More noise than signal

Mortal Kombat

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

The arch-rival of Street Fighter, then and now, followed it onto the big screen a year later with an early directing credit for one “Paul Anderson”, sadly the one later initialed “W.S.”. A P.T. Anderson Mortal Kombat film remains, for now, a distant dream.

Hewing much more closely to the source material than Street Fighter, this sees Christopher Lambert’s Thunder God Rayden, protector of Earth-realm, head up a group of fighters to represent said realm in the Mortal Kombat tournament. The stakes are high, with the chop sockey action deciding whether the Earth will continue on as we know it, or if it will be taken over by evil forces of Outworld, marshalled by sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa).

After an understandable initial period of scepticism, leavened somewhat by their own personal motivations Liu Kang (Robin Shou), Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) and Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras) accept the invitation to the tournament and step into the Enter the Dragon-inspired boats to the island that also acts as a portal to other realms. Ex-Shaolin Monk Liu Kang struggles with a prophecy that he is Chosen to be Earth’s champion and is more concerned with revenge on Shang Tsung for killing his brother, cop of some description Sonya is looking to bring down underworld boss Kano (Trevor Goddard), one of Shang Tsung’s goons, and actor Johnny Cage gets the shitty end of the motivation stick as he’s out to prove his punchy-kicky skills are indeed real, and not fake like the tabloids claim. The question is, can they work together and defeat Shang Tsung’s goons, including palette-swapped ninja of Scorpion, Sub-Zero and Reptile (played here by Chris Casamassa, François Petit, and Keith Cooke, which is rather against the spirit of the source material) and four-armed claymation nightmare Prince Goro?

And, well, so it goes, with the ludicrous framework largely fading into the background as it cycles through various fight match-ups in a variety of locations loosely drawn from the first two games, with nods hither and yon to the special moves and fatalities without feeling too shoehorned in, with the notable exception of the awkward proclamations of “Flawless Victory” and “Fatality” from Tagawa’s Shang Tsung.

High art it certainly is not, but for a film aimed squarely at action movie fans, and fans of the game, and ideally the Venn diagram intersection between the two, Mortal Kombat makes a reasonable fist of satisfying its admittedly not too lofty goals. It’s not without its flaws – the early CG of Reptile’s animal form in particular not having held up particularly well, or perhaps even having held up at the time, and much of the acting is, well, at best serviceable.

Oddly, while most of the cast seems to have been hired for their martial arts background, which might explain the lacklustre delivery, it’s nominal professional thespian Christopher Lambert that’s the worst offender, hamming things up to similar volumes as Raul Julia’s M. Bison but with the merest fraction of the charisma, rendering him quite annoying indeed.

Of course, anyone coming to Mortal Kombat looking for decent acting was on a hiding to nothing anyway, but if you’re more interested in the fight choreography you’ll have rather more joy here than you will in any of our other featured films today. They’re perfectly decently handled, and I’ll have to credit Anderson, and the fight choreography team with minimising the weaknesses of those with no martial arts experience and showing off the strengths of those with the relevant background.

Saying that this remains one of the most successful video-game to movie translations, both content-wise and commercially, is to damn this with the faintest of praise, and indeed praise is not something that should be lavished on a film that’s pretty much just competent, rather than good. However, in a field of pygmies this is a giant, so I suppose it must be recognised as such. If you must watch a film from today’s list, this is the best, but there’s better things to do with your time.