Travel with me, if you will, back to the year 1995. “Gangsta’s Paradise” is playing on the radio as you and your friends gather around your Sega Genesis to play your favorite game, Mortal Kombat (or maybe Mortal Kombat II). Your character is dancing wildly around on your 32-inch-yet-somehow-300-pound TV as you try to remember how to execute Sub Zero’s fatality. And then someone says the magic words, “Hey did you guys hear they’re making a Mortal Kombat movie?”
Fast forward to August. You’ve seen the movie. You have opinions. If you were like me and saw this as a young child, you might be waking up to the harsh realization that movies can be bad. How can this be? Movies are always great! Adults say they don’t like some movies, sure, but they’re just jaded. But this thing you just saw was a combination of your two favorite things; Mortal Kombat and movies. Why do you have this weird feeling that what you just saw is not something you enjoyed?
Well, younger me, fear not! What you saw wasn’t that bad. Yes, it was technically a bad movie, but oh man is it enjoyable. And I would also argue that Mortal Kombat was as good a movie as it could have been given the circumstances surrounding its creation.
Let’s start by looking at the source material. The first Mortal Kombat game has two major influences; Bloodsport and Big Trouble in Little China. In fact, Johnny Cage was originally supposed to be a digitized version of Jean Claude Van Damme, but the creators were unable to get the licensing issues worked out. While this is fine for a video game–especially a fighting game that doesn’t particularly have or need an actual plot–this means that a movie version of your story is already trying to fill the shoes of an insane B movie and a what is essentially a riff on insane B movies, respectively.
When you take all this into consideration, you realize the Mortal Kombat movie was always destined to be the movie version of that thing where you type a phrase into Google Translate and then translate it into 4 different languages before translating it back into English and giggling about how weird it got.
So you already have a crazy stew and now you have to give this thing a cohesive narrative thread that will lend itself to a feature film. So you look to another major influence of the game, which was the classic Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon. After all, in the same way that Johnny Cage is a homage to Van Damme, Liu Kang is an obvious Lee stand-in. This presents an archetype for all your characters: Kang is Lee, Cage is Roper, Han is Shang Tsung, Kano is Oharra, Goro is Bolo, Sonya is Tania, Katana is Su Lin, and had Jax gotten any screen time he would’ve been Williams. When you really dig down into it, Mortal Kombat is a fairly straightforward remake of Enter the Dragon. Which is awesome!
The biggest problem with this movie lies in its MPAA rating. Because the audience for the game was teens, the studio thought the Mortal Kombat needed to be PG-13 or nobody would be able to see it. It’s easy to knock this decision now. The average gamer today is 35 years old. But back in 1995, gaming really was largely the domain of the young. After all, the 35-year-olds of today were in their early teens at that time.
This is also a golden age of adapted material. Just look at the success of the MCU. It’s easy to forget that the only decent comic or video game movie at the time Tim Burton’s Batman (and, honestly, despite masterful performances from Jack Nickolson and Michael Keaton, that movie is a little rough). And even with the commercial success of things like the MCU, the Nolan Batman trilogy, and the non-MCU Spider-Man and X-Men since the mid-2000s, we didn’t even get an R-rated comic movie until Deadpool in 2016. So obviously back in 1995, the studio was going to play it safe with the PG-13 rating.
Technically, we got an R-rated Punisher movie in Punisher: War Zone (2008), but it didn’t do well critically or financially and largely flew under the radar. If you haven’t seen it, drop everything and go do so now. In my opinion, it’s the best screen adaptation of The Punisher in existence. AND it was directed by Lexi Alexander, a former stunt woman who used to star in the Mortal Kombat touring live show, which was a thing I saw as a child. A female-helmed, stunt-woman-helmed, ultra-violent, R-rated Punisher adaptation starring Ray Stevenson and Dominic West. It’s seriously the bee’s knees. But I digress.
Finally, we should talk about the director, Paul WS Anderson. Mortal Kombat was only Anderson’s second feature film. Since then, Anderson has spent most of his time making the Resident Evil movies (as well as a personal favorite, Event Horizon). Are those great films? No. Are they great action flicks? Absolutely. The man knows how to direct action and that’s something. He was clearly still stumbling through things like lighting, camera angles, and–you know–directing actors. But it was already clear in 1995 that Anderson had a knack for action.
Anderson is currently working on a Monster Hunter movie starring Milla Jovovich, Tony Jaa, and Ron Pearlman. So, that should be great.
All this is to say that Mortal Kombat was as good as it could have possibly been given the era in which it was made and the circumstances surrounding the production. It’s a fun movie that still makes me giddy when I watch it. The sequels are trash though.
Are you a fan of the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie? Would you want to see the franchise get another shot on the big screen? Let us know in the comments below!
Billy is a freelance writer living in Indianapolis with his dog, BoJack. He enjoys TED talks, video games, sunny days, football, and the salty tears of his enemies.