‘Mortal Kombat’ (1995) Review: Original MK Film Still Offers Some Fun
By Daniel Rester
“Mortal Kombaaaaat!” Yeah, that theme song still kicks ass.
With the new film adaptation of Mortal Kombat around the corner, I decided to take a look back at the 1995 film version directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. With only one film under his belt at the time (Shopping (1994)), it is kind of surprising New Line Cinema handed the reigns to Anderson. The relative unknown managed box office success with Mortal Kombat though, and better yet managed to please a lot of fans despite being restricted by a PG-13 rating. It helped launch Anderson’s career and he continues to make popcorn movies to this day — for better or worse.
Mortal Kombat took elements of the first and second entries in the controversial video game series. The three central characters are reluctant hero Liu Kang (Robin Shou), smartass movie star Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby), and revenge-seeking Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson). They are thrust into a tournament between combatants from Earth and Outworld. The short version is they have to win the tournament or else Earth is doomed.
Aside from the central three heroes, the plot also introduces several other colorful characters. Indeed, it is the well-designed and weird characters which help set the Mortal Kombat movie and video games aside from similar fighting entertainment. Christopher “Highlander” Lambert was a good casting choice for thunder god Raiden, while Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is his match as the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung. Other standout characters include ice-shooting Sub-Zero (Francois Petit), the creepy Scorpion (Chris Casamassa), and the red-eyed Kano (Trevor Goddard), who are all sub-villains.
Not all of the characters translate well though. The four-armed Goro (Tom Woodruff) looks goofy and clay-like rather than intimidating while Reptile (Keith Cooke) is rendered with CGI that looks very dated now. Kitana (Talisa Soto), meanwhile, is a bore as she is reduced to just giving Liu Kang advice; the section focusing on her helping him against Sub-Zero is one of the film’s rougher patches.
Anderson and the cast have fun with these characters though. Thankfully none of the material is ever taken too seriously while it also isn’t all jokes either. There is a healthy amount of wisecracks in Kevin Droney’s script. Some of them are funny and others are just dumb and cringworthy. The acting ranges from mediocre to pretty good, with Tagawa the standout as the soul-stealing Shang Tsung. His “your soul is mine” moments have become legendary.
Though Mortal Kombat certainly should have been given an R-rated treatment because of its gory video game foundation, the PG-13 action is still rather entertaining. There isn’t much in terms of blood-spilling or those famous fatalities, but there is a lot of energetic fighting in areas with outlandish production design while metal and techno music pulse in the background. The Hong Kong-inspired wire techniques predate The Matrix (1999) and some inspired camera angle choices add flavor, such as when the camera spins around in place of a character flipping. The second half is pretty much all fighting sequences as the plot takes a back seat, with the Scorpion-Johnny Cage fight being the cream of the crop.
Nobody could mistake Mortal Kombat for being art, but it remains one of the better video game films, one of Anderson’s better movies, and an enjoyable piece of ‘90s nostalgia. Sure, some of the effects are dated and a few of the scenes are just hilariously stupid. But other scenes actually hold up well and still entertain with their staging of the fights and the character quips (“Those were $500 sunglasses, asshole” is a favorite of mine). Plus the film looks like a masterpiece compared to its trainwreck sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997). Hopefully the 2021 film (shinier and R-rated) will be closer in quality to this film and not the 1997 sequel. Check this one out if you haven’t already as we await the release of the new Mortal Kombat on April 23rd.
My Grade: 6.5/10 (letter grade equivalent: B-)
Running Time: 1h 41min