Mortal Kombat was the first video game I ever owned. It came with my Sega Genesis, which I’m pretty sure my parents bought second-hand. It was a long time ago. Because of that, I guess it was kind of destined to be my #1 favorite video game franchise. I grew up with every incarnation of it, from the good to the very, very bad. I was young when I got it, so I’m pretty sure the things I loved most at first were the violence and the colorful characters. But I quickly started getting into the story.
The problem was that Mortal Kombat, as a game, didn’t really have a story. When the movie came out, I wasn’t skeptical about how it was going to be able to pull off an adaptation of a 2D fighting game, I didn’t care. I just wanted to see it. Those things only impressed me to look back on when I got much older. I loved that film from the first time I saw it and, yes, I still love it to this day. This feature continues to amaze me with how much it accomplishes from how little it had to work with.
The overall story behind Mortal Kombat is something that fans got glimpses of in instruction manuals. There were maybe a few scrolling words of intro at the start of the game to give you the basic setup, but the game itself told you nothing about the characters. If you were a diehard fan, you could seek out other materials, like the comic book tie-ins or the game’s novelization. But for most people, they knew it was a game about people hitting other people.
That’s not to take away from the game’s story at all, because it’s fascinating. It truly is. But it’s amazing that the filmmakers would take note of everything, even if they had to dig, and would incorporate that into the feature in truly interesting ways.
The movie adheres to all of the little scraps that fans were given to the overall story, but then it expands upon them. It creates, believe it or not, genuinely fleshed out characters. When we’re introduced to Liu Kang, Sonya Blade and Johnny Cage, our three main heroes, we get an immediate feel for who they are and what they’re fighting for. They each have individual personalities. They each have flaws within themselves that they are trying to overcome.
Liu and Sonya are both, at first, fighting for revenge. Liu knows that his brother was murdered by Shang Tsung and hopes to take revenge on the sorcerer at the tournament. Sonya is literally baited to the island by Tsung’s enlisting of Kano, the underworld crime boss who killed Sonya’s partner. And then there’s Johnny, fighting for himself. The other two have to overcome their anger and their bloodlust—through a fighting competition, ironically—while Johnny has to overcome his enormous ego.
From the structure down to the visual style and stunt choreography, Mortal Kombat is completely influenced by Enter the Dragon. I love that about it. It’s still its own thing and it still represents the game down to its core, but it also is a martial arts movie taking heavy influence from one of the best martial arts films of all time. There’s nothing wrong with that at all.
By the end of this film, I care about all three of these characters. I understand them. They each go through a journey, some more subtly than others, and frankly that’s amazing. Before this, these were characters that people had only been heard expressing themselves through grunts, yells, and high pitched screeches. This movie gives them a voice and gives us as an audience a reason to care.
Yes, there are some very obvious flaws. As charismatic as Raiden is in the movie, it’s still a bit of a problem casting Christopher Lambert as the Chinese God of Thunder. There are some incredibly dated effects as well. All of the ‘90s CGI is bad, but when you get to the sequel, you realize just how sparingly it’s actually used in this one. At the very least, there are some excellent practical makeup and animatronic effects courtesy of Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis. Sonya also gets the short end of the stick, starting out as a tough badass and having to play damsel by the end.
But I think the strengths of Mortal Kombat outweigh the weaknesses. It has everything I liked about ‘90s action movies. It’s fun, funny, extremely well-paced, with characters you can root for and that are genuinely likeable. It’s got some great fight sequences, too. In fact, one of the best things about is that as much as it gives the game an actual story—it still gives you the experience of playing the game. That’s probably the most subtly smart thing about it.
The early fights are kind of non-threatening. We see a bunch of shirtless extras go down quick and then we’re treated to Sonya vs. Kano. From there, the fights only increase in difficulty. We’ve got Johnny out of his element battling Scorpion, which is a terrific, kind of trippy sequence as it plays out in an untraceably large and organized forest before leaping into a scary (and, from the looks of it, kind of piratey) Hellscape. Then we have the non-fight between Liu and Kitana that’s basically a “Test Your Might” round before Liu takes on Sub-Zero.
That leads us right into Johnny’s fight with the game’s penultimate boss, Goro, before Liu’s fight with Reptile. This one might seem to come out of nowhere, but Reptile was a secret character in the original game that was unplayable and intensely hard to fight. So putting him right before the big “final boss” battle with Shang Tsung only makes sense. The film takes you all the way up the game’s traditional challenge latter, but—almost unbelievably—it doesn’t forget to be a genuine movie either. That’s where the sequel truly lost its way.
At the end of the day, Mortal Kombat is popcorn entertainment of the highest caliber, and that’s really all it should be. It’s a showcase of everything Paul W.S. Anderson is best at as a filmmaker. And it is wholly representative of its time. Exciting, dynamic, funny and genuinely sentimental at times, Mortal Kombat is without question one of the best video game adaptations we’ve ever seen.