Mortal Kombat: A Kase Study
Some classic films make their mark early by having an incredible, iconic opening. Who could forget the desperate plea to Don Corleone beginning with “I believe in America” a subversive and emblematic statement on the American dream that would define the Godfather trilogy? Or what about the overwhelming Star Destroyer dominating the screen in pursuit of Princess Leia in Star Wars: A New Hope? Not to mention the epic swell of Also Sprach Zarathustra playing over the visual splendour of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But in 1995 one film opening became the alpha of the pack, finally showing audiences what cinema should be. A piercing yell of “Mortal Kombat!” (outracing even the New Line Cinema logo) launches the audience into the bizarre world of God-sanctioned martial arts. With the iconic, chart-topping - Techno Syndrome, the tone is set perfectly for the madness to follow.
With the likes of Super Mario Bros, Double Dragon and Street Fighter there is such a clearly defined difference in sensibilities when it comes to adapting games to the big screen. These three took bizarre creative liberties with the source material and were decisions that completely missed the point of what made the original properties so delightful to fans.
Gone is the whimsy of giant fire-breathing turtle Bowser, but replaced with Dennis Hopper in a plain business suit. The simple “save your girlfriend from a mean gang” premise of Double Dragon is switched over to a now flooded future dystopia. As for Street Fighter, well simply put, there is no actual fighting in the streets, rather a bizarre blend of military war, and James Bond-like antics.
While there is a certain admirable madness to these decisions it speaks volumes about what little regard studios had for the young medium of video games.
So enter Paul WS Anderson. Hot off the back of his debut film Shopping, it’s a bizarre leap to go from crime drama to martial arts VFX showcase yet this seemed to be a perfect playground for Anderson to play in. Smashing together Enter the Dragon with Bloodsport is such a simple yet perfect premise it’s almost bizarre that fighting game films like Tekken and Street Fighter didn’t follow suit.
Though many of the effects are dated now (Reptile being the most egregious) there’s still a lot of superb model work to be appreciated. The four-armed Goro for example looks just like a Harryhausen throwback. Ray Harryhausen never had one of his creatures receive a severe punch to the testicles though... His loss.
Anderson’s embrace of the wackier video game elements was a breath of fresh air after the non-committal approach of earlier films in the sub-genre. Especially as not enough credit is given to the production's use of wire-work, as it embraced the martial art film tradition that The Matrix would later popularise in the West.
That fact the film embraced having an Asian lead rather than say, making American macho-man Johnny Cage the protagonist is a welcome surprise for a mid-90’s blockbuster. Side-stepping dull colour-swapped mascots Scorpion and Sub-Zero was also a wise move, instead, using them for some stand-out battles.
Speaking of performances there are two clear standouts among the cast. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa makes his mark as the villainous Shang Tsung almost immediately, murdering the hero’s brother whilst announcing “Your brother’s soul is mine… You will be next!” He perfectly captures a tone between camp and actual threat, delivering the “finish him” and “fatality” references so well you can forgive how on the nose they are.
Highlander’s own Christopher Lambert gives an admirably demented performance as manic god Raiden. Caught between solemn ethereal godliness and the dirty cackling of a drunken uncle at a wedding, Raiden is a memorably odd play on the Ben Kenobi/ Gandalf style mentor. The optics of an American-French man playing a Japanese god is one regrettable misstep but the schlocky joy of Lambert’s portrayal is too good to resist.
The confidence in blending magic, mad-science and kung-fu perfectly encapsulates the energy of the games whilst mostly ignoring the edginess that made them a pearl-clutching controversy at the time. However, Anderson and company didn’t need ludicrous violence to make a hit, just a banging soundtrack, a cast who understood the material and an actual sense of wonder that is routinely absent in-game adaptations.
Although the hyper-manic final scene promises a sequel (seen in Mortal Kombat Annihilation, one of mankind’s most confusing achievements) this film easily functions as a stand-alone venture, the promise of eternal fighting perfectly in line with the never-ending nature of the series. Yes, you can rip off Sonya Blades head or immolate Goro but they’ll be back as soon as you hit that character select screen.
Though a game-over screen may tempt you with the immortal question “continue?” the Mortal Kombat film series never really needed to. Whether the new film is a franchise fatality or not remains to be seen but Anderson’s picture remains a steadfast example of an almost flawless victory.
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