EJ Moreno celebrates Mortal Kombat’s 25th anniversary…
During the summer of 1995, moviegoers had the chance to see some of the most talked-about and buzz-worthy blockbusters of their time. Hell, even some of the biggest releases from that summer, like Waterworld and Batman Forever, found ways to keep their names in film lover’s minds. But when thinking about 1995’s summer movie season, it’s hard to ignore a movie that has much admiration and clout from fans as Mortal Kombat.
Growing up in the 1990s and playing video games, the phenomenon that was Mortal Kombat was inescapable. If it were the brilliant commercials on TV or the arcade games you’d find in a random bowling alley, the insanity always memorized you. The game series also found its way into the world of non-gamers when it became a major talking point in the censorship of video games. Through all of that, enough people thought it was a brilliant idea to make a film adaptation. If it has that much buzz, surely it could draw in a crowd at the multiplexes. And that it did as the film spent three weeks at number one, topping charts and bringing in over $120 million on just an $18 million budget. Somehow, director Paul W.S. Anderson and his crew of willing talent made it work.
Now, as a fan of the film since its original release, it’s hard to go into a retrospective and not be biased. This is a movie I can quote from front to back, so this isn’t as much a look at the history of the film but what it meant and still means to all its fatality-loving fans.
Anyone who’s loved a video game and waited on bated breath for a movie knows what it feels like to see the things you loved about the game get lost in translation when leaping to the big screen. Looking at early examples like the Super Mario Bros movie, you see that the filmmakers simply don’t understand what made people fall in love with the property in the first place. Even a recent film like Sonic The Hedgehog is enjoyable but feels like a distant cousin to the platforming adventure we know in the games.
Mortal Kombat somehow avoids those growing pains when moving the cinemas. This is by no means a declaration of the film’s perfection or saying it gets everything from the game, but the film feels exactly like watching a cinematic cut scene for a video game. The characters feel true to the source material, the action is plentiful, and even though it never does down the route of brutality like the games, it’s still bad-ass to see.
It also flat-out feels like the filmmakers enjoyed adapting this material. That’s a notion that I think is important when taking an iconic novel, comic, or game and making it into a movie. If you don’t have even an ounce of the love those diehard fans do, then the project shouldn’t be for you.
I’m not here to say I think Paul W.S. Anderson is the biggest Mortal Kombat fanboy in the world, or that the crew was playing it endlessly on-set, but I do think they took it seriously enough and showed some respect. Look, it’s a video game about an evil wizard getting muscle people to fight to the death, but if you want to mock that fact, then why would you want to make it? It feels like nowadays, these types of “video game-to-movie” adaptations aren’t being made by people with anything more than surface-level admiration. Like did Snowtown and Macbeth‘s Justin Kurzel really enjoy Assassin’s Creed, or did he just see the money in tackling a video game?
I go back to the Warcraft movie from a few years ago, and you can tell that was made by someone (Duncan Jones) who actually understood the world he was trying to bring to the mainstream. Though, he’s a good example of making it very niche and making inaccessible, which Mortal Kombat does not struggle with at all.
It feels hard to pinpoint why exactly this film works for fans and casual enjoyers alike, but it has a level of campiness that feels so earnest and admirable. The score feels like a 90’s rave at 3 AM, with a theme song that still gets people pumped to this day. Seriously, if you are ever at the gym and need extra motivation, throw on that Mortal Kombat theme song. When even your movie’s soundtrack is hitting a level of camp and reaching cult status, you know you made it.
Even if you want to look at 1995’s Mortal Kombat as “so bad, it’s good,” that’s incredibly fair. With all my high praise and enjoyment, the cinema snob in me can’t ignore the obvious flaws. While nowhere near as poorly-made as its 1997 sequel, this movie has an unpolished vibe to it. Endearing for some, you can easily laugh at some of the special-effects through the movie, mostly when dealing with Reptile or the strange animatronic Goro. The dialogue is so cheesy that you sometimes want to cringe, but it does feel like it’s ripped out of a 90’s video game. Like while I respect Robin Shou as an actor, not even his charming acting could make lines like “SHANG TSUNG KILLED MY BROTHER!” work.
Through all of that, though, Mortal Kombat moves along with a brisk pace and enough action that you are moving on to something new before a bad line has the time to sink in. This might sound a little “back in my day” of me, but it’s hard to find good campy, cheesy movies like this anymore. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, there’s never a dull moment, and you feel like they are really trying to make it work through all the insanity. Now, you feel like filmmakers are trying to manufacture films to be cult classics, instead of honestly creating something that meets that criteria. You can’t force honest campiness in a film. For anyone who loves movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show or Flash Gordon will tell you, that type of insanity is hard to fake. And Mortal Kombat feels like one of those movies that just gets it.
As fans casually await to see what producer James Wan and director Simon McQuoid can cook up in the upcoming 2021 film, it’s still a joy to go back and watch the original. I don’t want to speak for all fans, but in the world of fans revolting of reboots and remakes, it feels like the Mortal Kombat fanbase is finding a way to love the past, while still looking forward to the future.
With such a beloved and easy-to-love film like 1995 original, it’s nice to know that we will always have that as a home base. Much like the polarizing sequel, if this new version isn’t great, there’s still a perfectly great entry always to look back on. As we hit the twenty-five-year mark since this film’s release, it’s hard to think of a video game movie that works on this many levels.
It’s a respectable adaptation of a popular game, and it’s a low-budget martial arts movie that made a lot of money. It’s also a cult classic that anyone can enjoy for a few laughs.
It’s Mortal Kombat, and dammit, it’s a flawless victory to me.