Games on the Silver Screen: Mortal Kombat

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The above symbol for anyone who was around in the 90’s, even if they weren’t involved  in video games, should be pretty familiar. There is a rather storied history with this franchise including a series of court cases which led to the creation of the ESRB – Entertainment Software Rating Board. In spite of the controversy surrounding it the series went on to spawn more than twenty games and various movies as well as a smaller live-action series released on YouTube. In addition to that it’s also had a fairly successful comic book run which was going as recent as 2015. Many people may rightfully question how something as shallow as a fighting game could warrant so many retellings in story based mediums. Outside of the brutal and sometimes hilarious ways you can dispatch your opponents in the game there actually exists an impressively robust story explaining the games many characters. For the sake of some form of brevity I will spare you the lengthy version of that lore and give you the basic rundown from the game so we can compare to the eventual movie.

What You Need To Know

The universe of Mortal Kombat is made up of different “Realms” which are actually distinct planets instead of separate planes of existence. In the actual lore the number of realms is actually closer to 15-20 but for the sake of simplicity these are all we’re going to see in the movie.

  • Outworld – A purplish barren wasteland pockmarked by pools of acid, deserts and even the occasional lush forest it is the home of most of the series prominent antagonists. It is technically the amalgamation of a few different realms that Outworld’s Emperors have conquered, but thats for another time.
  • NetherrealmHell.
  • Earthrealm – Pretty much what you would think from the name. It’s the Earth realm, an Earth so close to our own that the distinction seems unnecessary. I guess they have more magic than we do, whatever.

The Mortal Kombat Tournament –

Mortal Kombat was set up by the Elder Gods of this universe after Outworld went on a conquering spree and became much too powerful for other realms to effectively stand up to them. The rules of the tournament however extend to any realm who wishes to invade another. Once a generation the two competing realms send their champions to a single elimination tournament to fight for supremacy. When there is only one left standing they are crowned champion until the next generation when the competition happens again. If one of the competing realms can attain ten straight victories then they may invade the losing realm.

Er, yeah. Try not to think about it too much, this is all based on a fighting game after all.

Who You Need To Know

So lets get to know our all-star cast who will be punching, kicking and, quipping their way to victory.

First up is the rather incredible introduction to our main villain, Shang Tsung.

Shang Tsung

Shang Tsung Wants You! To Join the Mortal Kombat Tournament.

On the left there we have the Outworld sorcerer and all-around soul sucker Shang Tsung portrayed by the incredible Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Shang Tsung in the name of Shao Kahn the Emperor of Outworld, who you’ll see only glimpses of, is on the brink of making Earthrealm yet another in a long line of conquered planets.

Our scowling villain and his champion Goro (Not the kid in red.) have managed to win nine consecutive tournaments against Earthrealm prior to the events of the movie and first game. Shang Tsung has set plans in motion to lure a couple unwitting participants to the tournament so he can secure a guaranteed tenth win. Earth stands on the brink of invasion and it’s up to our heroes to save the day.

First up is Liu Kang who was raised a Chinese Shaolin fighting monk specializing mainly in Jeet Kun Do and Kung Fu. Also he’s been having some restless nights recently.

Liu Kang

If you’re getting a strong Bruce Lee vibe don’t worry, it’s not just you.

Liu Kang, played by Robin Shou, was raised as a member of the White Lotus Society who trained fighters specifically to compete in Mortal Kombat for the defense of Earthrealm. In the movie Liu Kang left the monastery and moved to America as he didn’t believe in the legends and wanted his own life. The catalyst for him returning was due to the boy in red with Shang Tsung, his brother Chan Kang. Desperate to bring down the man responsible the journey would eventually land Liu Kang front and center at the tournament.

Next up is the no-shit taking law enforcement officer, Lieutenant Sonya Blade. In the movie she works special forces for an undisclosed agency and is introduced along with a brief interaction with her partner, Jax, another character from the game.

Sonya Blade

Lt. Sonya Blade, portrayed by Bridgette Wilson, is pursuing a criminal by the name of Kano (Also from the game) who is responsible for the murder of her previous partner. In the film Kano has been recruited by Shang Tsung to lure Sonya to the tournament grounds under the guise of fleeing justice. Once there she will have to enter the tournament representing Earthrealm for her shot at vengeance.

Note: I just want to note how hilariously awful the flashlight mounts for those shotguns are. Really props department, really? I too can stick a mag-light down some spray-painted PVC pipe and call it a day.

Finally our cast of heroes is rounded out by Johnny Cage, a highly trained and exceptionally skilled martial artist who is seeking for ways to prove his legitimacy on the world stage…

Johnny Cage

… Because in reality he’s an action movie star who is constantly accused of his skill on screen being all thanks to special effects and good editing. With his ego and reputation on the line Johnny Cage, portrayed by Linden Ashby, is eager for any chance to prove that he isn’t a pretender. Shang Tsung takes advantage of this by using his sorcerous powers to pose as Cage’s former mentor offering a chance to compete in a tournament that would remove all doubt of his true skill. Cage accepts and finally our three heroes are on a course to defend Earthrealm.

While more of a “hands off” participant in the tournament I do want to take a moment to introduce Raiden the Eternal God of Thunder who is the protector of Earthrealm.

Raiden

If he’s the protector of the realm then why isn’t he fighting for it? Simple answer is that Raiden, portrayed by Christopher Lambert, is more of the guy who enforces the rules but doesn’t really get into the nitty-gritty of it. Instead he helps recruit the fighters who will do the actual defending. His movie role centers on convincing the three heroes that there is more going on than they understand or may believe. Once they’re on board Raiden is there to protect them from Shang Tsung’s scheming and help guide them through the tournament while they fight for Earthrealm’s survival.

NoteI wasn’t originally intending to include a gif of Raiden but honestly it’s one of the funniest reveals ever. Seeing the face of Christopher Lambert appear under that conical hat never ceases to make me laugh. Sorry, Highlander.

That’s the down and dirty set-up for Mortal Kombat the movie, now lets talk about how they did putting it all together.

The Review

First a quick rundown of the numbers –

Production Budget – $20m
Opening Weekend – $23m 
Domestic Gross – $70m 
International Gross – $51m 
Worldwide Gross – $122m 

 

If you’re like me those numbers were quite a shock because even as a fan of the franchise and having seen the movie when it released I remember it being cheesy and terrible. Admittedly a fun time but by no means a good movie. Those box office numbers are bordering on smash hit for the time, certainly a tidy profit. Even looking at it’s rankings on various records like New Line Cinema’s biggest opening weekends it sits at 27. For context this is the same company who produced the Lord of the Rings movies.
So how did this happen?

You’re kind of asking for trouble when you decide to take a fighting game and put it up in theaters as a feature length film. Not because a lack of lore fluff to work with but rather because the general mentality will lean towards action heavy and story light meaning no substance. Or someone will decide that they’ll be the ones to really show the mythology behind the game and make an unnecessarily narrative heavy feature that ends up being boring or worse, incomprehensible. Or both.

What strikes me as truly strange about Mortal Kombat is that Paul W.S. Anderson actually did neither of those things. The story is actually faithful within reason to the lore of the first game and any changes that were made were really only a result of having to flesh it out into actual dialogue and action. Some obvious limitations because of the PG-13 rating but a rated R movie based on a video game was going to exclude most of your potential audience so again reasonable changes to be made.

Just take a look at the trailer for this movie.

Seeing that again makes me want to go watch it and believe me I say that having already watched it several times putting together this review. In fact it’s playing on my other monitor as I write this. I’m actually amazed at how good that trailer is at doing everything it needed to for such a hard to market movie. It explains a story that has no right to make sense in such a short amount of time for people who don’t know what it is. It hits on every note, including cleverly used game audio, to energize gamers so they’ll be excited to go see it. It’s also got just enough Enter the Dragon vibes to garner attention from Kung Fu Genre fans who might see it on a lark.

In my initial post about video game inspired movies I made the argument that one of the major flaws is directors and writers feeling the need to put their own stamp on an already existing IP. This inability to put their ego aside undermines the appeal to the core audience who will pay to see this film based on nothing more than the title . If you piss them off then you’ve got little else to hang your hat on. Mortal Kombat cleared that hurdle with room to spare and took off running to the finish line.

Everything seems gravy so where did it fail?

For me the true stumbling blocks for this movie laid pretty solidly in the dialogue, acting, CGI and, some aesthetic choices.

In movies like these you expect a certain amount of cheese and camp when it comes to the actors or their dialogue and as such I don’t find a lot of fault with the actors themselves. At various points in the movie you can clearly see that they can act like normal human beings when they aren’t being forced to deliver stiff and unimaginative dialogue. Actors are often put in the uncomfortable position of knowing that what they’ve been given isn’t all that good while needing to simultaneously buy into the directors vision. At a certain level actors can wield more power on set to help shape the movie and hopefully help improve the quality by working as a team with the director and writers. I’m also sure that just by virtue of the kind of movie being made that the quality of things like the dialogue and overall acting weren’t super high on the priority list.

Even more unsurprising when you consider that Mortal Kombat was the fourth movie based on a video game being preceded by –

  • Super Mario Bros – 1993
  • Double Dragon – 1994
  • Street Fighter – 1994

I can’t really blame them for not having a lot of faith in the genre.

As far as the CGI goes I’m going to use what by now is probably a tired old metric but looking at the quality of special effects in this movie and then remembering Jurassic Park came out two years prior is painful. I certainly understand that they weren’t working with with the same budgets, in fact Jurassic Park had triple what Mortal Kombat did, but then when do what they did with Reptile?

They clearly had access to very talented set and costume designers so it makes the decision to include this–

Reptile

When they probably could have designed an incredible costume with a few lizard like prosthesis for the actor that would have been much cheaper and looked much better. Additionally the insane animatronics to bring Goro to life make me question further how their version of Reptile ended up in the same movie. Obviously they wanted something that looked nothing like Sub-Zero or Scorpion and it’s hard to say that was the wrong impulse to follow in the moment without the benefit of hindsight. But given everything else they accomplished it seemed like such an avoidable misstep. Especially given that they just morph him into the much more familiar looking Reptile two-thirds of the way through.

Combined with CGI and aesthetic choices that brings me to Scorpion’s kunai-harpoon which for some bizarre reason they decided to make into an apparent symbiotic creature that lives inside his arm? This feels to me like the encroaching ego of the people in charge who can’t stop tweaking and improving on whats in front of them. I can almost hear the discussion –

“He has a harpoon, right?”

“Yeah, but thats boring. Anything we can do to punch it up?”

“Well, he’s called Scorpion so maybe he should have like a stinger?”

“Like a tail?”

“Nah like his harpoon is his scorpion stinger.”

“I like that, but it should be alive, like a creature. Be able to move on its own. And lives in his arm but comes out through his hand.”

“Uh, okay.”

I get the impulse and often have to fight allowing myself to do the same thing but hopefully continuing to talk about the concept helps others avoid the same pitfall.

Lastly on aesthetics I wanted to touch on sound design with the use of game audio and music sprinkled throughout the movie. Like I mentioned in my last post part of the appeal going to movies like this is the thrill of seeing and hearing your game come to life on the big screen. Part of that is transferring iconic action, dialogue and visuals accurately into the script in ways that don’t ask for the kudos when doing so. They should feel organic in their new setting and not stick out as the references that they are. In Mortal Kombat the first time we hear the games main theme outside of the opening credits is for a fight between our three heroes and a bunch of faceless goons. How much more impact would it have had underscoring the final conflict of the movie or one of the other major fights between named characters? They also use the phrase “Flawless Victory” a few times in painfully awkward ways and whats worse is they use it incorrectly, even outside of the context of the game.

“Flawless” implies that the victor made no mistakes during the course of the fight, that they emerged undamaged. In one case it’s used correctly but pointlessly as the defeated opponent was a faceless mook fighting Sub-Zero after which Shang Tsung basically looks into the camera and says it to the audience. Then Liu Kang says it after the final battle with Shang Tsung where he gets hit several times. I know it’s nit-picky but adaptations will live and die based on their accuracy to the source material, much of the audience were fans already for a reason. It might be controversial but I would go so far to say that accurate references and representation of the source material is almost more important than the quality for longtime fans.

I know we still get articles wondering if the latest movie based on a video game will “finally break the curse and be good” like the ones that popped up about Rampage. Overall though after going back and watching this movie, several times, I honestly have to say that I would probably recommend this movie to people who question whether or not a good one has ever been made. It is certainly a product of it’s time and I don’t think it rises above the style of Kung Fu movie its loosely based on but I can’t say that it is an objectively bad film either. It does what it set out to do in fine fashion, stayed true to the source material and gave fans a true silver screen adaptation of a video game they loved.

So a very, very belated congratulations to everyone involved. You did what is still largely considered to still be un-achieved even now by making a fantastic video game movie!

Flawless Victory

Y’know, mostly.

If you stuck around this far, thank you for reading! Took a lot longer than I thought it would to put this together but I like the result. Learned a lot about video capturing, editing, FX and a bunch of other things. Let me know what you did and didn’t like as it’ll help me decide how to improve and how much work I should put into these in the future!

Also feel free to let me know if there is a specific movie you’d like me to do next!

I’ll be back soon.

  • Non-Washable