2.5 out of 5
There are few things better to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon than pummelling your friend into bloody submission. The sickening crack of their bones. The pitiful cries for mercy. Unfortunately delivering such a vicious beating is massively illegal. So instead most of us sate our primal blood-lust via completely legal surrogates: gory fighting games. A genre which has made millions of dollars pitting friends and family against one another in savage melees. Among fighters, Mortal Kombat is one of those seminal games that put the genre on the map. A violent opus which featured magical ninjas, four armed monsters, a lighting god, a shape shifting sorcerer and a Jean Claude Van Damme wannabe. As a kid, it was glorious.
The game was tremendously popular and more than a little controversial. So of course there was a sequel. When it too proved profitably popular a movie deal was struck. This is when things started to go wrong. The New Line executives were eager for a hit off the teen demographic crackpipe. However in order to fully capitalize on this audience the movie would have to tone down the violence and gore in order to receive a coveted PG-13 rating. But in doing so they removed what drew those teenage fans to Mortal Kombat in the first place! Oh sure there is still fighting. Lots of it. In fact the fight choreography and stunt work is tremendous. But it's that friendly Power Ranger style of martial arts violence. Any human character who is killed usually meets their end due to internal injuries; Kano (Trevor Goddard) for example has his neck snapped. Violent to be sure but totally bloodless. The mystical characters like Reptile or Subzero kick the bucket in far more dramatic fashion. Scorpion even gets the top of his head sliced off. But he looked like an unlit Ghost Rider at the time. He was visibly inhuman and bled lava thus making the increased brutality socially acceptable. Neutring denied us fans a properly bloody adaptation.
So what did Director Paul W.S Anderson replace the blood with? Cheese. Glorious early nineties cheese. The story is thus: Earth is under siege by a whole supernatural host from another dimension called Outworld. The only way to protect our fair planet from their ravages? Pit our finest martial artists against theirs in a tournament of course. That's about it. Oh sure, there are a handful of useless subplots but they don't go anywhere. Our protagonist is the heroic Asian stereotype Liu Kang, played by martial artist turned actor Robin Shou. Shou was hired for his look and kung fu prowess. Not his acting talent. Though in his defence he isn't the worst offender. That would Talisa Soto as Kitana. Supporting Shou are an anaemic Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) and the hard nosed Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson). Ashby is a ham but his unlikely chemistry with Shou makes their scenes bearable. Wilson however is one of the most wooden performers I have ever seen. Trying to watch her and Ashby sell their abortive love story sub plot is unintentionally hilarious. The cast is rounded out by the scenery chewing Shang Tseung (Cary-Hiroyuki Takagawa) and the sarcastic thunder deity Raiden (Christopher Lambert). Lambert's casting was a particularly inspired choice. Maybe the cast wouldn't have seemed so bad if they had a decent script to work with. Unfortunately it is beyond terrible and most of these people don't have the chops to salvage the cliche ridden garbage.
Though the acting and script are bottom of the barrel, the same cannot be said for the visuals. It had a decently large budget for 1995 ($20 million). Most of the movie takes place in Outworld, an Asian influenced dark fantasy world. Full of decaying monasteries, torch lit halls, rattan huts and overgrown gardens packed with grotesque statues. All of which were built with tremendous care and detail. Much of the movie was shot on location in Thailand and the remote setting is sensationally beautiful. The lighting, while wildly impractical, is extremely well done. Giving all the scenes an other-worldly look. The only major visual flaw is the CGI for the Reptile character, who spends most of the movie in a small dinosaur like form. CGI doesn't age gracefully. What impressed me back then, looks laughably crude now.
Sadly tight visuals are not enough. It's like throwing a life jacket to a man with an anchor tied around his neck. The gesture is noble but he is still going to drown. Nonetheless I would still recommend Mortal Kombat. Admittedly my fondness for this film is partly inspired by nostalgia, but not all of it. The terrible truth is that Mortal Kombat is surprisingly entertaining. Its sheer badness makes it a treat to watch and mercilessly mock. Which is a moral victory of sorts for the filmmakers I suppose.
Final Verdict: A visually impressive festival of nostalgia inducing cheese.