Was 1995’s ‘Mortal Kombat’ Really That Bad?

Yesterday marked the 20th Anniversary of the release of the Mortal Kombat film, and, because of this, I’ve been asked yet again to subject myself to Hollywood excess. But this time, it was an honest to goodness pleasure, because, if you like cheesy action flicks, and haven’t seen Mortal Kombat, you really should.

A quick overview: Mortal Kombat is about three human martial artists, Johnny Cage, Liu Kang, and Sonya Blade, who are fighting to save the Earth from Outworld. For reasons nobody can figure out and which the movie actively refuses to explain, the Old Ones set up an interdimensional martial arts tournament that happens on a regular basis between Earth and Outworld; if Outworld wins ten in a row, they get Earth. They’ve won nine, so our heroes must beat everyone to death with their bare hands.

Mortal Kombat is one of those rare video game adaptations that actually mostly uses material from the game. Though, that’s not terribly surprising since the game itself was already a mish-mash of Hollywood and Hong Kong movie tropes. And fortunately, they stumbled across the perfect director for it.

Paul W.S. Anderson doesn’t get enough credit. Over his entire, shockingly extensive career as a director, he has never once made any sort of pretension to being an artist. Paul W.S. Anderson is making movies because he wants to blow things up, have dudes punch out other dudes, crash cars, and entertain audiences while doing it. He’s never made a critically acclaimed movie in his life, and God bless him for it; somebody’s got to remember movies can be fun.

Mortal Kombat has a lot of virtues, the greatest of which is its utter lack of pretension. At no point does Anderson demand you take his movie about interdimensional superpowered ninjas getting their asses kicked by movie stars and thunder gods remotely seriously. There is no greater point, no attempt to claw at a theme; Mortal Kombat is a movie about dudes hitting other dudes.

It helps that Anderson was smart enough to hire Robin Shou, an experienced Hong Kong actor who helped choreograph the fights, and Anderson took his cues from the martial arts fantasy movies Hong Kong was churning out at the time. Remember, this was 1995; Jackie Chan was still a cult figure in the U.S., and Hong Kong cinema in general was hard to find outside major cities unless there was a well-stocked video store nearby. It was a smart choice, and the action is fairly competent and has aged well compared to some of the other things that 1995 inflicted on us.

Some of the movie… not so much. Check out Kano’s alleged “makeup”:

It’s a movie rife with mullets, gratuitous gymnastics, screamed lines, and terrible CGI. But it all just contributes to the charm. Anderson and his cast knew they had been given something inherently disposable, a paycheck gig designed to lift five dollars out of the wallets of teenagers at malls across America. But to their credit, they decided to give those teens 10 bucks of fun for their money. And, if nothing else, they delivered one of the most beloved techno songs of all-time. That almost makes up for the lack of gory fatalities. Almost.