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.