Nov 6 2012 5:00pm

The Mortal Kombat Movie Wins by Friendship

The Mortal Kombat Movie Wins by Friendship

What’s the difference between Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter? If you’re a 90s kid like me, chances are that the major difference is that you were only allowed to play one of them. Mortal Kombat hit the gaming world like a bicycle kick right to the moral fiber and got all of America up in arms.

Where Street Fighter played the fighting game genre close to the chest and tried to leverage kung-fu fever in its purest form, MK went all-out with energy attacks, supernatural plots, and gruesome finishing moves. As the decade rolled on, MK became synonymous with that quintessential 90s quality: attitude. There was something about playing the controversial versus brawler that felt edgy and rebellious. Where Street Fighter was classic, all-togther-now arena rock, MK was unapologetic garage punk—strengthened, not crippled, by its accompanying stream of negative press. The game had street cred and a playground-discussion appeal rarely matched in its time. (Have you fought Reptile? Do you know how to do an Animality?) While Street Fighter set up the technical foundation on which versus fighters are still built today, Mortal Kombat was conquering classroom discourse and, you know, inspiring the creation of the ESRB.

So naturally, someone decided to make a movie out of the thing.

It was as much a no-brainer back in the day as it is now: You have a hot property, you take it to Hollywood. The Mortal Kombat movie also had some serious stylistic precedent, with martial arts sensations like the Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers kicking butt at the box office. Even back then, though, video game movies were a mixed bag, more often terrible or merely forgettable than actually decent. What would be the fate of Mortal Kombat, arguably the medium’s most notorious controversy to date, in popular mass media?

For the sake of context, let’s go back to 1995. By the time the movie came out that August, Mortal Kombat 3 had been dominating arcades for four months. If you spent any of those months in front of an arcade cabinet, you’ll probably recall that this was the MK game that ditched the Eastern mysticism and demon sorcery jazz for some all-American death robots. MK3 not only embraced the Iron Age, it kissed it passionately in the moonlight, while wearing a leather catsuit and brandishing a gun. You could make the argument that MK was pushing the envelope harder than ever, and I think that was a sign of the times.

That was the age where the word “extreme” was just beginning to start with a capital X, the age of “Play It Loud.” True to form, the Mortal Kombat movie does so before the title even shows up onscreen. Backing up the New Line Cinema logo’s characteristic drift is the movie’s theme song, a high-octane techno spectacular. The centerpiece of this audio assault? Some dude (the Toasty Guy, perhaps?) screaming, “MORTAL KOMBAT!” at the top of his lungs.

What follows is exactly that: Mortal Kombat, in capslock. Every trope and trapping from the game is in there—except, notably, for the blood and guts. I suspect that somebody at the studio nixed a hard-R version of the MK movie, so instead what we got was Mortal Kombat, the high-kicking buddy comedy. Since my rewatch, the question I’ve been asking myself is: Does this betray the movie’s video game lineage?

Lay aside the fact that, independent of its source material, the MK movie is actually pretty decent. Is MK still MK without the spine-ripping, without the cyber-assassins, without severed limbs? My vote is ultimately yes.

I think the cast’s greatest accomplishment is taking the movie’s parade of obvious MK elbow-nudges completely in stride. Nobody drops the illusion for a second: Everybody spends the entire movie discussing how great the emperor looks in his new clothes.

The cast’s enthusiasm for all things over-the-top, extreme, and characteristically MK is obvious, and I found it contagious. The sole unifying factor in the film’s disparate performances is that watching these smiling action movie stars on their lighthearted romp through what should be total carnage makes you believe in Mortal Kombat, in a way that goes beyond the headlines. Part of it is that each actor seems to believe that the movie’s really about his or her character. This gives the movie an appropriate ensemble feel, given the fighting game’s diverse roster. Sonya’s running around doing her Mission Impossible thing, Johnny Cage is living an action movie dream, one-liner by one-liner, all while Liu Kang is toeing the line between comedy and kung-fu hustle (otherwise known as the Jackie Chan Meridian.)

It works. Not perfectly, and not the way I’d hope. Not even the way my 10-year-old self hoped, way back when. But the buddy-action flick that someone pried from 1995’s most infamous fighter gets its primary message across: Mortal Kombat is awesome. Because while its contemporary, Street Fighter, tries to tell us that video games can be movies, MK contends that a movie can be a video game.

Josh Harrison is a freelance writer, game designer, and tireless foe of the undead. Follow him on Twitter: @imjoshharrison.

Cory Ross
1. SolarSoul25
Nice article. This movie has really held up well over the years, and of course time has given it a huge nostalgia boost.
2. Blackout
My problems with it come from the fact that it plays fast and loose with the game's mythology. Sub Zero and Scorpion are (anti)heroes in the games and they are underlings of the main big bad guy in this. It's as "wtf?" worthy as seeing an Xmen movie where Wolverine is a bad guy that has nothing to do whatsoever with the xmen... and is killed by the 10 times lamer "hero" in a 2 minute action scene.
John Massey
3. subwoofer
I've been refraining from posting these days because everything I have to say on a certain given topic, I have said, but here's something fresh.

A review of this movie.

Back in the day... not Biblical times like Freelancer, but a while ago, there was this game Mortal Kombat. In the arcades and on the Genesis folks were scrambling to play this. The commercial alone had people running in the streets. It also spawned a number of knock offs like Killer Instinct. MK will always be the bench mark.

The movie? Well, it had potential. Some aspects it did well, some it fell short. Goro coulda been not so lame, and Raiden had so much potential. I blame it on the time and the limits of technology, with modern CGI those problems could have been easily solved. They did get Scorpion and Sub Zero, and I liked the casting in general. Could they have done more? Probably, but let us remember the limits they had as video games into movies was sketchy territory... as we see with the Mario Bros. try. I am not sure that studios wanted to go all the way and make a big budget thing on an unsure format. Knowing what they know now, I am surprised that studio execs are not clamoring for a remake.

I'd see it.

Jack Flynn
4. JackofMidworld
There's a series of "gritty" reboots shorts online now. If they powered up into a full length feature, I'd see it, even though they'd probably end up changing the techno theme (which is now blaring thru my head at full blast, btw) to something by either Disturbed or a little 'retro' System of a Down version (and yeah, I'd still go see it and still buy the soundtrack too!)
Chris Nelly
6. Aeryl
I like Kevin Tancharoen's Mortal Kombat Legacy series, and not just becuase it has Tahmoh Penikett as Stryker.

It holds real well to the original mythology of the series, while keeping it grounded in a more realistic setting. Scorpion and Subzero's origins are respected, Johnny Cage is a former Power Ranger trying to keep his action career alive with dorky reality shows where he stops real criminals, saying "You Got Caged!" Unfortunately, Japanese Thunder God Raiden is still a white guy, but they've done better on the rest of the nationalities.

I loved the original soundtrack, I HATE techno.

I neither agree nor disagree with this article, but as I just read it yesterday, it seems apropos, and kinda true.

Chris Nelly
7. Aeryl
Apologies to the moderator for the double post, I didn't catch the spam flag.

Delete the first if you could please.
Risha Jorgensen
8. RishaBree
@JackofMidworld - I have the main theme playing in my head now, too. I love this movie, and it's at least 23% due to the soundtrack.
9. FossMaNo1
"...a movie can be a video game." What a great last line!

I loved this movie, and still watch it from time to time. I have no problem letting my kids see it as it's a great martial arts kick butt flick with very little blood and no gore (something as a dad I appreciate). Of course, I never played the games so I watched this movie with very few preconceived notions, allowing me to simply watch the cool effects and martial arts moves and enjoy them!
10. Jami Gold
Wow, now I'm feeling all nostalgic to watch this movie again. I *loved* it when it came out. I think I've seen it at least 3-5 times. (And for someone who doesn't get to many movies anymore, that's saying something. :) )

The funny thing is that I loved the movie even though I never played the game. I'm not a fan of the "coordinated button-pushing to do a certain move" games (I'm so not coordinated). Despite that, the MK characters and mythos had still leaked into the mainstream consciousness enough that I "got" this movie. The soundtrack helped with a big part of that too. :)

*goes in search of a copy to watch*
11. CopperPayne
I remember walking over to the theater by my house to see this when it came out, one of the first movies I could actually get into by myself and go to by myself. I also remember sitting there, watching the scene with Goro and one of the fighters through my hands going "Oh, God, he's going to rip him in half! Oh, wait, this is PG!" Cheesy as that sounds, it helped me get through the movie. That, and I loved Christopher Lambert's remark about being cast as Raiden: "Being a god is good for my ego."

Was the movie cheesy? Yes. But it fits on my shelf along with the rest of my guilty pleasure flicks that I love but can't really tell you why.
Chris Nelly
12. Aeryl
@11. I loved the comment the author of that article I linked to said about the Goro/Cage match.

"You can't nut punch Goro!!!"

Which is true, you can't
13. denelian
and then the sequel totally screwed it up...

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment