The first time I watched the 1995 movie Mortal Kombat I felt like I was drunk. Movies can sometimes be joyously terrible, such that they cease to be terrible and instead become transcendent. Reader, I was transported.
Since I first randomly encountered it while Netflix-surfing a few years ago, I have come to love Mortal Kombat — a movie made about a video game I have never played — so much that I no longer know whether I love it merely ironically or have crossed over into loving it sincerely.
But with the release of the much-anticipated remake, which follows the same basic premise and hits many of the same beats, in theaters and on HBO Max, now’s a great time to discuss what works and what doesn’t work about the original.
And what doesn’t work? So much.
Mortal Kombat offers us the pure delight of a film that should have been good and is instead objectively awful
If, like me, you are a die-hard fan of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, watching bad movies ironically is one of life’s greatest joys, and if you’re a really committed fan, you find something enduring and life-giving about the deep earnestness that often underlies such movies, even when they’re besieged with the kinds of production circumstances that tend to spell disaster. Too many producers. An “auteur” writer/director who’s not as visionary as they think they are. A budget so small most of the sets and costumes must be borrowed from a neighboring elementary school.
Mortal Kombat has exactly none of those things going for it. The film had an expansive production budget of $18 million (about $31 million today). It had a still-novice but formidable director at the helm — the veritable Paul W.S. Anderson, who would go on to deliver a rapid-fire fusillade of sci-fi/horror classics like Event Horizon, Resident Evil, and Alien vs. Predator. It even had a few actors whose résumés contain plenty of legitimate credits, like Highlander star Christopher Lambert and Man in the High Castle’s Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.
It boasts a lavish and immersive production design — featuring beautiful sets filmed mostly on location in remote areas of Thailand. It’s got an absolutely killer score by jazz legend George Clinton. (Produced in just three weeks, the soundtrack was one of the first EDM soundtracks in history; it was also wildly successful, selling 1.5 million copies on release, and features one of the greatest theme songs of all time.)
In other words, Mortal Kombat has all the ingredients in place to be a great movie — or at least a movie that ticks all the boxes for looking and sounding like a blockbuster action flick should. Yet it still somehow manages to be a breathtaking master class in bad movie-making. It’s got everything: bad acting, nonsensical plotting, awkwardly paced fight scenes, and a production budget whose CGI gave us images like this entirely realistic lil’ fella:
While Mortal Kombat was one of the most successful films of the year, grossing over $120 million at the box office, it was also roundly panned, earning a critical bashing that summarized the film as “mythological junk food.”
So why on earth am I recommending it, you ask? Please. Why on earth wouldn’t I?
The original Mortal Kombat is an absurd confection of campy action-adventure
Mortal Kombat, which launched as an arcade game in 1992, was and is a massively popular fighter game franchise. It’s become famed for its graphic simulations of violence and its gory finales, in which a disembodied voice yells, “Finish him!” as the fighting character practices their trademark finishing move — which could be anything from ripping out the enemy’s spine to turning into a dragon and eating them alive.
Over the course of the game, a number of playable action heroes face off against a parade of opponents, from ninjas to warlords to a four-armed half-dragon giant. The goal: Defeat them with your martial arts prowess. If you and your character play well, you might be crowned with the ultimate compliment: “Flawless victory!”
You don’t really need to know these details of the game to watch the 1995 movie, but knowing them gives you the best chance you’ll have of understanding what the hell is happening in the movie. I’ve seen Mortal Kombat several times, and I’m still not sure what the plot is. Part of the reason for this lies with the film’s genre; video game adaptations were still new to Hollywood in 1995, and the industry was still figuring out the format, experimenting with the balance between storytelling and gaming sequences.
For his film, Anderson chose to emphasize the “mortal” part of Mortal Kombat, building an elaborate multidimensional universe to explain the video game’s premise. In the film, beings from other worlds seek to conquer Earth. The only thing that can stop them, apparently, is losing a one-on-one martial arts tournament against a mortal, a.k.a. a citizen of Earth.
Cue lots of characters fighting one-on-one martial arts tournaments. That’s it. That’s the movie.
Grave but snarky Liu Kang (Robin Shou) and don’t-fuck-with-me special operative Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras) are both seeking to avenge the deaths of people who’ve been killed by other tournament combatants — she for a former military partner and he for his brother. Obnoxious wiseass Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) is a famous martial arts actor but is apparently so bad acting that he’s been dubbed a fake by the press. Naturally, the solution is to board a demonstrably evil boat and be carted away to the realm of the tournament, a decadent temple adorned with gargoyle statues and petrified skeletons, where the three of them must defeat every other tournament fighter in order to save the world.
That’s the plot, but, of course, its summary doesn’t capture the quirks and odd charm of this film. It’s hard to explain the pleasure and amusement of Mortal Kombat’s constant dissonance and inherent tonal conflict with itself. The scenic locations, which are clearly in Thailand, are inexplicably presented as part of China instead. Raiden (Lambert), ID’d as “the god of lightning and protector of the realm of Earth,” is meant to be a revered Buddhist deity, but he looks like a bleached-blond Eurovision contestant and speaks like a Harvey Fierstein clone who’s been instructed to exaggerate his Brooklyn accent. The script was largely ad-libbed, and what wasn’t ad-libbed is overly dramatic, so the heroes frequently insert CSI Miami-style one-liners while every single villain talks like they’re performing Shakespeare despite having names like “Goro” and “Sub-Zero.”
Still, it’s not all camp and irony. Despite being full of exoticism, Mortal Kombat lets its Asian characters run the show, and it allows Liu Kang to be its unquestioned hero without being overshadowed, as one might expect, by the more well-known character of Johnny Cage. Cage instead gets treated like that one loud, showboating white guy at every party. And while the movie treats its female characters like eye candy, it also gives Sonya the Badass Female Character in a ’90s Action Movie treatment and lets her kill a man with her calf muscles.
Perhaps what’s best about Mortal Kombat is what most fans came for back in 1995: the fighting itself. Thanks to the still-early days of CGI technology, the fighting is mostly Hong Kong-style martial arts performed with then-cutting-edge wire work. This was two years before The Matrix, so wuxia-style fighting was still pretty new to US viewers. Many of the actors were trained martial arts actors like Shou, and many of them insisted on doing their own stunts. So most of the fight scenes truly look like they’re being carried out by real people. And despite the movie’s flimsy writing, everyone involved seems to be having fun.
According to the Hollywood Reporter’s oral history of the film, during one Mortal Kombat development session, a New Line producer exploded in rage, yelled, “I hate the script. I hate this movie,” and then greenlit it for production anyway, clearly acknowledging on some level that audiences would likely love the elements he hated. Its flair for over-the-top excess makes Mortal Kombat a star within the firmament of bad movies. I have great hopes that the remake will deliver a whole new litany of highly enjoyable flaws.