Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat. Threshold Entertainment 1995.

Before watching the movie:

I’m not a fan of fighting games. I don’t consider learning complicated button combinations to use against your opponent until all their health is drained to be all that fun, and the carnage Mortal Kombat offered as its selling point did not sweeten the deal.

I know so little about fighting game franchises I was thinking about Raul Julia camping it up when I selected this, but that’s Street Fighter. So all I have to go on for what to expect is mystic Orientalist action focused through a tournament. I’m not sure if it would be more fun for it to make sense or not make sense.

After watching the movie:

Liu Kang, after several years in America getting away from the prophecies, is called home to the monastery after the murder of his brother. Action movie star Johnny Cage is the best fighter around, but dogged by rumors he’s a fake. Sonya Blade won’t rest until she gets the man who killed her partner, without anyone else’s assistance. They have all been chosen to compete in a tournament known as Mortal Kombat, an ancient conflict to decide the fate of the realm of Earth, and accept for their own selfish reasons. The realm of Earth as defended by Lord Raiden the thunder god will be forfeited to Emperor Shao Khan if the Outworld champions of his sorcerer Shang Tsung defeat the champions of Earth in ten successive tournaments held once in a generation. Earth has lost the last nine times.

From a craft perspective, fighting games, which are heavy on interactivity and light on story, seem a bad mix with movies, a narrative medium with no interactivity. From a business perspective, of course a very lucrative arcade franchise was getting an adaptation. Where a lot of video game movies can get carried away with the story and lose the game, this one tries very hard to feel like you’re watching someone else play the game while your quarter is next in line. The story is not much more fleshed out than in the game, from which I remember the plot as “something something tournament something save the world”, and several scenes are barely contextualized elaborate fight scenes.

Many of those scenes are clearly part of the tournament, taking place in a staged arena. Others, no doubt bringing in the variety of locations the game’s fights take place in, seem more random, yet seem to count as official matches. Still others come entirely out of nowhere and seem to have no consequence but five minutes of cool-looking action.

A lot of music and sound effects come directly from the game too. It usually works if you don’t think of the sounds as being diegetic, but even after I got used to the digitized theme tune being used for fights, I still think I’d have preferred to hear it on real instruments for the title sequence. I seem to recall that people who love the game disagree because the title sequence is directly from the startup animation or something.

The characters seem to have only minimal obligatory arcs. They’re flat out told what they need to learn and then demonstrate they’ve learned it at the very next opportunity. Liu and Sonya seem to have basically the same motivation, but while Liu has it informing his actions for the entire movie, Sonya gets her revenge in her very first fight, and then moves on to learning to let others fight for her sometimes. They all three seem to have the same narrative importance at first, but then Liu’s Chosen One status means Johnny and Sonya spend the climax as spectators, thoroughly superfluous. While Shang Tsung is a fairly engaging villain, Raiden is odd and barely there aside from expositing. Sometimes he’s a very serious guardian of light and sometimes he’s so laid back or flippant he ends up being the campiest character in a movie of pure camp.

Mortal Kombat the video game is a string of fights loosely tied together with an excuse plot. Mortal Kombat the movie is a string of fights loosely tied together with an excuse plot. It isn’t a complete mess of a movie, but it’s as close to putting the game into theaters as possible, at least to this viewer with barely any knowledge of the franchise. It may be the most successful adaptation out there.

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