Junkfood Cinema: Mortal Kombat

By  · Published on July 9th, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; the only place where second helpings are mandatory. This is the first internet movie column to be firebombed by the American Heart Association, but at least we are fully, suspiciously, endorsed by Fat Guys at the Movies. Every week I bring the best of the worst in cinema from all corners of the globe (except everywhere that’s not America, Italy, or Canada) and regale you with their many faults. But the truth is these movies have graduated beyond guilty pleasures for me because I feel absolutely no shame at all in my love for them (I’m pretty sure I just plain have no shame left but that’s another discussion). I will also pair each film with a food item that has absolutely no business being part of your diet to emphasize the so-bad-it’s-good quality of the films. Today we kick-punch our way through the inter-dimensional travesty that is Mortal Kombat.

Mortal Kombat weaves an epic tale of three martial arts masters from very different walks of life who are, willingly or not, entered into a grand tournament. But there is more riding on this tournament than pride, money, or the chance to finally beat those snot-nosed Cobra Kais. This tournament will determine the fate of our world. Without any express written consent from UFC, evil lord Shang-Tsung has pitted warriors of various planets and dimensions against one another in a winner-take-all elimination series. He needs but one more victory to be named supreme ruler. Fortunately the lightning god Rayden has assembled a trio of Earth’s chosen masters (action movie star Johnny Cage, law enforcement officer Sonya Blade, and I-promise-I’m-not-Tia-Carrere Liu Kang). Will these three be able to save our realm from total subjugation? Will Shang-Tsung’s secret weapon spell doom for Earth? Where do I put the quarter?

What Makes It Bad?

The problems with Mortal Kombat can scarcely be measured in units known to the human race. It has the dubious distinction, like JFC alums Street Fighter and Super Mario Brothers before it, of being a video game adaptation and as such carries certain lowered expectations. Luckily, this film is not content to merely feature bad acting and lazy, nonsensical plots; adding mind-numbingly shoddy special effects into the fray. I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s examine these shortcomings one by one; as if facing each of them in…well, you know.

The acting is Mortal Kombat is about as flat and uninspired as a cheap Hallmark card. The worst has to be 90’s mainstay Bridgette Wilson who woefully plays Sonya Blade. I don’t hate Wilson necessarily, but I do kind of view her dispatching in I Know What You Did Last Summer as a metaphor for her career at the close of the 90’s. She was clearly directed to be as intense as possible, as her character harbors a strong revenge motive for entering the tournament, but it just comes off as forced. It may have something to do with her prettiness, or the fact that I watched her barely win a fight with a drunken Adam Sandler in Billy Madison, but something about her casting seems predicated more on her silhouette than her acting chops. The movie does her no favors by pedantically forcing her into the damsel in distress motif even after she beats a man to death; feminism fatality! It also doesn’t help that her snarl gets decidedly more screen time than does the rest of her.

As to the plot, this is where the lackluster of Mortal Kombat truly shines. Forget the fact that it’s just a foregone conclusion that Earth can be won as a prize as part of a karate tournament, with surprisingly strict rules considering the presumption, I will play by the movies rules for a moment. In the bizarre bylaws of Mortal Kombat, which I’m assuming are written on parchment stuffed neatly into a Sega Genesis cartridge box, Shang-Tsung must win ten tournaments in a row before he can officially be declared landlord of Earth. He has currently won nine. If Sonya Blade, Johnny Cage, and Liu Kang are the chosen ones who will save our world, why the frak did Rayden wait until Shang-Tsung hit victory number nine before calling upon them?! Isn’t that kind of putting all your eggs in one basket Ray? Did no one broach the idea of gathering these fighters maybe around win 5 or 6? Also, why does a sect of Buddhist monks who could not be more Asian if they tried worship a clearly Caucasian god of Lightning? Sure Christopher Lambert has…a head, but that doesn’t necessarily qualify him to be cast as an Asian deity. And if I heard one more piece of game lexicon shoehorned into this film, I was going to finish it with a flawless fatality.

And finally, the cream of the crap for Mortal Kombat: the effects. I’m all for granting benefit of the doubt to special effects when watching older films. But the problem with the effects in Mortal Kombat has little to with the limitations of the year in which it was made and clearly more to do with a rushed shooting schedule. Sure it looks a little bogus when the harpoon comes out of Scorpion’s hand, but that would be forgivable if the fresh wound from which it sprung wasn’t traveling around his palm! Not to mention the horrendously rubbery Reptile character, a soul-stealing scene straight out of a bad Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, and a dark tower sequence that wouldn’t pass for a Windows 95 screen-saver. And while I kind of like the augmented practical effects used to bring Goro to life, it’s clear from the close-quarters photography that the puppet’s range of motion is incredibly limited. Shocking that the montage of guys falling down while Goro makes sounds in the background offers little compensation.

Why I Love It!

As you can probably suspect given my track record, nostalgia plays a big part of my infatuation with this stinkbomb. It had all the sensibilities and subtleties of a 13 year-old boy, and lucky for me I saw it when I was a 13 year-old boy. I played my Sega Genesis until my eyeballs bled and my thumbs looked like two tiny chicken wings stuck to my palms; my favorite game of course being Mortal Kombat. The amount of blood spray and gore I was privy to within the game made my parents very nervous and therefore made playing it an irresistible vice. What I find so hilarious about the movie is how much it stripped away the very graphic nature that made the game a success in order to package it for the PG-13 set. As if tweens seeing the violence on a movie screen would have somehow been more incendiary than seeing it on their TV screens.

The fight sequences in Mortal Kombat are a whole heap of fun. They are all preceded by elaborate setups and usually utilize their own fight theme. There is also no shortage of superfluous slow motion and almost every goddamn fight ends in a pose! How can you not enjoy that? The movie works in, sometimes subtly and sometimes awkwardly overtly, actual moves from the videogame. That shadowy thing Johnny does when he’s flying through the air to kick someone? It’s in there! That goofy bicycle kick that Liu does? It’s in there! That oddly arousing leg clutch of Sonya’s? Oh, it’s in there! And who doesn’t love an climactic battle that begins with a man doing the splits and bunching a monster in the dick?

It is impossible to talk about Mortal Kombat without talking about the music. All I’m saying is it’s pretty bold of a soundtrack to feature so many songs whose lyrics are nothing but characters’ names and the title of the film. The film opens with the pulsing, techno fetish theme song which itself begins with the words “mortal kombat.” You know, just in case you forgot what movie you were watching before it even started. I’ll be damned if the beats and soundbites aren’t catchy though; you can practically hear the squeak of the gym floor as thousands of cheerleaders in thousands of high schools requisition that song to cheer their JV team to victory. It’s easy to take potshots at the soundtrack, as I am demonstrating, but I’ll be a ninja’s uncle if it doesn’t make me want to get up and start kickboxing the air around me.

You have to love a train wreck like Mortal Kombat, there are few films this impotent. Director Paul W.S. Anderson demonstrates the same propensity for bad videogame film adaptations as does his only slightly less talented counterpart Uwe Boll; having also tackled Resident Evil. Adapting this game into a movie is like enlarging a photo from a bad digital camera. In it’s regular size (the game) it’s fine. But when you try to stretch it to dimensions it was never meant to surpass, things get pretty fuzzy. This is why the intimidating one-two punch of colorful ninjas Scorpion and Sub-Zero become mute errand boys who bleed nacho cheese and walk like loud, proud homosexuals respectively. I also love that Shang-Tsung goes from mysterious puppet master to guy who rips off his one definable gimmick from the 1990 Joe Estevez vehicle Soultaker. And I have secret admiration for movies that not only setup sequels, but get down on their knees and beg for them…much as the ending of this film can boast. Look for more terrible effects during said sequel-stroking.

Junkfood Pairing: Mortal Kool-Aid

Ok fine, it’s just regular Kool-Aid. But we all know how much kids in the 90’s loved it when you needlessly replaced C’s with K’s…as in the title of this film/game. I would suggest getting green, yellow, and blue Kool-Aid (whatever the hell flavors those equate too) in honor of the fact that the ninja characters in this movie are so indiscernible from one another as to require different colored smocks to tell them apart. Also, if you get a sugar rush from drinking all three pitchers, put on the Mortal Kombat soundtrack and pick a fight with a sectional couch or your neighbor’s privacy fence. It has begun!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.