The Revisited series takes a look back at the 1995 video game adaptation Mortal Kombat, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

With Tyler having the clarity, gumption, and downright insight to throw the first live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie at us as a gateway horror movie, it got me thinking about other movies that aren’t really horror movies but maybe got us thinking about dipping our toes into that now beloved genre. It got me thinking past things like A House with a Clock in its Walls, The Monster Squad, or other kids’ movies that are actually horror movies for kids. It got me thinking of late summer in 1995 and the old Charter Center theater off of Beach Blvd in Huntington Beach, California. It got me thinking of the first time I saw Mortal Kombat (watch it HERE) and what that meant to both me and the state of video games as movies. Turn on your Techno Syndrome from the soundtrack and let’s revisit one of the most important video game movies ever made.

Look, the history of video game movies, both at the beginning of its run and currently, is spotty at best. You had bad then and you have bad now and while you can get some more indie games being made into movies or at least studios taking more chances with what IPs they decide to use now, back in the early 90s it was only the best of the best and the most popular that would be turned into movies. We would start with Mario Brothers and get a fever dream of a movie starring John Leguizamo, Bob Hoskins, and Dennis Hopper. The next movie may not seem like an obvious one, but Double Dragon was a big deal for the arcade and NES on the at home market. The third one would be Street Fighter which revolutionized fighting games with its second entry. Finally, the 4th entry into the now long running attempt to take what worked in the gaming sphere into motion pictures would be Mortal Kombat and boy, is it hard not to scream that at the top of my lungs whenever I say it.

It is impossible to overstate just how important Mortal Kombat was. It took fighting games to a whole new and different level with its violence and blood as well as going from animated characters to digitized actors. Street Fighter II blew our minds in 1991 and Mortal Kombat angered our parents the next year in 1992. Mortal Monday on September 13th, 1993 was very much a big deal with the game coming to multiple home platforms at the same time. There were print ads and one hell of a commercial to promote it and sometimes I’ll just watch it on YouTube to go back in time and be a kid again. I look at my own son, my middle one who just turned 10, and I look forward to showing him this cinematic marvel at the same age I did.

Mortal Kombat was written by Kevin Droney who had only done TV before this and after was able to write another video game script with Wing Commander. The director chosen for this project would eventually become a deft hand at video game movies but Paul W.S. Anderson, that’s different from Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood’s Paul Thomas Anderson, had only done one underseen movie at this point with Shopping. The success of Mortal Kombat, and good lord was it successful, would give us a lengthy career for Mr. Anderson both for better and for worse. How successful was it? Mortal Kombat had a 20-million-dollar budget, which isn’t small, but its 122 million intake at the theaters was nearly larger than the first three game movies box office combined, while also having the third smallest budget of the group. Critics weren’t as happy to see the movie as the general public, with mostly unfavorable reviews except for the notable atmosphere and mostly good fight scenes. How does the movie fare almost 30 years later? Pretty darn fun.

Mortal Kombat revisited

Let’s look at what doesn’t really work and its really mostly a matter of when the movie was made. The effects are less than stellar, particularly the CGI. While the giant animatronic of Prince Goro is kind of silly looking, it also has a quaint charm to it. The stuff that suffers more is when Scorpion tries to shoot his spear out or Reptile appears on screen and makes me give a clear look of confusion and borderline disgust. Again, mid 90s were not exactly known for CGI and nearly every movie that includes it is problematic at best and atrocious at worst. Some of the performances are on the weaker side too, and the script doesn’t exactly lend itself to Oscar consideration even if it isn’t the worst thing we’ve ever heard.

The cast is a mixed bag of fun, too. Trevor Goddard as Kano, Talisa Soto as Kitana, and Bridgette Wilson as Sonya all fill their characters with a fun exuberance that keeps you watching but they are the weak points of it. Also, Kitana? Like Princess Kitana from the second game? Yeah, the second game had come out during production, and they mixed some of that game into the movie like Kitana and Shao Kahn who makes an appearance at the very end. Oh yeah, that make up isn’t anything special either. This was the first time I saw Robin Shou in anything, but he embodies nearly everything we saw from Liu Kang in both his brief text back story in the game and the moves his digital counterpart has. While the game one, noises included, is Bruce Lee caricature, Shou gives him an emotional punch that makes rooting for him fun and helped make him the hero of the games going forward.

As cool as Shou is, and he would get some more fun roles in things like Beverly Hills Ninja and Death Race, go back and watch some of his non US output as it is underrated. Cary Tagawa as Shang Tsung became so iconic that he would reprise the role in animated films and future games alike and he can be seen in major roles on both the big and small screen. The person I want to give the biggest shout out to is Linden Ashby who plays Johnny Cage. Ashby is probably a name that jumps to the front of your mind, but he has been around in multiple genres for what seems like forever. One of his earliest roles was in the TV series Werewolf which I am mentioning for that one commenter that always wants us to cover in our horror TV series retrospective, but he was also in Melrose Place, Teen Wolf, and The Young and the Restless on the TV side. The movie front is less prolific, but he is in Wyatt Earp with Costner and please go seek out Blast, its his version of Die Hard and is, well, a blast.

Ashby’s version of Cage is so iconic that it’s one of those roles that will always be hard to replace or replicate going forward. He is a primadona actor that is actually good at fighting but in need of proving it which is why he joins the Mortal Kombat tournament in the first place. His character also has an honest to goodness arc where he volunteers to fight Goro and save his friends. He proves himself to not only the other heroes but also to his own heart and mind. He has some of the best lines and line deliveries in the movie and a lot of his scenes are where the horror aspect of this gem lies. He fights Scorpion in Hell, and we see him do his iconic face and mask removal to reveal his skeleton head. He takes out Goro as well who is almost a classic monster in his design, something that Ray Harryhausen would have loved to throw against Sinbad in any of his adventures. The final piece to the casting puzzle is a strange bit of what would now be seen as whitewashing with the wonderful Christopher Lambert as God of Thunder Raiden. He straddles the line perfectly between silly bad and fun.

Mortal Kombat revisited

The elements we’ve discussed don’t always make for good filmmaking, but it doesn’t have to be to be both successful and fun. The fight scenes all mostly work and while it has to make up its own story as it goes because the game didn’t have more than a few blurbs here and there, it does a good job of filling in the gaps. I was so hyped to watch this movie that when the film reel burned up during the penultimate fight scene, I was in tears when they asked us to leave the theater. TEARS. They fixed it and called us back in just in time to see Liu Kang knock Shang Tsung into a makeshift pit, one of the more iconic locals from the game, and all was right in the world. While I was not personally scared by the movie, I could see it affecting younger viewers or parents calling it a light horror movie. It was released by New Line Cinema after all which was affectionately known as the house that Freddy built.

The scenes in outworld, the previously mentioned Hell segment, the spooky boat ride to the tournament grounds, the fatalities (well, most of them), and both the nightmare sequence that Liu has mixed with Shao Kahn appearing at the end all could have given anyone bad dreams. Who are we to say what is definitively scary on such a subjective subject. The series would have quite the legs to it as well with a sequel called Annihilation coming two years later that is widely known as one of the worst movies ever as well as shows both live action and cartoon and reboots and additional sequels. None of these have had the same impact as the game series, which is still going strong 30 years later, but that original movie comes close to standing shoulder to shoulder with it, even getting some cameo callbacks in recent entries of the game series.

Video games as movies is a big and lucrative business as the billion dollars that the newest Mario movie taught us and after MK1, we would get things like Resident Evil movies, Silent Hill, and even Five Nights at Freddy’s adaptations to follow but you never forget your first and for many of us, Mortal Kombat was that first. It showed us that a video game adaptation could both make money and be pretty decent. It taught us that we didn’t need a 100% faithful recreation of the video game to have a good time at the movies. Mortal Kombat fought round 1 so all that came after it could have a round 2.

Two previous episodes of Revisited can be seen below. To see more of our shows, head over to the JoBlo Horror Originals channel – and subscribe while you’re at it!

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