Many modern video game movies suffer from the delusion that they must be “good.” Mortal Kombat didn’t have that problem.
Released in 1995, Mortal Kombat followed what some call the unholy trinity of early ‘90s video game adaptations: Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon, and Street Fighter. The legacy of those films are forever entangled, but it’s not entirely fair to lump them together in terms of either quality or success. For instance, Street Fighter did fairly well for itself at the box office (it grossed almost $100 million off a $35 million budget) and is actually fondly remembered by some for its irreverent nature and Raul Julia’s show-stealing final performance. Comparatively, Double Dragon and Super Mario Bros. both failed to make their budgets back (the latter is considered to be a historic film failure) and were both at least in the conversation for being the worst major movies of their era.
However, there is one element which ties all these films together. Each of them tried to be something they were not.
Super Mario Bros., the game, was about two plumbers in a magical kingdom. Super Mario Bros., the movie, was a film about a lizard-ruled dystopian metropolis where the people’s revolution is aided by the use of rocket boots. The Street Fighter film was notable for its almost complete lack of actual street fighting. Double Dragon’s director seemed more interested in seeing how much scenery Robert Patrick could chew than he did in trying to turn any of the game’s trademark elements into something watchable.
These films sent a very clear message to video game fans everywhere: the games you love are stupid and Hollywood studios are only interested in them because they think you might just be dumb enough to buy into whatever they make with a video game title attached to it. More than insulting, that entire practice called into question whether or not there was any point to making films based on video games at all.
Mortal Kombat was different. When schlock producer Lawrence Kasanoff visited Midway Games in the ‘90s, he spent half an hour playing on a Mortal Kombat machine. He turned to Midway Games boss Neil D. Nicastro and told him that he felt this game was “Star Wars meets Enter the Dragon.” He thought it had the potential to be a global phenomenon. Even Nicastro thought he was out of his mind.
He was – this is the guy who produced C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D., after all – but that didn’t mean he was wrong. Mortal Kombat was a genuine gaming phenomenon that flew in the face of morality and lured gamers to arcades in droves with its “realistic” graphics, brutal moves, and outlandish characters. It was the game kids were told not to play. Naturally, that ensured that nearly all of them did.
Kasanoff wasn’t strictly interested in making a great Mortal Kombat film, but rather in finding a way to use the film as the basis for his own multimedia empire based on Mortal Kombat. On paper, that sounds like the exact same philosophy that led to the downfall of the unholy trinity of video game movies. In practice, it worked because nobody involved with the project really had a clue what they were doing.
Director Paul W.S. Anderson had directed one movie before Mortal Kombat and didn’t even know how to properly direct a movie that used CGI. Mortal Kombat‘s script was essentially written on the fly and heavily relied on the actors ad-libbing large chunks of dialogue (a fact screenwriter Kevin Droney bemoaned as he felt it compromised his vision). Robin Shou – who played Liu Kang – became one of the film’s unofficial fight choreographers because he had actually been in martial arts movies before. At one point, the crew had to find “a guy” with heavy machinery after watching their local help in Thailand spend half the day trying to push a boulder out of the way between cigarette breaks.
There was genuine talent on the film’s crew, but the underlying level of ignorance on the set lead to a glorious moment in film history that single-handedly saved Mortal Kombat. Because Anderson and the rest of the team weren’t entirely sure they knew what they were doing, they decided to turn to Mortal Kombat fans for feedback.
When those fans at test screenings told them that their movie sucked, they listened. When those fans told them there weren’t nearly enough fight scenes in the movie, they listened. When fans told them the classical orchestral music score didn’t fit at all, they listened. Anderson was also a fan of the game and treated these comments as gospel from the very people the movie was made for. Anderson and his crew weren’t necessarily trying to make a movie that was good; they were trying to make a movie that felt like Mortal Kombat.
Those fans’ notes are responsible for the film’s greatest elements. That’s especially true of those who said there weren’t nearly enough fights in the film. Because of that feedback, the epic showdown between Johnny Cage and Scorpion – which is an oddly well-shot piece of action that harkens back to classic samurai battles – was added to the film alongside several other action sequences.
What some of those sequences lacked in merit – some of them felt as authentic as the mid-meal battles at Medieval Times – they made up for in absurdity. Mortal Kombat is often credited for being the first Western film to use the “wire-fu” techniques popular in Chinese action films. I don’t quite support Anderson’s subtle claims that The Matrix steals Mortal Kombat’s glory in that respect – there’s a difference between wearing it and wearing it well – but that is the perfect example of how Mortal Kombat’s action scenes refused to be generic because the game’s battles were anything but.
That same philosophy aided the film’s soundtrack. Test audiences hated the generic orchestral music used in the initial cut of the movie, so the film’s sound team looked at the Mortal Kombat games. They discovered that the music essentially used an upbeat electronic soundtrack, so they decided to emulate that. Record labels and studios laughed at them and suggested that they do something like have Buckethead battle Eddie Van Halen on guitar (which, for the record, would have been fucking awesome).
The result of the crew’s persistence was a soundtrack gem called “Techno Syndrome (Mortal Kombat)“. It’s an absurd electronic dance song that utilizes warped audio files from the game. The idea of an electronic song that screams the title of the film at audiences is absurd and stupid, yet that song was the driving force behind the Mortal Kombat soundtrack achieving platinum status. Why? Because who cares about absurd and stupid when something is obviously entertaining.
There are times when it feels like that was the guiding light of the entire Mortal Kombat production. Do Sub-Zero and Scorpion look ridiculous on-screen in their video game accurate costumes? Yes, but they’re ridiculous characters and trying to “normalize” them would have been worse. Was Goro a honking piece of puppeteering that broke down as often as the shark from Jaws? Yes, but watching a decrepit animatronic react to a low-blow from Johnny Cage is just as amusing on film as that same move is in the game.
That’s why Mortal Kombat is such an essential part of video game adaptation history. Maybe movies like Resident Evil and Silent Hill are “better,” but they’re not better than the games they’re based on, and they’re not better than a legion of other horror films. Who would you recommend either movie to? Rampage and Tomb Raider are acceptable braindead romps, but what elevates them above all the other braindead romps? Most importantly, could you tell a fan of any of those games that they absolutely must see the movies based on them?
Mortal Kombat is different. Mortal Kombat is an essential piece of filmmaking for anyone who wants to understand the entirety of the Mortal Kombat phenomenon. It’s as much a part of that legacy as the games themselves. More than that, it’s for anyone who wants to see what it truly looks like when a video game is converted to celluloid. It’s for film history buffs, ‘90s shlock junkies, kung-fu fanatics, and Netflix addicts who have moved on to tier three titles.
All of these accolades for a film that, quite honestly, isn’t even really that great of a movie. That’s how you know it’s the definitive video game film.
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