Thursday, March 12, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Mortal Kombat (1995)

I watched the 1995 video-game adaptation (and/or fantasy martial arts film) Mortal Kombat as part of my friend Nick's podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. Here's the actual podcast. I saw the film in theaters with my dad when I was in the fourth grade and probably saw it on video afterward, but it had been a very long time and I was especially interested in seeing how it held up. So here goes...

The Plot

Every generation, the warriors of Earth and a nightmarish parallel dimension called the Outworld compete in a tournament called Mortal Kombat. If Outworld wins ten tournaments in a row, the evil emperor Shao Khan will be permitted to invade Earth. It is now time for the tenth tournament and Asian thunder-god Raiden has gathered the reluctant Shaolin warrior Liu Kang, the prickly Special Forces officer Sonya Blade, and movie-star Johnny Cage to face the forces of Outworld, led by sorcerer Shang Tsung and his gigantic four-armed warrior Goro.

The Good

*It's generally an entertaining movie. It's not necessarily the smartest movie--and there's a lot that doesn't make sense--but it's not boring by any means.

*The opening sequence with fire erupting through the distinctive dragon logo is very well-done. And of course, it has that wonderful, wonderful song.

*All three of the major Good Guys have character arcs. Johnny Cage has to temper his excessive desire to prove himself, Sonya has to learn to trust and rely on others, and Liu Kang has to let go of his false guilt for his brother's death at Shang Tsung's hands at the beginning of the movie.

*Although I think Christopher Lambert was miscast, his delivery in many scenes (the sarcastic clapping and the "your sideshow freaks" confrontation with Shang Tsung) was really good.

*I liked Trevor Goddard's performance as Kano. He's quite amusing, entertaining, and arrogant. Apparently a lot of other people agreed with me because they made Kano an Australian for the remainder of the game series, even though I think he was supposed to be an American of Japanese background in the first game.

*It combines elements of both the first and the second games in ways that work well. Setting the character count midway between the first and second games avoids the pitfalls of a too-large and a too-small cast and lets the creators include useful elements like the younger-looking Shang Tsung of the second game (to make him fighting more plausible) and Reptile (much more impressive a minion than Sub-Zero or Scorpion).

*There's some good continuity and Chekhov's Guns. Raiden informs our heroes that as a former champion Shang Tsung can enter the tournament at any time and challenge any opponent he chooses. Shang Tsung make this especially clear while bargaining with Johnny Cage, who wants to fight Goro right away rather than wait his turn. This sets up the climax of the film rather nicely. And the good guys can rules-lawyer the villains too, as Kitana shows at the climax.

*This is something I obviously didn't notice in elementary or middle school, but Shang Tsung is pretty blatantly perving on Sonya the entire time. He flirts with her upon first seeing her and plays setting up the duel between her and her archenemy Kano as a present for her. Being a villain and all, this culminates in him kidnapping her and putting her in the BDSM equivalent of the slave-Leia outfit, which given his own propensity for leather shows there's more going on besides him trying to rig the tournament in his favor by challenging the physically weakest of Raiden's three Chosen Ones.

*Some of the one-liners like "too much television" still hold up 20 years later. Sonya and Johnny Cage's bantering is funny too.

*Sonya starts out the movie armed to the teeth and yet by the time she actually gets to the mysterious island, she doesn't have any guns. The fate of her firearms is either explicitly shown (her pistol) or implied (leaving her other guns behind in her impulsive pursuit of Kano). Having firearms in an island where people either fight using martial-arts techniques or medieval weapons would've made things very difficult for the Forces of Evil.

*Although due to the limitations the tournament imposes on beings like Raiden, the times where Raiden is able to use his powers are pretty impressive. I especially liked how he puts Liu Kang in his place early on.

*Sonya's fighting style makes sense for someone who isn't as big and strong as the male characters. Basically technique and agility instead of raw power. No depicting someone two-thirds the size of these ripped death machines as their equal in bulk and strength here.

The Bad

*The special effects did not hold up very well. As I said in the podcast, Reptile in his non-humanoid form resembles a cross between the titular anthropomorphic gecko from the video game Gex and a Jurassic Park velociraptor at one-third the budget. There's a lot of obvious CGI, gloppy fake blood, etc.

*Why is Liu Kang's brother fighting Shang Tsung at the Shaolin Temple at the beginning of the movie? The tournament has not officially begun. Knowing Shang's propensity for cheating and a-hole behavior I could imagine him trying to provoke a duel before the tournament began in order to take out the Shaolin monastery's chosen champion, but I shouldn't have to come up with explanations on my own.

*Too much exposition from Raiden to the main cast once they get on the scary dragon ship that will take them to Mortal Kombat.

*Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa looks impressive as Shang Tsung and can definitely fight, but his delivery can be rather spotty in places, especially when he's making what are supposed to be Big Dramatic Pronouncements. He's just not loud and baritone enough for "demon sorcerer." See this clip here for how underwhelming his Big Speeches can be.

*There's a Mauve Shirt character named Art Lean, who unlike most people thinks Johnny Cage is a legitimate martial artist. When he's defeated and killed, it's Sonya--who doesn't seem to know him at all--who unleashes a thoroughly massive Big No. Not his friend Johnny, at least not until Shang Tsung does his "your soul is mine" thing. That didn't make too much sense. If they'd reversed it so that Johnny is horrified that his buddy has pretty much been beaten to death by a four-armed monster and the Sonya freaks out upon seeing Shang Tsung suck Art's screaming soul out (something she might not have seen before), it would make a lot more sense.

*Speaking of Sonya, the way she was handled got kind of ridiculous. She's able to obliterate various oiled-up Outworld ninja thugs and although Kano gave her some trouble (he does have 50-odd pounds on her), she's able to defeat him. But Shang Tsung reduces her to a damsel in distress--dragging her screaming around by her ponytail--almost immediately. In the original game she was fighting in the tournament because some of her fellow soldiers were being held hostage and she and Kano spent the second game as prisoners in Outworld, but she was never that pathetic. It would have been better if Tsung simply had his ninja minions take her by surprise and mob her.

*And when Reptile attacks--and for awhile is beating the hell out of--Liu Kang in Outworld, Johnny Cage is nowhere to be found even though he was with him when Liu Kang went after Reptile. If they wanted to make the upgraded Reptile an even more impressive opponent than they already did, they should have had him fight both Liu Kang and Johnny simultaneously. Failing that, considering how they actually manage to get into Shang Tsung's fortress for the final battle, perhaps some evil monks attack Johnny and distract him? Apparently the extended fight with Reptile was shot after the rest of the movie was made and Linden Ashby wasn't available to portray Cage, but that doesn't really help.

*Christopher Lambert as an Asian equivalent of Thor? Couldn't they find someone either more ethnically appropriate or at least without that really strange accent? People on the podcast trying to mimic him end up sounding like Hannibal Lecter in the Epic Rap Battles of History video depicting him rapping against Jack the Ripper. I'll give him some credit for having fun with the part though.

*There are these two shirtless ripped dudes who show up in the audience for multiple bouts who spend a lot of the time seemingly shouting at each other. Either they kept reusing the same shots over and over or these two characters were distinctive from the rest of the various minions, hangers-on, etc. and we never learn why. If you're going to have these two featured this prominently, why not do something with them?

*No back-story for Scorpion or Sub-Zero other than they're "deadliest of enemies" who are nevertheless slaves to Shang Tsung's will. The games gave them a back-story and we could see this. If anything, they could be at each other's throats much of the time, with Shang Tsung playing referee.

*Why is Kitana allowed to meddle with Shang Tsung's attempt to conquer Earth for Outworld? Not going to go into detail as to why this doesn't make a lot of sense for spoiler reasons, but it could have been remedied by a single line of dialogue.

The Verdict

There was a lot of stuff that didn't make a lot of sense and the special effects didn't hold up well, but it was still entertaining. 7.0 out of 10. If you want to see how I'd have done it, check this post out.

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