Monday, April 6, 2009

Games At The Movies: Mortal Kombat

So, our Pod Shot!!! discussion of the virtues and vices of game-to-film adaptations has inspired me to undertake a semi-weekly posting about the many, many video game stories that have found their way onto the silver screen over the past twenty years or so. My Netflix account will serve me greatly in this endeavor, sending 90 minutes of the best intentions right to my P.O. box so I can tell you, the readers, what makes video game movies as bad as they are.

But, that's for next time. I figured I would start this little enterprise on a positive note and submit to you the readers a review of a video game movie I actually enjoy and will defend to the bitter end (I also happen to own the film on DVD, which means I don't have to finish Kind Hearts and Coronets and wait 1-2 business days to watch this one). While not a great movie per se, Mortal Kombat delivers an entertaining 90 minute feature that proves to be both fun and true to the lore and universe of the game series it is adapting, giving hardcore fans (like me) and Joe Popcorn exactly what they want.

More on all that after the jump...

First of all, as I did in my Street Fighter: the Legend of Chun-Li post, I wish to disclose my personal history with the game upon which the film is based:

I. Love. Mortal Kombat.

Well, I loved Mortal Kombat in my youth. The last game in the series that I played with any amount of seriousness and without nostalgia was Mortal Kombat 4, the point where the series went belly-up in my humble opinion. Trading in the trademark FMV actors and pre-rendered backgrounds for Tekken/Virtua Fighter-esque CGI models took away the classic look and feel of the series and made it just another fighter in a sea of copycats. I will forever lament the day when I stopped hanging out a Piccadilly Circus, the (former) arcade in Ridgedale Mall in suburban Minneapolis, because I think that was the day the child in me died. The MK series therefore occupies a very special place in my heart as the representative of the youthful, un-jaded, virginal, young Alex Boivin. Odd then that that my inner child is represented by a game series famous for bringing hardcore violence into the living rooms of Middle America.

I first got into Mortal Kombat in the first grade when an older boy named Zach (the same guy who introduced me to Magic: the Gathgering, I have so much to thank him/hate him for) brought a copy of Gamepro on the bus which had a feature on Mortal Kombat II within its hallowed pages. On that day, I was hooked. I quickly familiared myself with the characters and the universe, Liu Kang, Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Outworld, and all that. I played the game at the numerous arcades around Minneapolis many times, when friends' moms were foolish enough to let us run off alone and play what we wanted when they went shopping or something (my own mother was far too responsible to entrust me to the care of arcade people). So began my childhood desenitization to violence.

The release of the first MK movie in 1995 coincided somewhat directly (one might even say *gasp* intentionally) with the release of Mortal Kombat 3, my personal favorite entry in the series. The plot of the movie follows the (loose) story of the first and second games. Liu Kang (Robin Shou of Legend of Chun-Li fame), Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson, best known to men of my generation as Ms. Veronica Vaughn from Billy Madison), and Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) are selected by thunder god Rayden (Connor MacLeod himself, Christoper Lambert; his appearence in the movie was how I got my dad to take me) to represent Earthrealm in the Mortal Kombat tournament, a martial arts throwdown hosted once every hundred years to determine the fate of the universe.

The situation is that Outworld, think an interdimensional Mordor, wants to take over the Earth, in order to do this, the champions of Outworld must defeat the champions of Earth in mortal combat (see what they did there?) in ten straight tournaments at which point they can open the portal and their armies of ninjas and four-armed dragon-men can kill us all. Neat, eh?

Basically, each character has an in-game reason behind their desire to fight (beyond being, you know, divinely appointed to do so): Liu Kang wants to avenge his brother's death at the hands of number two bad guy Shang "Your soul is mine!" Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), Sonya wants to catch suddenly-Australian Kano (Trevor Goddard), and Johnny wants to prove that he's the real deal and not some pampered action star. So with this in mind, our heoes are sent to a magical island to beat the crap out of some people.

The movie includes, besides the characters already mentioned, everyone else from the first (and even some from the second) MK games. Scorpion and Sub-Zero, probably the two biggest fan favorites in the series, show up in non-speaking roles and essentially act as mini-bosses for Liu and Johhny to fight, respectively. As a big palette-swapped ninja fan myself, you might think I would be saddened by the fact that the duo's backstory and rivalry were glossed over with a throwaway line from Shang Tsung ("Scorpion and Sub-Zero: deadliest of enemies, but slaves under my power." I didn't even have to look that up, so many times have I seen this movie) but I'm not. The ninjas are given some of the best fights in the movie and their sweet magic ninja powers are put on display with some sweet Clinton-era special effects. Also, they look exactly the same, as any true MK fan knows they should, they are palette swaps with different move lists after all! The people behind this movie knew what fans expected and wanted, a sweet story about fighting evil interdimensional ninjas and some kung fu fighting, not much else, and boy o boy is that what we got.

The movie also gives you some cameos and supporting roles from other Mortal Kombat characters: Kitana shows up as a love interest for Liu Kang in the form of one time Bond girl Talisa Soto and subsequently filled my pre-pubescent mind with dirty, dirty thoughts. Reptile is a crappy pre-Gollum, pre-Jar-Jar CGI lizard monster who turns into a green ninja to fight Liu Kang in the film's third act. Jax has one scene as Sonya's by-the-book partner (he'll show up with a much bigger role in the sequel and prove to be AWESOME). Most of all there is GORO, who is brought to us through some bad-ass animatronics and fake arms. He also gets punched in the balls by Johnny Cage, which for any nine-year-old is an Oscar-worthy performance, not to mention a reference to one of Johnny's moves from the game. Sweet.

Someone once pointed out to me that when it knows what it's doing (as it often does) Mortal Kombat is a porno movie with kung fu instead of sex: two characters meet in some novel setting, a beach, a forest, a room with a spike pit) and proceed to exchange a minimal amount of dialogue before making with the fighting. The movie knows what it is and plays its part: an adaptation of a hyperviolent fighting game. To quote video-game-to-movie star Dwayne "you're still the Rock to me" Johnson, "Know your role and shut your mouth."

And say whatever you want about the merits of a good old fashioned semi-brainless martial arts movie, you cannot deny that being introduced to this changed your life for the better.

On that note, I should also mention that the soundtrack to this movie was the first CD I ever bought.

Mortal Kombat is an over-the-top summer blockbuster at best and a B-movie at worst, but its success proved (perhaps wrongly) that video game movies could make it at the box office. After Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon, and the first Street Fighter movie
(all of which will be looked at here) it looked like video game movies were a bad idea. Mortal Kombat seemed to, for a time at least, garner some positive attention from the popcorn movie crowd and make it look like something good and entertaining could be done with video games on the silver screen.

Coming up: this Thursday look for my review of Mortal Kombat's Sci-Fi Channel (excuse me, Syfy)-level follow up: Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.

Boivin out.