Revisiting the Reviled – Based on a Controversial Game, ‘Mortal Kombat’ is Blandly Conventional

GameStop, Inc.

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Home consoles like X-Box and Playstation have basically rendered the arcade an anachronism. In its time the arcade was a social setting and also the only place you could enjoy the latest and greatest in video game technology. Now it’s merely a place for children of the ‘80s to get another nostalgia fix. After Street Fighter II laid the groundwork for the fighting game, Mortal Kombat hit the scene with its digitized actors presenting a new high water mark for graphics, and its over-the-top violence presenting a new high water mark for brutality. That brutality was the key draw for adolescents drawn to the game, it was also the key draw for controversy. The violence of Mortal Kombat inspired a moralist panic about violence in video games – creating a persecution complex that runs through a subculture of gaming to this day. There were Senate hearings over the game, and the game’s controversy would lead to the establishment of ratings for games.

Needless to say that a game this controversial and popular would undoubtedly also draw the attention of some eager Hollywood executives. There was, however, one major obstacle in translating the most violent video game to the screen – unlike the ESRB, which would be founded after the furor surrounding the game, the MPAA ratings system was well in effect. With a built-in audience that wouldn’t be able to see a heavily violent R-rated feature, the film tones down the violence to the point where blood doesn’t exist. While the translation from video game to the screen has been a tenuous one since the very beginning, Mortal Kombat comes perilously close to adequacy, only to trade down for idiocy at every available chance.

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Featuring a cameo by Gwar.

Working from a script by Kevin Droney, a television writer working on his first feature film, director Paul W.S. Anderson would be making his second feature film and the first of many video game adaptations of his career. Anderson is hailed by those who refer to him as a Vulgar Auteurist, something I’ve talked about before. The basic tenets of Vulgar Auteurism is that Anderson makes movies short on plot or writing but have an emphasis on constructing lean action films, with a classical construction of action sequences. While there are gaps in my viewing of Anderson’s filmography, I’ve never seen anything to indicate that Anderson is worthy of this, or any, praise.

Before we get into the dredges of Mortal Kombat, let’s go over what the film does right. The film’s story is incredibly similar to Bruce Lee’s classic Enter the Dragon. A varied group of badasses board an old fashioned ship to fight in a violent martial arts tournament. In its early going the film is fairly straightforward in establishing its basic characters and their wants. Had the film maintained its focus on the simpler plot elements, the film might’ve worked. When it decides to expand its scope, going into weirder and weirder territory, the film can’t salvage any semblance of clarity. This is a film that turns its strengths into weaknesses.

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Peek-a-boo!

Amongst those numerous weaknesses is just about the most poorly assembled cast of a major film in recent memory. Nobody fits their role. As Liu Kang, Robin Shou is the closest to a fit, even then he’s not particularly convincing in his role. He also looks like Bruce Lee with the haircut of an ‘80s metal groupie. Longtime character actor Linden Ashby doesn’t have the chops to portray Johnny Cage as a movie star, perhaps explaining why he’s a longtime character actor. As Sonia Blade, Bridgette Wilson is in over her head, completely incapable of playing a badass. As much as the main trio doesn’t fit, none of them give the film as painful a performance as Christopher Lambert as Rayden. Saying every line with an accent of undeterminable origin in a loud whisper, Lambert finds himself in the esteemed company of John Reynolds, who is immortalized as Torgo in Manos: The Hands of Fate, as one of the most jaw-droppingly awkward performances ever. If casting is 90% of directing, Paul W.S. Anderson is starting with a deficit. Then again, this is a movie that has one character say, “It has begun,” which is immediately followed by another character saying with a bit more emphasis, “It has begun!”

But Mortal Kombat had an ace up its sleeve, however, it was hidden from the filmmakers, too. This isn’t a film that needs a complex plot or great acting. It’s aimed at an undiscerning audience. All that mattered was the ass-kicking onscreen. This is where Anderson wilts away. Showing the influence of Hong Kong action films by John Woo, Anderson repeatedly slips in gratuitous moments of slow motion action. Where that added a textured feel to the violence of Woo’s films, for Anderson it merely shows the seams of the fight choreography. There’s a clumsiness to action compositions, like Anderson is just throwing everything he can think of out there with little rhyme or reason as to why he’s throwing it out there. But Anderson is also clumsy with his use of computer effects, still in their infancy in 1995, and his use of reveals. With Goro, a 4-armed fighting monster, Anderson initially teases his appearance in shadows. Instead of delaying gratification, Anderson chooses to reveal Goro sooner rather than later. Not only does it give us a longer look at a silly looking monster, it diminishes the character’s impact when he arrives to beat the living hell out of someone. It’s as if he’s never seen Jaws.

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“Actually, it’s about competence in video game movies.”

Nobody was expecting Mortal Kombat to be considered high art. It’s a failure on many levels, but its greatest failing is a lack of visceral thrills. For a multitude of reasons films based upon video games yield nothing but disappointment. It was recently noted on Twitter by Andrew Todd that the best video game movies – The Raid and Edge of Tomorrow – weren’t based upon video games; I would like to add Scott Pilgrim vs. The World in that category. It’s not a coincidence that films based on video games are consistently awful. Any changes away from the game alienates your core fan base, and taking inherently silly material and taking it seriously never really works. When it comes to video game movies and potential franchises, Hollywood will always hit continue. It just costs them a shitload of quarters.

 

 

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