This week, after nearly 24 years since the last film, Mortal Kombat returns as a movie franchise, all rebooted and having nothing to do with the last movie except, I guess, all the characters and all of their specific attributes. I have seen the new film, but as I’m writing this, the embargo on that hasn’t lifted yet. So, in the meantime, I decided to go back and watch the 1995 film directed by Paul WS Anderson, which means, yes, I saw the new film before I saw the original. At this point I don’t think it will be giving too much away to say I liked the new film better than the original, but going back and watching the original film is like taking a swig of “pure ‘90s xtreme” juice. It might just be the most ‘90s thing I’ve ever seen. Honestly the whole time I was watching it I kept thinking of Tim Robinson’s “Z-Shirt” SNL sketch. In retrospect the 1995 Mortal Kombat is kind of hilarious as a parody of itself.
If you have no idea what “Z-Shirt” is, it’s a 2013 SNL sketch starring Tim Robinson and Kevin Hart, filmed in that quintessential ‘90s xtreme style with a lot of neon colors and a lot of screaming into the camera in an xtreme way. Tim Robinson is hyping his new Z-Shirt as Kevin Hart starts at the top of the alphabet and asks him if it’s every other letter of shirt, eventually leading to Robinson becoming increasingly annoyed and just giving up. There might be no better parody of that aspect of ‘90s culture, even though no one really acted like that in real life unless they were trying to sell you some sort of soft drink.
Anyway, the entire running time of the 1995 Mortal Kombat is like this. It is not a particularly good movie, but, in retrospect, it did kind of make me wish I had enjoyed the ‘90s more. This style always annoyed me back then, but now knowing that (a) it was pretty harmless and (b) that it wouldn’t last, I do wish I had embraced it more for all its goofiness. This movie literally ends with our heroes being confronted by a new villain and Christopher Lambert’s Lord Raiden exclaiming, xtremely, “I don’t think so!” Most of the characters in this movie are just there to say catchphrases and to scream into the camera as if they have a Z-Shirt to sell, at least they do right before they snap an opponents neck, or whatever.
And here’s the really weird thing about doing a new Mortal Kombat movie – and I was trying to think of specific examples of this – but is there another reboot where the instructions are basically, “Okay, here is your group of characters and they all have very specific looks and attributes. Now make a movie with these characters, which has already been done, so I guess just introduce them in a different order and a different way”? Even with superheroes like Spider-Man or Batman, when their movies are rebooted at least different villains are used. This just seems like a static group of characters that really can’t be changed all that much. Most reboots feature one main character or team, and the people around him or her or that team are different. There just seems something uniquely difficult about rebooting a property like Mortal Kombat where the characters are famous as a group, but not really individually.
It’s notable that the 1995 Mortal Kombat was only Paul WS Anderson’s second movie and his first with any kind of a budget. And that Mortal Kombat would launch a career where Anderson would go on to make many, many movies that make a lot of money but critics don’t seem to like very much. (Though, it’s hard not to appreciate what Anderson has done as a whole with his career, because the movies he’s made are very much his movies, even though there are very few of them I can sit down and watch and actually enjoy, no matter how many people try to convince me otherwise.) But there is something uniquely innocent about his Mortal Kombat. When Anderson talks about Mortal Kombat now, he seems to have fairly positive memories of the whole thing. And between Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter (which came out eight months before), their successes at the box office launched the next 25 years of movies based on video games, for better or for worse.
But, today, the 1995 Mortal Kombat doesn’t really resemble what video game movies would eventually become. Again, it’s more a time capsule of the 1990s than it is about video games. It really feels like every character in Mortal Kombat should at least be drinking a Mountain Dew. Or should be talking about Dan Cortese. Or, at the very least, should be selling us a Z-Shirt. So, if you ever need a break from reality and must revisit the mid-1990s, just for a couple of hours, just know that Paul WS Anderson’s Mortal Kombat is always waiting for you. Just first open an xtreme Mountain Dew.
‘Mortal Kombat’ releases in theaters and MBO Max this weekend. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.