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Game to Screen: Mortal Kombat (1995)
This adaptation will only follow the first Mortal Kombat (1995) film and what I believe to be its truest source material in the very first Mortal Kombat (1992) game. Later I plan on creating an adaptation commentary on the Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997) film which I believe to be based on the Mortal Kombat 3 (1995) game.
Released in 1995, this film was directed by Paul W. S. Anderson (who would later write and direct the Resident Evil adaptations). It largely follows the first entry of the Mortal Kombat games as well as borrowing some elements from Mortal Kombat 2. For three weeks it sat at the No. 1 U.S. Box office film, temporarily breaking the terrible reception game to screen adaptations were receiving at that time. It's now remembered as one of the better game adaptation movies, even if that isn't saying much.
The film stars Robin Shou (who would later play a small part in another fighting video game adaptation in DOA: Dead or Alive), Linden Ashby, Bridgette Wilson, Christopher Lambert from Highlander fame, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Talisa Soto. While the games were largely known for pushing the envelope on violence and blood, this film reserved a more audience friendly rating with relatively bloodless deaths and violence that was less graphic than many action movies of its time (although the Big Bad received his just desserts from falling high up and being impaled bloodlessly on spikes which is likely the most graphic scene in the film).
The original Mortal Kombat (1992) was conceived with the intention of creating a fighting game largely focused on actor Jean-Claude Van Damme. There were some complications with this and ended this possibility (which resulted in the character Johnny Cage and his iconic groin punch from the film Bloodsport). Eventually the game would become a fantasy fighting genre both at arcades and home consoles. The story followed a monk named Liu Kang facing against an otherworldly sorcerer named Shang Tsung to protect earth.
And while many times the overall story and character plots were well praised, they come in as a distant second compared to what Mortal Kombat is known for, primarily its violence. Not only was blood making frequent appearances, but Mortal Kombat became known for Fatalities, additionally gruesome ways to finish off a helpless opponent. These included anything from ripping out a person's spine to dropping an arcade machine on a character. This earned the game a tremendous amount of controversy in the media and, consequently, a lot of free advertising, allowing it to compete with the already successful Street Fighter series.
The Success of the Adaptation
The Opening Track
How about that theme song, eh? That song literally epitomizes the 90's with its overuse of sound effect and little vocals. It screams 90's and remains a killer club tune. Anyone who grew up with this movie can attest to that.
For the most part, every character displayed realistic portrayal to the fighters in the original game. Some of them were typical (such as the power-hungry Shang Tsung or the Bruce Lee-typecast Liu Kang), while others had certain signatures (Scorpion's "Get over here!" or Johnny Cage's sunglasses) which were all in all fairly simple to replicate (which sounds easy to do but then you consider the rest of the Video Game to Movie Adaptations).
Then, there are improvements on the original characters. For instance, Johnny Cage (played by Linden Ashby), who was created only as a Van Daame ripoff, is a very shallow character. The film largely follows this but Ashby hands down gets the best lines and comic delivery (especially in contrast to Raiden). While not necessarily oozing with charisma, Ashby stands center stage almost whenever he's on screen. It's additionally fantastic that Van Daame himself was originally cast for part but stayed with the Street Fighter film, echoing the earlier connections to the game.
Proving itself to remember its roots, we get Lie Kang's bicycle kick against Reptile, Johnny Cage's (ineffective) Shadow Kick against Scorpion or Crotch Punch against Goro, Sonya Blade's neck snap against Kano, and so forth.
Some of these things were a little twisted though, such as Scorpion's organic spear throw technique. Also of note are the repeated (if sometimes inaccurately used) phrases of "Finish Him!", "Flawless Victory," and "Fatality."
Influences on the Games Afterwards
A handful of moves used in the films inspired other trademarked techniques for later games. Kano's implied (but never seen) 'Ear to Ear' cut of Sonya's partner makes an appearance in Deadly Alliance. There are also story elements re-introduced into the games, such as Outworld needing 10 consecutive wins to invade Earthrealm, or the relationships between Liu Kang and Kitana, or Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade.
Speaking of Kitana, later renderings of the character seem to resemble the actress, Talisa Soto. Even more influential was Trevor Goddard's short-lived performance of Kano. The Australian actor brought a certain flavor to the criminal that did not exist before and the fans widely praised his portrayal, eventually causing the developers to shift Kano's character to originating Down Under.
The Misses of the Adaptation
What is Mortal Kombat known for?
The reason Mortal Kombat is still so infamous today isn't just a more than adequate fighting system, but its pursuit of pushing the envelope in violence, gore, and creative ways to kill someone in melee combat. As a film, it's more than understandable to do away with much of this, creating an entry that focuses more on the story and less on the violent visual presentation but the absence of gore is telling to fans of the series.
There's no end to which I despise Raiden's portrayal in this film. There's repeated awkward laughter at the weirdest and worst of times. Christopher Lambert, despite being a gamer and a fan of Mortal Kombat, was ill-cast to play the well-liked Thunder God. Personally, I cringe every time he starts talking, knowing that at some point he's going to use one of his ill laughs.
Other Character Portrayals
Raiden was so bad I felt he needed his own heading, but here are the other characters. Ironically, the two mascots of the series, Sub-Zero and Scorpion, were given few lines and while intimidating on their introduction, were disposed off neatly and relatively early on in the film. As the two characters are the most consistent mascots of the series, this seems a little weird, but it also kinda makes sense since neither character was a protagonist.
I guess my only other complaint is that they killed Kano way too early. Goddard's performance, in my opinion, was just that good.
For a time, this film was the highest grossing Game to Screen adaptation. Then came Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which was then beaten by Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Despite being made in the 90's when even then the CGI was questionable and non-immersive, the film stands up moderately well to those that were alive during the era. I personally believe it's just a little too dated children of the 2000s.
That being said, if the same amount of effort went into recreating this film today, I believe it would be a solid film (nothing groundbreaking or blockbusting, but something like the guilty pleasure it's existed as). Most stunts were done by the original actor which helps shots of fight scenes, the costumes were on point, and the story line was not only true to the games but the plot and many character portrayals helped to influence the future of the games. Very few, if not none, game to screen adaptations have been able to claim that, and I believe that speaks for itself.