You know the characters, the stages and even the complicated button controls in order to achieve that Fatality. It’s one of the most popular, iconic and controversial video games ever released- Mortal Kombat! Folks, the reboot is finally here and while some may say that we’ve been waiting weeks and months for this; in truth, fans have been waiting for twenty-four years for Mortal Kombat to return to the big screen once again! We have to think back but I’m talking about the two films that were released in 1995 and 1997 respectively. Both films are unique for their own reasons and in the spirit on the reboot finally being released, let’s venture back to when Mortal Kombat arrived for the first time in theaters and later on videocassette.
If you don’t know by now, Mortal Kombat tells the story of a tournament that is held every generation in order to determine the fate of Earthrealm. During this tournament, fighters from Earthrealm combat with fighters from Outworld. If Outworld wins ten tournaments in a row, then the Emperor is allowed to invade Earth and take over. The story is simple enough, but that’s not why we play the games nor watch the movies. We are here for the fighting!
Mortal Kombat was first released in 1992 and upon reaction from the public and political figures at the time, the game garnered harsh criticism and publicity for its level of violence and gore. Mortal Kombat along with other games such as Doom, Night Trap and Lethal Enforcers drew public attention for the game’s content. After hearings of these games concluded, the ESRB (Entertainment Software Rating Board) was established, which required each game to have a designated rating and that rating be displayed on the game’s packaging.
Mortal Kombat is well known for its gore, creative fighting styles and the finishing moves that were gruesome, brutal, and in many cases, ultimately satisfying for gamers. So, when the first film was due to arrive in 1995, fans were not only eager to see some of their favorite characters from the game but also a chance to witness the sheer savagery the game introduced.
Mortal Kombat (1995)
One of the very few video game adaptations brought to life on the big screen was certainly entertaining although it didn’t quite deliver on the gore and brutal violence. Paul W.S. Anderson would helm the project as his second feature (one of the rare movies that I actually enjoy from this director) and the result is a movie that takes us back to the campiness fun of the ‘90s and pretty much got everything right in relation to the game except for the violence part. According to the production notes, a script was written that would’ve featured more violence and gore but was changed in order to attract the teenager crowd instead; a decision that would leave fans disappointed.
The story in the debut film follows a trio of fighters who arrive at the tournament under unusual circumstances. Liu Kang (Robin Shou) doesn’t believe in the fantasies of this tournament even though his brother is killed by the host of the tournament Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson) is a badass Special Forces Officer who is pursuing a criminal named Kano (Trevor Goddard) who killed her partner. Then we have the cocky, arrogant and often clueless Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) who’s a Hollywood movie-star who no one takes seriously and now he only wants to prove that he can perform martial arts. These three characters all come into contact with Lord Raiden (Christopher Lambert) who oversees the tournament, offers advice and of course, adds exposition to the audience.
I won’t talk much about the plot of these movies but some other memorable characters do appear in the debut film which includes Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Goro, Reptile and Kitana (Talisa Soto). The movie itself features gorgeous locations, well-choreographed fights (even for the ‘90s) and something that the games could never give us; the Mortal Kombat theme song courtesy of The Immortals. Even if you aren’t a fan of the games or the movies, nearly everyone familiar with the world of entertainment has heard the infamous Mortal Kombat theme song. In fact, the album for the debut film was the first to go platinum making it the first EDM record to do so. Although, the initial soundtrack was released in 1994 to accompany home entertainment versions of the game; it’s the 1995 film that made the soundtrack so iconic.
In terms of style, Mortal Kombat is appropriately cheesy and does have some quirky yet funny lines. Some of the best moments are Johnny Cage vs. Scorpion, Liu Kang vs. Shang Tsung, and Sonya Blade vs. Kano. But one can’t forget when Cage faced off against the reigning champion, Goro! A lot of people weren’t impressed with Christopher Lambert as Lord Raiden. Personally, I think he was rather good in this movie even if we don’t see him combat anyone. I felt that Lambert was a good casting choice and I would be hard-pressed to imagine any other actor portraying him. Perhaps, it’s that childhood memory that sticks with me. Plus, how can I forget the appearance of Reptile? He’s one of my favorite characters combined with that awesome soundtrack included in his fight with Liu Kang!
One of the best things about Mortal Kombat is the casting of Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Shang Tsung. In the game, his character is much older plus he is Chinese. Tagawa is considerably older and Japanese but even with those facts in mind, Tagawa really brought the character to life. His sheer brutality and that iconic line, “Your soul is mine” is one of the most memorable moments from Mortal Kombat.
Mortal Kombat is by no measure a great film but when compared to Street Fighter and Super Mario Brothers, this movie feels like a masterpiece. The casting is great, the fighting is decent but it all ties together with the style and effort led by director Paul W.S. Anderson. When watching it even today, we still get the ‘90s vibe. From the cheesy lines, the outdated special effects and, of course, that catchy theme song! The same cannot be said for what came two years later.
Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)
This is the movie that gives video game adaptations a bad name. If there was a film so assuredly awful then it begs the question, “How was this movie even made and then released to the public?” The second installment of what was to be the Mortal Kombat trilogy, Annihilation is horrifically plotted, poorly cast and features some of the worst special effects on record. This movie has aged just as The Lawnmower Man has and that is not a compliment. Paul W.S. Anderson left the project to work on Event Horizon instead, a decision he would later regret. Even Ed Boon and John Tobias (creators of Mortal Kombat) have stated their hatred for this movie.
The second film picks up where the first film ended. Our heroes have won the tournament meaning that Outworld cannot invade planet Earth. The Emperor Shao Kahn (Brian Thompson) invades Earth anyway. Lord Raiden (James Remar) assembles his warriors and retreats to safety after Kahn and his minions make themself known. The Earth will be destroyed in six days and only Liu Kang (Robin Shou) and his allies can stop this from happening.
That’s where I’ll stop in terms of the plot. For majority of the film Liu Kang is constantly questioning why all of this is happening despite winning the tournament. It almost feels as if, the actors were allowed to talk openly on set. Christopher Lambert, Linden Ashby and Bridgette Wilson declined to return for the sequel citing that the script wasn’t to their liking. All three actors made the right decisions and the replacement actors appear thoroughly confused for most of the film. Johnny Cage (Chris Conrad) is killed by Shao Kahn in the opening sequence while Sonya Blade (Sandra Hess) does sport some good fighting styles even if her white tank top keeps getting freshly laundered in-between her fight scenes. Lord Raiden (James Remar) looks quite different and doesn’t give off the vibe that Christopher Lambert brought to the character. Oh, and Kitana (Talisa Soto) is back and is shocked to discover that her mother Sindel (Musetta Vander) is alive and under the control of Shao Kahn. Sure, others characters do appear such as Jax, Jade, Mileena, Nightwolf, Ermac, Sheeva, Cyrax, Smoke, Baraka and even my personal favorite, Noob Saibot (only he briefly appears). Other characters such as Scorpion and Sub-Zero appear but they also just vanish from the movie without reason.
Basically, this movie feels really rushed. The action sequences feel uneven and have an abundance of editing making nothing feel crystal clear. The special effects look cheap and something that a Youtuber would’ve created via green screen and the movie overall is just plain boring. Even though there is an attempt at a script, I would be amazed if someone were able to explain it to me and I just viewed the film recently.
This is all the more confusing because the film is directed by John R. Leonetti, who was the cinematographer for Mortal Kombat. With his direction, the movie is confusing, poorly executed and is such a shock to watch that audiences were beyond baffled as to what happened. Apart from the pathetic and embarrassing special effects, the actors don’t appear deeply invested in their roles and the fighting sequences are too scattershot to replay in anyone’s memory. The film’s budget was substantially bigger than its predecessor, $30 million to be precise, and you have to wonder, where did all that money go!
John R. Leonetti had previous experience working as a cinematographer and just viewing the movie at a distance looks terrible. Even when two key figures morph into their animalities, the result is something of a downgrade, especially when compared to the first three Mortal Kombat games. As a result, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation performed less than satisfactory at the box office and was panned by critics and fans. Following the devastating news, a third film was immediately scrapped and the future of the live-action Mortal Kombat movies would remain in development hell for the next two decades!
Aside from the movies in the ‘90s, Mortal Kombat did appear on the smaller screen in animated form and even the short film Mortal Kombat: Rebirth was released in 2010 and based on the reaction from fans, led to the release of a web series titled Mortal Kombat: Legacy, which had its moments of enjoyment. The latest film prior to the reboot was Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge, released in April 2020. That movie was the first R-Rated title of the Mortal Kombat films and did deliver on the violence and even showcased those signature X-Ray moves. While the movie was entertaining to a fault, the film did seem to forget about Scorpion midway through the film, but nevertheless, it was a step in the right direction.
Mortal Kombat (2021)
Fans have been waiting for twenty-four long years to see some of their favorite characters come back to the big screen and with this reboot, the movie itself does deliver on the goods that fans have been seeking. With skilled direction from Simon McQuoid (in his directorial debut), this movie serves as the Mortal Kombat film the fans never got over twenty years ago. It serves itself well as an appropriate video game adaptation and will please die-hard fans of the franchise. In honor of seeing Mortal Kombat return to the big screen, we must not forget what came before. Watching the original 1995 film is such a treat and instantly brings me back to my childhood. I would suggest skipping Annihilation as bad as a movie that is, it’s hard to watch. When I returned to watch the second film, I forgot just how bad it was. Too bad I didn’t have any alcohol with me at the time, that could’ve dulled the pain.
Mortal Kombat is not only a fantastic video game but one of the most definitive games ever made. While the first two movies didn’t exactly capture everything that the games brought to either the arcade or when we played the games at home, they are still part of the culture that made Mortal Kombat a household name. From the numerous characters, the memorable stages and the struggle of memorizing the moves in order to achieve that badass combo, Mortal Kombat is still as iconic as ever.
While the future of the franchise is still up in the air, in terms of films being made, rebooted movie is certainly an upgrade from what we grew up with. So, when decide to sit down and watch the newest movie, don’t forget to look for the films from ‘90s in order to relive the childhood that you can’t seem to forget. But please, don’t return to Annihilation, at least have some decency and have that memory be gone forever!