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Back in 1995, Paul Anderson's (Resident Evil, AvP, Event Horizon) take on the hugely popular video game franchise Mortal Kombat opened in theaters. At that point, the first 3 Mortal Kombat games were out and many of us were addicted to them. I was 10 years-old at the time and, after more than likely begging my dad to go with me, I was able to get into a theater with him and watch some of my favorite video game characters battle on the big screen. Back then, I was amazed by what I had witnessed. The fights were jaw-dropping, the special effects were terrific, and the music filled me with energy. Who else had the soundtrack on cassette? I'm guessing a lot of you. For many of us, we have a lot of positive memories attached to this movie, but does it stand the test of time? Can 29 year-old me watch it and still love it or... well, does it not hold up? I've rewatched it (on Blu-ray) and we have a lot to discuss. So, grab a drink, get comfy, and let's talk about the first Mortal Kombat. Just the first one, though. There's no way I'm rewatching the second any time soon.
Right when the movie starts, you're hit with nostalgia. You know the electronic theme that screams Mortal Komba(aaaaaaa)t? Yeah, that's exactly how this movie begins. It's silly and obviously dated, but if you like the franchise, it'll make you smile. In fact, that one line basically summarizes how I felt about the entire movie when all is said and done. "It's silly, but it'll make you smile." I won't get into every silly part of the movie, but there's plenty that are worth noting. For example, Sonya and Jax are hunting Kano and they need to make their way through a rock concert/club/whatever that place is supposed to be (I wasn't cool enough to ever go to anything like that). Instead of pushing her way through the mosh pit and people rocking out, Sonya's straight up hitting them with her shotgun and there's sound effects to let us know she's not just shoving them aside; she's striking them. Then, when she does finally find a villain, she fires her shotgun while she's just feet away from the innocent people and no one reacts to it. I get it, there's loud music playing so maybe some people couldn't hear, but the people standing several feet away from her? Yeah, they're going to notice a shotgun blast. Equally silly is Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade being totally cool with a man zipping around as pure electricity and ninjas who can have freaky spears and ice come out of their hands. Sure, there's a bit of dialogue after the scene is over (Sonya thinks there's a "reasonable" explanation, though?), but you'd think seeing something like that would generate a pretty big reaction, right? Also, there are two times when a character says "flawless victory" and it definitely doesn't apply since the winner was hit during the fight. Not really sure how they could mess that one up. Lastly, when you're making fights so visceral and intense, to suddenly include a bicycle kick and to make it send the target flipping and flipping kind of hindered the tone. I get we're in a world where there's surreal powers and crazy things, but that stood out. Fan service? Sure, but man, it's so silly. The flying dragon kick could have accomplished the same thing with making it feel too over-the-top.
"Those are all minor complaints. Stop overthinking things and have fun with the movie." Hey now, there's more than just that and let's remember my task is to analyze the movie, okay? Now, the script is overflowing with exposition. Yeah, there's a lot of mythos here, but it's handled in a very blunt way. When Shang Tsung talks about Kitana to Goro (oh yes, we'll discuss Goro later), there's literally no reason why Goro, an individual who is well aware of who Kitana is, would respond by giving a brief recap of her history. That's like someone bringing up your best friend, and instead of continuing the conversation in an organic way, you say something like, "the person born in Vermont and currently 25 years of age?" They tell you about many of these characters in an unnatural way and it's pretty noticeable. The material with the heroes is handled well, especially their introductions (for the most part), but man, once more characters begin to spill into this world, they're often focusing on telling you who's who and what's what. It's not bad, but it's not handled smoothly and the exposition piles on. If you go into this with zero knowledge of the franchise, you're probably going to walk away not caring about it or wanting to learn more.
The plot's as simple as it gets and the characters aren't compelling. Entertaining, yes. Compelling? Not so much. That said, the pacing is solid. There's plenty of buildup in the beginning (along with some laughs and action), and then they deliver a ton of action (we'll get into how it's executed in a bit) and it only slows down from time to time, just to remind us there's a story here or there's more to certain characters. Technically, the main group experiences growth, but it's all placed on the fast-track. Let's be honest, they know you're here for the punching and kicking, so that's what they're focused on giving you.
There's a surprising amount of comedy. From casual remarks about "too much television" being bad for you to the first interaction between Johnny Cage and Liu Kang, the movie has a lot of little moments of levity sprinkled throughout. Christopher Lambert's performance may not be what comes to mind when you think of Raiden, but his personality and the way he balances the tone makes things a little bit more fun. Linden Ashby's great as Johnny Cage and that's where most of my laughs came from. Yeah, this was a decade full of one-liners and this movie's no exception, but they're still entertaining.
Back in 1995, the CGI wasn't exactly the best around. Fully organic things like Scorpion's spear and Reptile don't look good, but things like zaps of electricity or a floating skull look fine. Nothing here will amaze your eyes, but only Reptile and Scorpion's spear feel really dated. However, the movie does deserve a good amount of praise for the huge amount of practical effects that are used. Aside from one scene on a boat (you can so tell they're just standing on a set), it looks like a lot of time was spent attempting to bring these sets to life. There's a surprising amount of statues and engravings; you can just tell they took a lot of time creating these locations. I'm also grateful that Goro is practical. Yes, in doing so, that means his mobility is limited and the lip sync seems off at times, but the close-ups of that dude are frightening. There's no way any of us would want to be in the same room as that guy. They make him quite slow and it's laughable how often he's just screaming -- especially when they make it clear he's intelligent -- but, when we get a good look at his expressions or his hands, it's effective stuff. It looks so silly when they try to make him move more than he should (there's a brief shot of Cage climbing away and they attempt to make Goro walk), but it's still not shabby. Compared to modern technology? Okay, it's miles behind. But it still deserves some praise and held up very well for many shots. Man, now I'm left wondering what motion capture Goro would look like.
Seeing as this is a movie based on a fighting game, some of you are probably wondering whether the fight scenes hold up. The good news is that most of them do. They won't leave you stunned, but they're still a blast. There's a lot of attempts to really pull you into the fight and those shots are commendable. In fact, there's a decent amount of cool shots that throw you right into the perspective of someone being struck and that makes it more frenetic and fast-paced. There's others which do a good job building the anticipation. For me, the highlight has to be Johnny Cage versus Scorpion. Even though the spear has dated visual effects, it's still a really entertaining fight sequence. The bit in the woods has a solid amount of tension and the hand-to-hand sequence is without question the most vicious and impressively choreographed one. The slow motion is limited and it's all about a close and crazy brawl between these two combatants. Cage isn't the best tactician around when he tries to go for the high ground, but it's still a cool stunt and the ending is something fans will appreciate. There aren't any "bad" fight scenes, but some of them go a little too heavy on slow motion or are conclude a little too soon (Sonya vs. Kano, Liu Kang vs. Sub-Zero). And yes, when "test your might" begins to play during an action scene, it's dated and something you'll only appreciate if you liked it back in the day. For everyone else, it'll probably be a laughably dated element.
So, does it hold up? If you enjoyed the movie back when it was released or if you like the video games, then yeah, you'll still be able to enjoy watching it. It's fast-paced, has a surprising amount of laughs, and a number of the fights still manage to entertain. Some of the CGI is noticeably dated, the plot is as standard as it gets and there's plenty of silliness, but if you have any connection to the franchise, the movie's numerous problems won't get in the way of enjoying what it does well. It really is a shame the big cliffhanger never received a good follow-up, but at least this still remains fun and the digital live-action series was enjoyable. That said, if you have zero connection to this franchise, this isn't going to win you over and it'll just be a pretty formulaic '90s action movie -- you're better of watching something like The Raid if you want an amazing modern martial arts movie. Fans of the franchise, it does hold up. Is it technically a "good" movie? Despite some creative shots, charismatic performances, and good stunts, I wouldn't say it is. But a movie doesn't need to be "good" (a.k.a. have a thought-provoking script, brilliant performances, etc) to captivate. It's still a whole lot of silly fun and that's exactly what you should expect when going into it. This is based on a fighting game, after all. Maybe one day we'll get a new Mortal Kombat movie, but for now, this is still a pretty good time. Just don't expect it to win over any friends who aren't into the franchise.
Why'd we review this movie now? It's because the comic book series MORTAL KOMBAT X was just released and we wanted to celebrate it. The first digital issue went on sale last Tuesday and a physical copy will go on sale next Wednesday. It's pretty awesome, so check it out, Mortal Kombat fans. For more information, read our review.