Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Mortal Kombat (1995)



The first image of Mortal Kombat is the New Line logo assembling itself and a voice screaming “MORTAL KOMBAT!” Cue the thumping trance theme to the movie, which caps off the title card with another “MORTAL KOMBAT!” shouted off-screen for good measure. I was struck by the thought that more movies should announce themselves in such a way, fully capturing the audience’s attention and reminding them thirty seconds in, “Yes, this was the movie I paid to see” (something like “SCHINDLER’S LIST!”). However, the title also needs to refer to an activity that is central to the movie’s plot so that characters will continually say every twenty minues, “Let Mortal Kombat commence!”

The plot they developed for this adaptation of the best-selling game, which I remember playing a great deal all the way back in high school, is a straight rip-off of Enter The Dragon with the evil Shang Tsung (played by the indomitable Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) arranging an inter-dimensional tournament on his island, which is all a front for him to feed on the souls of beaten warriors. Who are our heroes? There is Sonya “I work alone” Blade (Bridgette Wilson), a Britney Spears lookalike CIA agent with an extreme pout and attitude to burn, but who looks really uncomfortable holding a gun or engaging in any of the fight scenes. There is also Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby), a Jay Mohr type who talks like a sitcom character with self-aware dialogue like “This is the part where you’re supposed to fall over” and keeps complaining about his luggage and breaking his three hundred dollar pair of sunglasses and generally conforming to the Hollywood asshole actor stereotype he’s playing. Finally there is Liu Kang (Robin Shou), a doppelganger for Bruce Lee with his exposed pecs and black pyjama pants, but is defined by his feathered, blow-dried 1990s hairdo. Basically the 2D polygons that were featured in the game had more dimension than these characters.

The pacing of Mortal Kombat is pretty sluggish. All of the dialogue is exposition heavy like a soap-opera (“Princess Katana?” “Yes, the Prince’s adopted daughter” or “You killed her partner, didn’t you?”) that sets up who is who and what is happening within the first ten minutes. And YET there are countless scenes of characters talking to each other that go nowhere since there is no intrigue or complexity that can be developed with the plot. I was impatient like a thirteen year old boy who this film was aimed at - GET TO THE FIGHTING ALREADY! Once they do, it’s the slow and dull Hollywood version of martial arts before The Matrix made everyone hire Woo-ping Yuen to choreograph their fight scenes. What makes the fighting come alive is that the filmmakers continually score it with dated mid-1990s Eurotrash trance music, which basically resembles every one hit wonder dance hit from the time, such as 2 Unlimited’s ‘No Limit’ or Sash’s ‘Adelante.’ Apart from this, Mortal Kombat’s best moments are when the director pushed a close-up into a character whenever they uttered one of the trademark catchphrases from the video game to the delight of fanboys everywhere: “Fatality!”, “Finish him!” and “Flawless Victory” are all said in the movie. Funniest of all is the mask clad, yellow vested Scorpion whose looped-in dialogue sounds directly lifted from an arcade game and is basically a series of commands towards his opponent’s movements (“GET OVER HERE!”). The vivid brutality of the video game, what with all the spines being ripped out and such, is toned down for a general audience so the worst thing you is an exploding skull that wouldn’t look out of place in The Goonies. There is also Goro, the monstrous Kombatant, who looks like a big piece of poo but with four arms sticking out the sides and whose special secret combo death movie is to basically club a guy over the head with his fist. Yet his secret weakness, which is exposed by Johnny Cage in one key fight, is that Goro does not like having his cock punched.

Best of all is Christopher Lambert as Lord Rayden who with his long-white hair accentuates his whiteyness as a Japanese God. I’m sure the producers cast him in order to invest their movie with a little bit of Highlander magic. Rayden is basically the Obi Wan character who keeps popping up and advising the three heroes that they are fighting for the fate of their world, using ominous lightning to emphasise his points, and, when needed, can change himself into Proton-Pack Light Stream Light Show in order to confuse and dazzle opponents. Actually Lambert’s best schtick is offering a lame line like “I don’t think so” and giving a trademark cackle, which he does about fifty times over the course of the movie.

Leaving nothing behind in the memory like an exit wound to the brain, Mortal Kombat is a landmark film for one reason and one reason only in that it introduced Paul W.S. Anderson to Hollywood, a British director who would go on to make further video game adaptations (Resident Evil) and films that felt like video games (Death Race).

4 comments:

Mitch said...

The interesting thing about Raiden in that movie is that he can confuse and dazzle, but he cannot seem to go anywhere with the characters or really do anything at all. He just appears, steers the characters in a certain direction for a mysterious reason, then vanishes, leaving behind only a the trademark cackle (more of a Dr Hibbert style laugh but sapped of all merriment).

The other thing is the peripheral characters in the movie - such as Princess Katana - are so peripheral they might as well have been left out. It may have been that our constant loud criticisms of the movie obscured the need for her to lead them to Shang Tsung but it all makes little sense.

The film was very much a sequence of 'Hey let's go over here'. - upon reaching the destination, some uniquely clad enemies jump out - 'Uh Oh! Fight time!'. Cue badly choreographed fighting.

The danger in creating a film from a book is that there generally a risk of losing the feel of the book. In the case of game adaptations, you would thing there would be less that could go wrong in the translation. You have the visual aspects already there. Unfortunately, the thing missing from Mortal Kombat the movie is the ONLY thing present in the game. The fighting. Mortal Kombat the game, with its set number of fighting combinations programmed into it, offered far more range than the movie did. I'm really quite surprised that no-one sat Paul W.S Anderson down and told him that the thing that has made the games so good is lacking entirely in the movie.

I'm just glad we weren't subjected to a lame movie adaptation of Sonya's Kiss of Death. Leave that for Mortal Kombat: Annihilation...

tristan said...

Haha, yes, I liked how we began to characterise Raiden as a cheapskate bum in our watching of it ("Can I borrow ten bucks?"). All he seemed to do was pop up, as you say, like the animated paperclip icon in Word, offering a word of advice but no actual help.

Yes, it seemed like they wanted to tick off that they featured all the game's characters without having to do anything substantial with them. This is the problem one faces with adapting a multi-player multi-character video game. Trying to shoehorn Princess Katana into the plot without really giving her anything to do (maybe there was a love story with Lou Kang left on the cutting room floor?)

The fighting was a letdown. The Scorpion and the Reptile matches were halfway there, but more for their sets rather than the choreography. Particular since the final confrontation simply involved Lou Kang pushing the evil villain onto some spikes.

You made some salient points, Mitch, with your comments! I think if we hit up Annihilation, you should definitely write it up!

dan said...

YES tristan. the awesome cary-hiroyuki tagawa, the awful brigette wilson and WHAT THE HELL is christopher lambert doing in this shit? "you'll be playing a japanese thunder god." "hmmm... i can play that." IDIOT.

also there is like ten seconds of fighting in this movie.

that said, i am game for annihilation.

tristan said...

Tagawa was pretty awesome in the mid-1990s, particularly with his role as the suspect in Rising Sun. He can sneer like nobody's business! Haha, yes, Lambert's casting in this was an enjoyable oddity. He's this powerful God who should be able to fight Shang Tsung and save the day. But he just hangs back and lets the lame humans do it.

I will keep you posted, Dan, when we hit Annihilation!