1994), and Mortal Kombat was his first big budget Hollywood studio film. It is one of his better movies in my opinion, the other one being Event Horizon (1997).

The film stars Robin Shou as Liu Kang, Linden Ashby as Johnny Cage, Bridgette Wilson as Sonya Blade, Christopher Lambert as Rayden (God of Thunder and Lightning), the late Trevor Goddard as Kano, Talisa Soto (from the Bond film Licence to Kill) as Princess Kitana, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (also in Licence to Kill) as Shang Tsung, Gregory McKinney as Jax (a minor appearance), as well as a cameo by John Carpenter-regular Peter Jason (Prince of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness) and the voice talents of Frank Welker (Megatron).

In previous years, there had already been a few movies based on video games, such as Super Mario Bros. (1993), Double Dragon (1994) and Street Fighter (1994). These were poorly-received upon release because they didn’t properly represent the games themselves. By the time the MK movie was released, Mortal Kombat (1992), Mortal Kombat II (1993) and Mortal Kombat 3 (1995) were available at arcades and ported to various consoles (during the end credits, there is actually a code that can be used in Mortal Kombat 3).

The film is mainly an adaptation of the first game in the series, so the basic story is similar. Earth is one of many realms that exist and there was once a beautiful one known as Edenia. However, the evil Shao Kahn took over the realm, crowned himself Emperor, adopted Princess Kitana, and turned Edenia into a wasteland known as Outworld. The goal of Kahn is to take over Earth, and to do this, his forces must win ten straight victories in the tournament known as Mortal Kombat, of which they have currently won nine. The current reigning champion is the four-armed Shokan named Prince Goro, and Kahn’s sorcerer Shang Tsung has an island where this tournament takes place.

In the games, you have the initial setup for each story, with each character having their own reason for entering the tournament. Whichever fighter you choose to complete the game will have a certain outcome, which may or may not be canon in the next entry. So, when it came to an adaptation, they adhered to the overarching story and character motivations, albeit with some additions/changes here and there (Rayden doesn’t fight, Liu Kang faces off against some random fighter, a fan of Johnny Cage’s named Art fights and loses against Goro, Liu Kang wants revenge for his brother and so on). They also incorporated characters such as Jax, Reptile and Kitana.

The key to the success of this adaptation, in my eyes, is that it takes the structure of films such as Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973) and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Bloodsport (1988) and really makes it compliment the one-on-one fighting gameplay of the source. This is something all video game translations should strive to do – find out how to incorporate relevant gameplay elements, concentrate on bringing the story to life properly, and apply all of that to a certain structure (for example, a Splinter Cell film should probably have scenes of stealth).

The fight sequences in this movie are choreographed extremely well. One of my favourites is Liu Kang, Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade versus a group of Shang Tsung’s warriors, who attack them the night before the tournament actually begins, which is edited together brilliantly with great shots cut together with awesome music. As the film progresses, there are various one-on-one rumbles which take place, also with great score and choreography, such as Cage versus Scorpion, Sonya versus Kano, Kang versus Sub Zero, Cage versus Goro, Kang versus Reptile (my personal favourite fight of the entire film), and Kang versus Tsung.

The games were, of course, famously known for their explicit violence. You had the blood which spurts out as a result of blunt attacks, but the main source of gore came from “Fatalities” initiated by the player, using a certain combination of buttons at the end of a fight which had to be pressed quickly. When it comes to the film, there are minor Fatalities but they aren’t necessarily over-the-top like the games – Sub Zero freezes one of Shang Tsung’s warriors as he performs a jumping kick towards him, resulting in the warrior smashing into pieces upon hitting the ground. If I had to point out something that wasn’t exactly in-line with the games, it would certainly be the Fatalities, but this doesn’t really affect my overall feelings about the movie.

All the actors do a really good job in their roles, with the standouts for me being Shou and Ashby. There’s so many great lines of dialogue and character exchanges, with one of my favourites being, “Those were two-hundred dollar sunglasses asshole,” spoken by Cage to Goro after crusging his specs. Tagawa makes for a great Shang Tsung, really giving the character a charisma and glee that is effective. Highlander‘s Lambert makes a lasting impression in his portrayal of Rayden, giving him a sense of humour that the character doesn’t possess in the games but fits in with the version you see in this movie. Wilson brings Sonya to life really well, too.

Anderson’s film has an excellent soundtrack. It is a combination of songs from many artists including Fear Factory and Stabbing Westward (they have three songs featured that aren’t on the actual soundtrack itself), and other pieces composed by George S. Clinton. The main title theme of Mortal Kombat became one of the most well-known themes in film history – I certainly can’t think of the franchise without hearing that theme in my head… it is so iconic:

The only real criticism I have is the cringeworthy appearance of a giant Shao Kahn at the end of the film who says, “You weak pathetic fools, I’ve come for your souls!”, to which Rayden replies – while he and the others shift into their fighting stances – “I don’t think so.” The special visual effects were decent at the time, and they’re certainly not amazing now, but they’re not horrible either. They are definitely not as abysmal as those used in this film’s sequel, Mortal Kombat: Abomination… um, I mean Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.

Overall, 1995’s Mortal Kombat would prove to become one of the most commercially successful movies based on a video game when you consider the competition it had at the time, but it also stands on its own merits, and I personally feel that it is still one of the best game to movie adaptations ever made.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  •  The film’s soundtrack went platinum in less than two weeks.
  • Brandon Lee was originally cast as Johnny Cage, but died before production began.
  • When Cage defeats Scorpion, he throws at his corpse an autographed photo of himself. In the Mortal Kombat games, this is Cage’s “Friendship” finishing move.
  • Cameron Diaz was originally set to play Sonya Blade, but she broke her wrist before filming and was replaced by Bridgette Wilson-Sampras.
  • Steven Spielberg, an avid fan of video games, in particular the Mortal Kombat series, was set to make a cameo appearance as the director in Johnny Cage’s first scene. However scheduling conflicts forced him to back out. Nonetheless, the “director” character in this scene does resemble Spielberg, which is most likely a reference to this.

Rod Petrie

Gamer since 1988 at the age of five. First system was the Nintendo Entertainment System. Favourite retro systems - NES, SNES, N64, MegaDrive, PS1, and PS2.

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