For many years, cinephiles and game enthusiasts alike have griped about the deficit of quality films based on video games. The list of adaptations is encouragingly long, but the list of ones worth your time is disappointingly short. Critics and audiences have both opined there’s nary a film adaptation of a video game that’s worth watching. When the pool is polluted with Super Mario Bros., Doom, and Street Fighter, perhaps it’s not difficult to see why.
But what if I told you, dear reader, that the quality film adaptation of a beloved video game series was in front of us this whole time? Paul Anderson’s Mortal Kombat is not simply entertaining, but it achieves the extremely difficult feat of making a compelling 95 minute feature with its source material being a mercilessly violent fighting game. Who better to be up to the task than Paul W.S. Anderson (back then, known minus the initials), with his sophomore effort that would set the stage for a career of populous filmmaking that culminated with many an installment of the Resident Evil series?
Mortal Kombat isn’t great, but it’s damn sure better than its initial critical reception would’ve suggested. It’s become one of the rare films to be embraced through reevaluation from both film fans and critics. There’s a lot to like about it. More on that in a moment.
The paper-thin plot revolves around three martial artists — Lui Kang (Robin Shou), the disciplined Shaolin monk, Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby), a popular action movie star, and Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson), a federal agent — handpicked by the almighty Lord Rayden (Christopher Lambert). Rayden’s plan is to mentor these individuals through intense training sessions before sending them off into the Outworld, an interdimensional fighting tournament.
Each of them have something to prove. Liu wants to avenge the murder of his brother, Chan, by fighting Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), whose plan involves world domination because of course it does. Sonya wants revenge on a crime-lord who killed one of her loyal agents. The vain Cage simply wants people to respect his fighting skills. A battle with Tsung awaits them after they complete their training and defeat a handful of recognizable characters such as Goro, Scorpion, and Sub-Zero.
There’s a lot to like about Mortal Kombat in character dynamics alone. Kang, Cage, and Sonya are all appealing archetypes that distinguish themselves through their fighting styles and interpersonal banter. For example, Kang’s training as a Shaolin monk makes him more patient when battling someone like Sub-Zero. He remembers his training and relies on it when Sub-Zero’s defense seems impenetrable. Meanwhile, Cage uses the element of surprise in dealing with the multi-armed Goro. There’s not only detail in the combat sequences but there’s a virtuousness as well, which kind of makes up for the neutered PG-13 rating that puts the kibosh on the copious bloodshed we’re used to seeing in a Mortal Kombat video game.
Mortal Kombat‘s age does get the best of it at times. The production values are solid, but the special effects are sometimes hokey, and there’s occasionally a dingy visual aura that mutes an otherwise attractively gloomy color palette. In the endless debates about video game movies on the internet, no one ever demanded perfection. But if you demand something that shows respect to the source material and creates something efficient and creative, Mortal Kombat absolutely deserves a second look.
NOTE: Read my review of the 2021 Mortal Kombat reboot: influxmagazine.com/mortal-kombat-2021-review/
Starring: Robin Shou, Linden Ashby, Bridgette Wilson, Christopher Lambert, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Directed by: Paul Anderson.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality in North Central Illinois. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!