MORTAL KOMBAT: A Handful of People in a Leaky Boat are Gonna Save the World

Mortal Kombat (1995) – Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson – Starring Robin Shou, Linden Ashby, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Bridgette Wilson, Christopher Lambert, and Talisa Soto.

I’m not really into martial arts movies. The ballet and physical awesomeness of watching two combatants dance with kicks and punches is mostly lost on me. Don’t get me wrong – if a martial arts movie has a good story and characters I can like it just fine, but my eyes glaze over when we start getting all that copious punching and kicking and grunting. It’s just Not My Thing. But hey, I like watching cars race around an oval for a few hours, so I’m not trying to make it like I’m better than you or anything. I just want you to know where I come from with these movies.

Martial Arts Movies: Less My Thing than NASCAR, More My Thing than Golf.

It follows that my interest in MORTAL KOMBAT is more because of its sci-fi leanings and because it was based on what was, at one time, the coolest video game in the history of history. The plot is familiar enough to martial arts’ fans: There’s a super secret martial arts tournament. A group of possible combatants become temporary allies and move their way through the tournament, facing off against bad guys. The fate of the world is at stake.

Despite some bad acting and silly dialogue, the film is eminently watchable. Director Paul W.S. Anderson (The “W.S.” stands for “Not the Guy who Directed Boogie Nights“) does a great job with pacing, keeping everything flowing fast and quick, giving you just enough talking to provide the context for the fighting. If you know the video games there’s a constant stream of things to keep you interested: you can spend the whole film going, “Ooh, there’s Jax! And Raiden! Sub-Zero just froze that guy!” If you’re not knowledgeable about the games, there’s still cool thing after cool thing happening to keep you from getting bored.

There’s not a whole lot of character development, of course, but Anderson manages to make the simple characters effective by limiting what they need to do: Johnny Cage is either gonna be Hollywood, hit on a woman, decry that he doesn’t get any respect, or kick someone. Liu Kang is going to say this is silly, talk about avenging his dead brother, make doe eyes at Kitana, or kick someone. Sonya Blade is going to sneer, sneer, or kick someone.

Anderson does a great job of just keeping things moving, spinning you from character to character quick enough to build momentum, and then when you get to the fights they’re visually pretty cool. I have no idea if the martial arts is top notch, but I know that Sub-Zero freezing some dude and then breaking him into tiny chunks is awesome. I know that seeing a snake-like harpoon shoot out of Scorpion’s palm is awesome. I know Goro kicking butt with his four arms is … well, okay, it’s cheezy as hell but it fits with the whole Outworld theme.

The backgrounds help the film, too, because Anderson keeps rotating you through different settings so nothing ever gets too boring – at the very least, you keep seeing cool looking new stuff pop up to background all the punching and kicking.

What hurts the film is that all of the cool characters from the video game are the bad guys, and the film takes some of the lamest characters as the good guys. This isn’t the fault of the film as much as it is the conventions of the game. Anderson couldn’t very well make Sub-Zero and Scorpion the good guys because he’d be inverting the game and leaving no cool bad guys. But really, who ever played Johnny Cage? Or Sonya? Or even Liu Kang? We always wanted to be Sub-Zero, Scorpion, or my favorite, Baraka, who’s not even in the movie. Kitana was the most kick-ass female character in the game, but here she’s this trapped Princess who never really does anything except help the heroes on the sly.

The only good guy character people ever wanted to play was Raiden, and here they turn him into the Gandalf figure, with Christopher Lambert departing wisdom and advice and popping in whenever the movie needs someone to advance the plot.

Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is the real star of the film as the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung. He delivers all his lines like he’s taking them completely seriously and that gravitas helps you feel like there’s actually something at stake.

MORTAL KOMBAT works because the filmmakers concentrate on making a simple story enjoyable instead of trying to turn it into something it’s not.