August 20, 2011

Mortal Kombat (1995)

of a pumpkinI've braced myself for the mocking and the guffaws but what you are about to see is a straight up examination of a film I hold in high regard. Clearly, many do not find Mortal Kombat to be a film of quality. Rotten Tomatoes has the critics lambasting it at 33% while the non-professional critics still see the rotten with a rating of 55%.

But the Paxton Configuration is dedicated to films that are forgotten and Mortal Kombat is all but forgotten at this point. 1995 seems like so long ago and while parts of Mortal Kombat have aged pitifully (more on this later), it also has remained constant in other areas.

I won't be the first person to say that Mortal Kombat doesn't have its faults and I certainly won't be the first person to say that a film with the name Paul W.S. Anderson on it doesn't have its flaws (though, at the time, Mr. Anderson went just by Paul Anderson), but I may be one of the few people who think Mortal Kombat is a gorgeous piece of art and not a bad story to boot.

When I reviewed the cinematography of Star Trek: Generations over at Secure Immaturity, I wanted to show people that even though a story may be flawed or an idea may seem played, other aspects lend themselves to a film and make them powerful, and certainly artistic. Star Trek: Generations is a so-so film that has story-telling issues but has amazing production values, led by the late John A. Alonzo as Director of Photography.

Mortal Kombat works much the same way. Sure, the film has a few holes here and there but besides the wonderful and imaginative aesthetics, Mortal Kombat actually succeeds on both storytelling and acting fronts as well. Don't believe me? I don't blame you. The movie is called Mortal Kombat and, in the scheme of things, stars either unknown actors, actors who are famous mainly for their ability to ham it up, or martial artists. But still, 16 years later, the film works on more then just the visual arts.

The movie of the video game was a new idea in 1995. Three films came before Mortal Kombat and the first was (and is) regarded as a steaming pile of garbage. That film was Super Mario Bros., the first film based on a video game, which had it's well documented problems, from changes in directors, to massive content philosophies (according to John Leguizamo, there is an R-rated version of the film, with sex and strippers and such, somewhere on the cutting room floor), to stars hating the very film they were working on (and the people, while they were there, that were directing it).

And while production catastrophes don't necessarily mean a bad motion picture, Super Mario Bros. became a double edged sword of failure: bad production, bad movie. Despite the humongous success of the titular characters in the video game world, the screenwriters, producers, and directors of the film decided to take too much dramatic license and basically butcher why people love Super Mario to begin with.

Nothing dictates, either with books turned to films or with video games turned to films, that the narrative and setting has to represent the EXACT same narrative/setting of the source material. And, with 2D games with very little story (archetypes of story really) dominating the '80s and '90s, a director/writer HAD to be creative to flesh out the world or, in the case of Mortal Kombat, be very smart with the archetypes chosen.

Super Mario Bros. was so fleshed out that it became bogged down in its own mythology and one that wasn't that creative or cute and cuddly. Super Mario Bros., the game, could use some dimensions if presented as a story BUT it doesn't need to be sapped of it's main quality: charm.

Mortal Kombat didn't have to worry about charm as the video game it was based on was perhaps one of the most controversial of all time. With even less of a story then Super Mario Bros. (people fight and kill people in a tournament), a film version needed to make an inter-dimensional tournament with creatures and sorcerers seem palatable for the audience.

And to do that, the writers had to take the characters they are given, with little to no back story (at the time anyway), and make their personal issues essential to this grand scheme. Mortal Kombat is too much about good vs. evil to make people think the result of the tournament is truly dangerous and the characters are too heroic to lose. That's why the writers put in a lot of dead Asian guys and a black dude as cannon fodder, and let the main people win.

But you have to win an audience over with character. Super Mario Bros. was butchered because it gutted the original characters and tried to transform them into unlikable people that fit into the alien world created by the producers. The other two video game films before Mortal Kombat, Double Dragon and Street Fighter, made similar mistakes though not AS costly as Super Mario Bros.

Double Dragon was hyper-stylized and goofy (though Robert Patrick was a boss in that) while Street Fighter had the same mythology-issues as Super Mario Bros.: taking characters people are familiar with, changing their essence, adding way too much back story, and then elaborating on the already complex back story to the nth degree. Plus, Street Fighter took away the fantastical elements of the game and betrayed the source material down to its bare essentials. Oh, and Street Fighter just plain sucked.

Mortal Kombat wisely decided to portray the Mortal Kombat universe as is, maintaining the fantasy angle and keeping it's core plot in tact but elaborating on the character archetypes that are the most appealing to audiences: the Flawed Hero, the Evil Sorcerer, etc. When you have basic story telling devices, that if unoriginal at least have definable points of movement and an arc, you get something someone can get behind.

Because the filmmakers chose the characters wisely, and implemented them where they needed to without overexposure, Mortal Kombat became the first video game movie that didn't suck and had decent, if not superb, acting.

Main star Robin Shou, for instance, may not be blessed with a lot of depth, but the story demands he only be driven by strong, non-complex emotions. And since his scenes and purpose is based on martial arts, and Shou, a choreographer on the film, is so adept at said skills, Liu Kang (Shou) appears deeper and better at the acting craft then you'd expect. In the end, you have a one dimensional archetypal hero played by an actor people barely know headlining a mainstream, $100 million + earning, box office champion.

But the casting, and well chosen archetypes, doesn't end there. Linden Ashby, a truly talented, charismatic, and all but forgotten actor, plays the movie-star martial artist Johnny Cage. What would certainly be Ashby's most successful film with him as a lead (top billing, actually), people seemed to have forgotten him pretty quickly, at least until Paul W.S. Anderson revived him back in mainstream theaters with an excellent appearance in Resident Evil: Extinction.

With these two heroes as the core, it is easy to root for them as they go through the rudimentary but timeless and fundamental plot. And that's where that pesky mythology comes into play. Instead of beating the audience over the head with forced exposition, elaborate and eventually explained set pieces, and a bow on top to wrap up every loose end, Paul W.S. Anderson and crew rely on the source material's vague mythology to move everything forward.

Anderson achieves a lot of this technically, which we'll explain later, but he also cuts to the chase: he points out what is absolutely necessary to understand about the universe (there is a tournament; if Earth's warriors lose then Earth is invaded by 'roided Muppets: bam, easy) and lets the rest play out as expected (or, when things get crazy, as unexpected).

While this makes some of the set pieces and actions silly at times, it also makes them, believe it or not, more believable when the action is delivered expertly. For instance, Liu Kang's multiple chest kick and Scorpion pulling his mask off and becoming a skeleton might not make a lot of sense and seem silly (and it is) but there was no complex explanation to it so it can easily be forgotten when something just as outlandish but not quite as goofy happens. It's a hit or miss type of attitude but Anderson delivers more hits then misses.

Instead of knowing why Sub Zero shoots ice blasts or how Shang Tsung sucks the souls out of dead warriors, we merely accept it because a)a lot is left to my imagination and b)the delivery of said actions are done with such professional quality that we merely think it cool, not dumb. Physics be damned if we can simply suspend our disbelief thanks to a masterful storyteller.

Mortal Kombat's side roles are populated by 'famous' actors. Christopher Lambert, who, until a recent rewatching, I thought was utterly dreadful in the film, is actually hammy to the extent he needs to be. Not required to be a hero or warrior, he is more a narrator and a Jiminy Cricket type who helps our heroes get through emotional crap. Lambert decides to play it loose and with a sense of humor. His lack of acting skills kills it in some areas but propels it in others. I actually found him to be more subtle then I remembered.

Unsubtle would be Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa who uses neck veins and elaborate mouth movements to consume scenery whole. But like Shou, not much is expected of Tagawa but to be evil and he becomes evil with abandon. It works in the universe because immediately hate but fear him. Same goes for the luminous Talisa Soto as Princess Kitana. Kind of a secondary Dr. Phil for Liu Kang, she is expected to be pretty and preach a lot. She does it, expertly.

The only misfire is with Bridgette Wilson as Sonya, but it has more to do with the writing then anything else. Her entire story arc ends after 25 minutes and thus has nothing to do but go from tough action babe to screaming damsel in distress by films end. However, the actress, chosen over Cameron Diaz for the role, doesn't look like a hack when doing her fighting scenes, so credit to her there.

But don't let all this praise fool you. The movie is still about supernatural beings ruthlessly killing people in a tournament and whenever rules are established they are often broken to propel drama. This is fine as long as you don't think much, just like the acting is fine as long as you don't examine it to deeply. But let's move on to the technical side.

Anderson's wisest decision was hiring John R. Leonetti (who would go on to direct the worst video game film of all time. Ironically, it was the sequel to Mortal Kombat). While Leonetti's resume remains bare and populated by only one other film with exceptional photography (The Mask), his work on Mortal Kombat is a magnum opus; a true masterpiece of lighting, colorization, shot selection, and, at times, choreography.

Most of Anderson's films start out beautifully. Even the incredibly dreadful Aliens vs. Predator had a lush opening 20 minutes, filmed by cinematographer David Johnson. Mortal Kombat's best cinematography, true to form, happens in the first twenty minutes as we meet all of the characters. Using lighting and camera angles to serve as emotion (fear, evil, good, frustration, etc), we are gifted with an extra narrator, someone who guides us to what we are feeling (even though the actors are doing that pretty well themselves).

And a lot of the cinematography is pomp and circumstance but that works in something called Mortal Kombat. Since the film has four armed heavy metal guitarists and dudes who shoot lizard-creatures from their hands, giving characters an abnormal flourish to exaggerate their intentions is expected and welcomed. And sometimes, when it's just plain showing off, it's just damn pretty to look at.

In the scene below, we are introduced to Kano, Sonya's main nemesis, and main heavy Shang Tsung. In reality, two bad guys would probably talk in a well lit room so they could see each other. But Kano is draped in darkness and Shang Tsung seems to be floating in the ethereal yet creepy bubbles that exist behind him:

In the next clip, which see an example of showing off (0:04 to 0:40), an example of unrealistic drama (6:20 to 6:48; a man standing in the dark purely to look bad ass), and the personification of evil (7:39 to 8:18). Being one of my favorite shots from the film, this being the third clip I ask you to see, Shang Tsung comes from out of the darkness to appear amidst well placed chains. A truly stunning shot that means more then just posing:

But the cinematographer teamed with the production designers to create what could be considered infinite space. As you'll see in a fight sequence posted further below (I'll point it out) and in the picture at the top of the technical discussion, Anderson was dedicated to creating endless space. Thus we have pathways of trees leading to nowhere, beach arenas with endless horizons, fighting rooms with endless levels, both up and down, and, towards the end of the film, a completely separate dimension in which are attention, at times, is drawn away from the main characters to projected shadows from a fire at least 200 to 300 feet away.

This approach gives the film depth and, like some of the supernatural gimmicks in the film, allows the imagination to take over. Instead of putting a whole world on a cramped sound stage, location shooting in Thailand helps ground the world in some sort of reality. And when relegated to a studio (and the film's aging sometimes shows this to a fault), the 'infinite space' ideal comes into play so you never feel like the characters are stuck between three real walls and the imaginary fourth one.

*this is a clip of Scorpion fighting Johnny Cage, one of my favorite fights in film history. It shows the 'infinite space' theory from above but also leads into my next point about the film

The other major plus to the film is its reliance on real fighting. Yes, some wire work was used when things get a little video gamey (word?) but, for the most part, each character is not only expected to fight in the film but is given there own type of fighting style. Instead of using Hollywood Kung-Fu, Robin Shou's Liu Kang performs moves completely different then say Sonja (not trained in martial arts) or Scorpion.

This attention to detail, appreciated with more passion, I'm sure, by martial arts and fighting enthusiasts, makes the action more exciting. One thing that is pretty incredible is that none of the fighters, even the non-professional fighters played by actors, never seem to be performing choreography. We never see the actors waiting to duck the kick or block the blow. The fighting is fluid and seems as real as it could be.

And the mixture of styles adds to this as someone like Kano, more a brawler/wrestler then a trained fighter, goes up against Sonya, who has trained with military defense/offense techniques. And with the final fight between Liu Kang and Shang Tsung, you have the more muscular Tsung fighting an aggressive brawny type of combat compared to Liu Kang's more finesse-based style.

When you add writing appropriate to the source material, a creative and masterful photography style, wistful set design that itself doesn't explain too much, and natural fighting that makes you cheer for victory, even when the outcome is well known, you have a winning film.

There is a lot more to Mortal Kombat that I haven't talked about, from the animatronic genius of Goro (though it has aged poorly), to the not-ready-for-release CGI of Reptile, to the magnificent score and soundtrack. But I think my point was made: Mortal Kombat is a film long berated but perhaps not totally appreciated.

A film with flaws but also with major successes. The heavy violence and flashy appearance may not be for everyone but I think, at least technically, the film is under appreciated. Pop it in your Blu-Ray player and give it another chance. It might not wow you with story but it will amaze you with its well produced design. Very few films have been successfully made from video games (I'd argue three, two directed by Paul W.S. Anderson), but, failed story or not, Mortal Kombat is truly the most cinematic.


  1. I feel less like a nerd now that I know I'm not the only one who got excited about Johnny Cage showing up in Resident Evil. :D

    Awesome review! Mortal Kombat is so under-appreciated.

  2. As usual, a fine look at a forgotten film, Will. I enjoyed watching this film (and I never played Mortal Kombat either). Like you and our friend Sci-Fi Fanatic, I have a very good appreciation of the underrated Paul. W.S. Anderson. I've always got a kick out of his work (outside of the Alien vs. Predator films, that is). He's remains a master visualist who knows how to tell a story. Yeah, MK is not a message movie or classic cinema, but it is a fun time. Thanks.

  3. Glad to see you turned on the Anoymous option.



    I was thrilled to see your handle on this film. As L13 mentioned, we all have some kind of affection for this mad, bad and dangerous filmmaker even if we don't completely understand why. :)

    I loved your passion for Mortal Kombat despite the naysayers and the low splat rating at RT. That a way to stick to your guns.

    It was ironic to see you writing about an Anderson film as I was putting the finishing touches on my own. The man does have flaws indeed.

    I wouldn't call it a gorgeous piece of art, but I loved it when you did. Hysterical and yet sincere! You certainly won't get that kind of praise often for an Anderson film.

    Your point about the title of the film makes me think that it has al the grace and subtlety of say Cowboys And Aliens, but if you like this kind of thing you hope it works and you certainly make a case for it.

    You offer a splendid history of the film medium and its fusion to the video game world, something that has clearly become something of a hallmark here at Will's Paxton Configuration.

    It's funny because you're not alone in your opinion that the film didn't "suck". I recall the lae Gene Siskel actually enjoying this film in his video review of Siskel and Ebert.

    I ake a similar assertion about Andersn's films as silly but cool. We are completely on the same wavelength there and at least we admit to it.

    I agree with your final assessments. The man can offer cinematic, but Anderson really seems to walk the line of flaw and success. It's really odd.

    As you suggest in the opeing of your entry, this is indeed one of the most thorough work ups on Mortal Kombat out there. Keep it up Will!

    By the way, nice to see you joined over at my site. I thought maybe I had offended you with my lack of deoderant duder! : )


  4. Excellent review and well placed thoughts. It is my favourite film of all time! Loved that you noticed little things about this movie. I has been created with such care about the (ridiculous) material that it is impossible not to love it. However, I disagree with one point that you are making. John R. Leonetti has impressive work as a cinematographer - The conjuring (especially his work here), Insidious chapter one and two, dead silence and soul surfer are very impressive pieces of work.


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