Midway took the arcades by storm in 1993 with the release of their phenomenally sinister game Mortal Kombat.
Reviewers of the time, drunk on bias towards Streetfighter II, gave it par to sub-par reviews, but the reality was that the game was an absolute beast, and one which managed to make a huge dent in the seemingly impenetrable armour of Capcom's flagship game. Fast forward two years later and the game to film craze was well under way, although also loaded with a reputation of producing utter turds. Yes just about every film to game translation had been either dire or 'so bad it's good', so another entry was met with a sigh and a bracing of the anus.
The script is probably the best this kind of film has ever seen at the time. The odd line of cheddar manages to smuggle it's smelly self through the cracks, but is usually and fortunately delivered by some of the more experienced (and better) cast members. The rest is the usual mystical affair, which on the whole is unexciting, but the dialogue does contain odd nuggets of snappiness which are quite memorable.
Special mention of the film must go to the production itself. Director Paul W.S. Anderson (Event Horizon, AvP) could have handled the project like a lazy paycheque, but he actually puts real effort into making an exceptionally solid film. His eye for stylish visuals really shines through, and the sets are absolutely magnificent! Creaky, ancient looking rooms, beautiful lighting and cinematography with moody tones everywhere, and just the right amount of dust in the air at all times.
The centrepiece of the effects is a life sized animatronic Goro, which has a genuinely surprising talent of not being shite! The Goro model is very charismatic and is even in some fight scenes. Given the fact that it broke a few records in puppetry, that's pretty cool. If I had one complaint about how the film looked it would be that a mixing of teal and orange colours give it a slight post-Burton Batman feel, but it's nothing to really worry about. For the time the effects were really top notch, and even today they still hold up quite well and do their job (although they may be a little TV-ish) . The only chink in the armour being the Reptile CGI model which, even for 1995, was atrocious.
As expected, the film stars a whole bunch of first timers, advert monkeys, potential porn stars, and general unknowns playing the various characters from the game. The noted exceptions of Highlander's Christopher Lambert as Raiden and "proper" actor Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa as Shang-Tsung stand out.
Hiroyuki-Tagawa plays the role of Shang-Tsung with absolute seriousness, and it makes a HUGE difference having someone of his experience in role like this. He is sinister, conniving and everything you would expect or hope from a villain of this sort. However, I don't think a set of Fu-Mancu whiskers would have hurt to bring him a little closer to the game character.
Lambert switches from gruff overseer to complete cheese machine throughout, and a good chunk of the film's goofy humour comes from his performance. He dafts it up just to the point where cringe is about to set in and then pulls back to draw out a hearty laugh from the viewer.
Now to the controversial subject of the action. Mortal Kombat was known for a few things, but most of all the gore. The glorious buckets and buckets of claret which appeared in the game caused an international outrage from do-gooders, God squads and general fun-busters who believe we should all be sitting in playing tiddlywinks and reading the bible every Saturday night.
The film, even while receiving a 15 certificate here in the UK, sadly had to drop the insane bloodlet of the game as there is really no way to convey that amount of lovely horribleness on screen without being really nasty about it. With that, the fatalities and general blood globs have been left out, bar a sneaky attempt by Scorpion in one scene. The surprising part is that it doesn't really affect the film at all. This is largely thanks to the aforementioned atmospheric visuals, but also some well crafted action scenes. The fighting and general martial arts action in Mortal Kombat, although not quite Hong Kong standard, are extremely well choreographed and stylishly shot. There are tons of energy in the scraps, and much more style than the usual one hit close up garbage of the more kiddie friendly films. This once again raises the movie above the sea of shit that it has the unfortunate task of swimming through. If I had one really huge moan about the film it's that the 90's techno title music is used FAR too much throughout. I'd even go so far as to say that the music dates the film even more than the effects.
Robin Shou is fine as the buff main hero Liu Kang, albeit a little under charismatic, but solid nevertheless. Special mention must go to the late Trevor Goddard who turns in a magnificently charismatic and cornball performance as Kano. His cheesy chuckle alone will have you laughing, and his goon like portrayal of the mischievous cyborg certainly spices up the film a good notch.
As for Sonya Blade, a beat was most definitely missed by not recruiting Cynthia Rothrock for the role. Not only is she a phenomenal martial artist, and not only does she look almost identical to the game character, but her acting chops are really no worse than Bridgette Wilson's. Rothrock's inclusion would also have been a nice reuniting of her and her China O' Brian co-star - the amazingly leggy martial arts star Keith Cooke, who plays the human form of Reptile.
Compared to other movies it's still a raging ball of Gorgonzola, but in it's own genre and in general, it's a stylish, solid, funny, and highly enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. Furthermore, to have remained at the number 1 spot for two decades in the 'film based on a game' genre is a truly remarkable feat.
Thoroughly recommended for general viewings, drunken gatherings, and romantic nights in!