Anniversary Film Review: Mortal Kombat

When I was 9 or 10 years old, a couple friends and I watched Mortal Kombat on repeat until the wee hours of the morning, jumping up and doing badass air-kicks (at least we thought they were) every time we heard that absolutely BANGIN’ theme song drop. Now, on the 25th anniversary of Mortal Kombat’s release, I’m in my thirties, and unlike my ability to stay awake super late, the absolute hype I feel when watching this movie hasn’t faded all that much.

In contrast to the vast majority of video game adaptation films, Mortal Kombat is enjoyable. In my opinion, that’s because director Paul W.S. Anderson followed just the basic outline of the games, included just enough of the series’ lore to appease its fans, and then diverted all of his focus towards making a fun action romp. Luckily, the main draw of the Mortal Kombat games is… well, the “kombat,” so the movie manages to do it justice; and with a PG-13 rating no less! Nowadays a PG-13 often deters fans from seeing video game, comic, or book adaptations if the source material is more adult-oriented, but Mortal Kombat somehow gave just the right level of carnage to avoid an R-rating while still satisfying most of the hardcore fanbase.

And oh boy, Mortal Kombat certainly lives up to its name. A whole lot of people who get brutally knocked out of the tournament – and the realm of the living – and the ferocity of those fights is certainly felt. Every duel has memorable moments, be they sweet combo kicks, ice blasts, one-liners, exploding heads (again, this movie is somehow PG-13) or low blows. Some of the action may have weakened a bit with time, but nowhere as much as you’d think. Then there’s the soundtrack. It’s a blast of rock, metal, and techno perfection that gets your blood pumping anytime there are fists, feet, or kunai-lizard-things flying, and the movie has been immortalized by the main theme I mentioned earlier. It is honestly the greatest movie theme of all time.

Also working in Mortal Kombat’s favor is the cast. None of them stretched their acting muscles here, but they all knew exactly how to make their characters fit into and interact with the world of and Mortal Kombat. Robin Shou (Liu Kang), Christopher Lambert (Raiden), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Shang Tsung, a role he’s recently reprised in the most recent game, Mortal Kombat 11) and every other actor in the film embraced the games’ mix of badassery and inherent campiness. Their gung-ho attitude allows the audience to laugh at the oh-so-corny dialogue but also be entertained by the fantastic fights. That’s what makes it possible for a brawl with real, deadly stakes to also have moments of immature, but effective humor as well. From the straight-faced matches like Liu-Kang vs Shang Tsung, to the outright ridiculous ones, such as the one btween Kevin Michael Richardson’s Goro and Linden Ashby’s Johnny Cage, each duel feels faithful to the franchise’s spirit.

Something I only noticed on my most recent viewing of Mortal Kombat was the surprisingly great set design and production values. The corridors of Shang Tsung’s dragon-headed boat are eerie and claustrophobic, the decrepit temple where most of the film takes place has multiple rooms that I could easily see as stages in an MK game (especially with spectators in the background) and the Hellish vibe of the invading Outworld does a great job showing us what horrors Earthrealm would face if its heroes lose.

Mortal Kombat may be cheesy, and it’s a fairly loose adaptation of the series’ story, but it’s a charming kind of cheesy and the movie as a whole does a fantastic job capturing what made me enjoy playing the games as a kid and watching playthroughs of new entries whenever they drop: bringing a diverse roster of fighters together to beat the crap out of each other with crazy-ass abilities and laughably over the top martial arts. Then it goes even further and throws in all kinds of hammy, endearing, and quotable quips, making you root for those fighters even more. It’s not a “flawless victory,” but dumb fun doesn’t get much more fun than this, and even a quarter of a century later it’s still my favorite video game movie.

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