Mortal Kombat (1995) – Retro Showcase

1992 was a great year; we were introduced to the one game that would change the face of video games and pop culture forever. Mortal Kombat made its debut in arcades and eventually ported onto the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo systems. This spawned a cultural phenomenon that I was personally swept into, the martial arts craze. Around the same time as Mortal Kombat was introduced we also got Power Rangers and a whole slew of copycats that capitalized on the then current fad.

It was inevitable; a Mortal Kombat movie was in the works. This was long before we had the internet and could follow film productions and statuses; we only had rumors and word of mouth to go by when I was a kid. This was the way to go, no spoilers or casting rumors to get your hopes up. All we wanted to see as kids was cool martial arts and video game references – and that is exactly what we got. August 18th, 1995 was opening day and my friends and I were excited as all hell.

Hoping bus after bus to get to the theater and what I saw will stay with me my entire life and remains as the definitive 90’s nostalgia flick, everyone who played the game went to the movie and was blown away. It was everything a fan of the game would want, all of the great characters were there and all of the moves were presented in new visual effects technology.

The plot centers are three main characters, Liu Kang (Robin Shou), Johnny Cage (Linden Ahsby) and Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson) who are chosen in one way or another to participate in a tournament called Mortal Kombat. The tournament houses fighters from the Earth Realm and Outworld. Outworld consist of evil fighters and sorcerers who wish to invade Earth, winning 10 straight tournaments allow the losing realm to be invaded and consumed. Outworld has won 9. Our heroes must stop Shang Tsung and his warriors from winning.

I always found the plot pretty interesting and create a sense of dread, fear and desperation. Each character is well rounded; Liu Kang seeks revenge on Shang Tsung who killed his brother. Johnny Cage wants to prove that he is the real deal compared to his action films and Sonya wants to find and kill Kano who murdered her partner. So each person is in for selfish reasons only to find themselves fighting for the fate of billions of people.

I think the entire cast is great and portray their virtual counterparts well; this is also all thanks to Paul W.S. Anderson as writer and director. Anderson’s first American feature and doing Shopping in 1994, he would later go on to direct such classics as Event Horizon (1997), Death Race (2008) and create the Resident Evil saga. He clearly knows the source material and pays heavy tribute to the game throughout the entire film.

The big deal with this movie was the fight scenes, which still hold up well today. With great choreography combined with Anderson’s keen eye for detail and fantastic camera work make for some sensational and memorable scenes. Shot with wide angles without that close up hand to hand combat that is popular these days, the focus is on the choreography and not the intensity of the fight.

Paul W.S. Anderson adds some new touches which expand on the game (much like he did with the Resident Evil series), with the way Sub Zero summons his ice powers and the rope Scorpion uses actually being a creature that shoots from inside his hand. I remember these effects being absolutely mind blowing when I was younger, today they are a tad dated.

One thing that always stood out was the sets and locations, the temples with light forcing through which create these eerie beams of light still impress me. Especially the Scorpion vs. Johnny Cage fight, the symmetrical trees in the woods are astonishing. I actually used a similar set of woods in my film Kill Day. From the woods we go to Scorpion’s lair which consist of wooden structures covered in what looks like mold and moss and lit with a great red tint still looks great.

Probably the most notable thing to come from this film is the soundtrack, which gave us the Mortal Kombat theme we all know today by The Immortals. Come on – who didn’t have that album or the single?

Anderson did a great job by adding references from the source material without over populating the picture (much like the sequel), from signature moves to fatalities. The addition of Goro was pretty spectacular, today I know it is a mechanical effect but it’s still impressive. The vision of Outworld is very dark and pretty scary, which adds to the desperation to win the tournament.

For those who have seen this may have noticed some similar scenes from Enter The Dragon (1973), from the three warriors going to the island to the demonstration performed at the dinner to invoke fear in the challengers. Which is appropriate since the original games designs for Liu Kang was modeled after Bruce Lee. Which bring me to some interesting and not so well known facts; Cameron Diaz was originally cast as Sonya but broke her wrist before filming and had to drop out. Johnny Cage was modeled after Jean-Claude Van Damme and he was actually offered the role in Mortal Kombat but turned it down to do Street Fighter (1994), which turned out well.

It’s just kind of interesting to think of what the movie would have been if that cast had stuck throughout production. This movie would spawn an abysmal sequel with only two returning cast members and a story that contradicts everything that the first film built up. I might review that movie another time.

I still find this movie entertaining, not perfect but entertaining. It’s a nice trip down memory lane and an interesting look at what was popular, it’s still a good action flick that knows exactly what kind of movie it is and the audience that it’s intended for. If you have time I would pop this bad boy in and give it a watch. Unfortunately there is no Blu-ray version and the DVD copy is poorly encoded and the sound in a little muffled. So I recommend the Lasersdisc version which has a commentary (the DVD does not).

Also try to find the VHS called Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins, which is an animated film which explains the characters origins and has a cool making of the Mortal Kombat movie which doesn’t exist on any DVD version.