Monday, April 2, 2012

Mortal Kombat

  It’s a definite product of the nineties, and it has the director's trademark stamped all over it. So how about the source material? The ever popular Mortal Kombat video game? The thumb-numbing brawler with supernatural opponents and a disturbing predilection for blood and gore? Yeah well, the movie leaves out the game’s #1 trademark. Its blood and gore. The over the top-ness and edginess that garnered so much controversy and attention for the iconic game, is woefully (or thankfully for you weak-stomached viewers) absent from this 90’s beat em’ up flick.  I actually love this movie though. I don’t think anyone will disagree it’s a first class movie in a sub-genre renowned for being universally horrible.
And while that doesn’t say much for the movie itself in all honesty, it still manages to be a fun ride after all this time.

  You know those movies that are so bad they’re good? Yeah, Mortal Kombat isn’t one of those movies.  Its humor isn’t the unintentionally bad dialog, in fact quite the opposite. Some of these jokes, however immature, (not slapstick, thankfully the movie doesn’t stoop that low) are carefully set up and paid off in a snappy fashion. Some are hit and miss, and some still make me smile. Linden Ashby, as Johnny Cage, is not a muscle bound movie star like Jean Claude Van Damme (kudos if you get the connection) but he does a good job of inhabiting his character, kicking his way through the choreographed fights and carrying the heft of the movie’s lighter side on his back; shouldering nearly all of the comic relief and one liners. Pretty much every funny moment in the movie is related to Cage somehow. And most of them work really well. He’s certainly one half of the major charisma in this flick and definitely worth mentioning first.

  The cast has decent chemistry, but nothing insanely strong.  The characters are all pretty much archetypes, but they’re based off two-dimensional video game avatars with miniscule bios (at the time).  The movie does a respectable job at building personalities for these people, and giving them distinct motivation.  Now, this is pretty standard stuff for any halfway decent movie, but video games movies, like I pointed out are usually flat out awful; making embarrassing and painful to watch pitfalls out of even basic stuff.  So it’s surprising to see Mortal Kombat, a movie which forsook its own source material’s winning trademark, nail all the basics, and pretty competently too.

   It’s really sad that the female lead here is relegated to such an unimportant role, and ends up being a mere damsel in distress by the end. However, she gets her moment to shine, even if it is a fight that’s own choreography is horribly outdated.  The star hero, Liu Kang, is competently acted, nothing great, but he gets the job done. His strong emotions may be convincing, but as a character he’s a walking cliché until he ends up developing a dynamic with his costars. Most famous of which is Christopher Lambert. If you don’t know who that is, and you consider yourself a film buff, this movie will hold no star appeal for you at all. So don’t go looking for a-listers here. Lambert plays the thunder god Raiden, the would-be typical Ben Kenobi role if it wasn’t for his winning smile, trademark laugh, and the fact that he’s just having fun with this role. And it shows. He’s a real pleasure to watch in this movie.

  “A handful of people on a leaky boat are going to save the world?” a character asks the thunder god early on.
   “Exactly.” He replies. And chuckles.  The movie is so preposterous, yet it asks a self-aware question like that, poking fun at its own plausibility. It’s a scene that sets the tone for you. When it’s serious, its dead serious, but it’s also a lighthearted martial arts romp through supernatural realms with otherworldly opponents and lots of special effects. Its silly and it knows it. Hell, it outright acknowledged it.

  But silly or not, the sets are great, the one liners have decent shelf life, and it has a kicking soundtrack. The villains (especially Shang Tsung played by Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa) chew scenery like bubble gum, and it’s fun to watch their over the top performances as they brood back and forth in colorful lairs and intricately designed dining halls. All these places that are simply destined to be reduced to rubble by wire-fu and plenty of eye candy super powers.  The fights are synced to snappy bass-heavy techno beats, and it works. It enhances the pacing of the fights, making them seem more intense.

  It stays true to the imaginative tone of the games, keeping character designs and entire locations as faithful and relevant as plausibly possible, the result is a fantasy adventure which certainly has scope but at times lacks the hard edge a movie based on these games should have. But visually and tonally its incredibly faithful. And it really pays off more often than not.  Catchprases, cameos, and sly nods towards the more knowing audience members are peppered throughout and the fans really appreciate this stuff. Myself included.

  You can also tell which actors are actors and which are actual martial artists though. In that respect they balance almost each match up perfectly. To compensate for the actors’ lack of martial arts knowledge, their opponent is a super powered fighter with enough special effects spectacle to make up for occasionally sub-par choreography.
But when a martial artist is fighting a martial artist, most specifically the final showdown, it just seems that much more intense. Which in an odd way, actually adds to the climax of the movie.  ‘Saving the best for last’ as it were. It’s certainly something to really look forward to at the end of each viewing. 

  In conclusion, if you know what you’re getting into, Mortal Kombat can be thoroughly enjoyable and even warrant repeat viewings. Its a simple competant action film with an old fashioned, Harryhausen-esque epic sensibility that enhances the fun factor of the atmospheric proceedings. Its a flick that may not always hit the right marks, but its always fun, and has great, stunning production design, and lots of special effects laden fighting to watch. Even if its all a tad outdated.  Flawless victory on account of a perfect adaptation? Maybe not, but that doesn't mean its a particularly bad one either. I, for one, love Mortal Kombat.

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