In 1995 Paul W.S. Anderson ("Event Horizon," "Resident Evil," "AVP: Alien vs. Predator," "Death Race") directed "Mortal Kombat," one of the first movies Hollywood made based directly on a popular video game. And it looks like it.
Understand, I know nothing about the video game itself except by name, so all I can do as a reviewer is evaluate the movie as a movie, not how well writer Kevin Droney or the director adapted it to the screen. I suspect, however, that even fans of the game might find the movie rather wanting in plot, characterizations, motives, and action. What it does have going for it, though, is eye candy. There is no question the film does look good, and its looks (and the reputation of its title) are probably why it did so well at the box office, bringing in over $120,000,000 worldwide on a budget of $18,000,000.
The plot seems taken directly from any number of video games, with a healthy dash of Bruce Lee's "Enter the Dragon" thrown in. See if this sounds familiar: Mysterious forces invite (or lure) three martial artists (the heroes) among many others to an unknown island for a secret tournament held "once a generation." Needless to say, only the best fighters in the world get invited, and the fate of the world hangs on who wins. It seems the forces of good, represented by Lord Raydon, the "god of lightning and protector of the realm of Earth," and the forces of evil, represented by the evil "Emperor," hold these tournaments every so-many years, and whoever wins ten of them gets to rule the world. So far, Lord Raydon's team has lost nine in a row. Apparently, Lord Raydon has chosen his champions poorly for nine generations.
For the first quarter hour of the movie, we kind of meet the characters. But there are so many of them running around in different places, most of them barely or never named and played by actors whose faces probably aren't very familiar to most viewers, it's hard to tell what's going on. Although we do finally begin to sort them out, by that time it's almost too late because the intentional confusion at the beginning practically makes one lose interest before the movie ever gets started.
Anyway, among the three heroes of the piece there is, first, Liu Kang (Robin Shou), a young man looking to find the person responsible for murdering his brother. Second, there's Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby), a movie star out to prove himself in the tournament because his critics doubt his martial-arts skills; he wants to win in order to show his fans he's not really a phony at his sport (shades of the early, misplaced harping about Van Damme here). And third, there's Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson), a comely government agent looking for a baddie named Kano (Trevor Goddard), whom she follows to the island. Johnny and Sonya, by the way, look about as tough as Ken and Barbie.
Christopher Lambert (who else?) plays Lord Raydon, the god who turns up as a beggar and later as a wizard, wearing long white hair and always speaking in a hoarse whisper. A CGI creation eventually shows up as the evil Emperor, but mostly throughout the movie we see his chief henchman, Shang Tsung (Cary-Hirayuki Tagawa), a wicked sorcerer doing nefarious deeds. Why Lord Raydon and the evil Emperor don't just fight it out on their own is anybody's guess. I suppose it's because without the tournament, we wouldn't have a movie, since that's about all there is to the plot.
As you can see by the character names, the movie draws these folks straight from the clichés and stereotypes of the video game. We also get characters named Princess Kitana (Talisa Soto), Reptile (Keith H. Cooke), Sub-Zero (Francois Petit), and Fighting Monk (Hakim Alston). If you enjoy these kinds of simple, punch-and-kick video games, the movie's for you.
Most of the film is about the fights, which director Anderson stages fairly well, with a few mazes here and there to satisfy the gaming crowd. As I mentioned earlier, the film does look good, with plenty of CGI to create the look and feel of a video-game world and Anderson using a video-game first-person perspective on occasion to remind us where all this came from.
The trouble is, there is no one charismatic enough in the movie to hold everything together and no story line interesting or innovative enough to hold our attention. The result is that "Mortal Kombat," like the spelling of "Kombat" itself, is a one-note gimmick that comes with everything but a joystick for the viewer to control the robotic characters. It's hardly worth one's time.
The New Line video engineers use a single-layer BD25 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec to bring the film to Blu-ray disc in its native aspect ratio, 1.85:1 (or something close to it, since it actually shows up, as most studio transfers do, at 1.78:1 in order to fill up a 16.9 widescreen television). The best thing about the video is its definition, which is usually pretty good. The next best thing is the film's minor, natural print grain, most of which the engineers retained. The things not so good are that the image has a slightly gritty look to it, the colors are often gaudy and bright (which is probably not the fault of the transfer), and facial tones can often be too dark or reddish.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 starts out sounding loud, with pounding, nerve-wracking title music, and the noise seldom ever lets up thereafter. While there is not much surround activity, there is a wide front-channel stereo spread, and every once in a while we hear some moderately deep bass and some decent dynamic impact. Mostly, though, as I say, it's just loud for the sake of being loud.
You get a number of little things in the way of extras here. First, there's a forty-minute, standard-screen animated adventure, "Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins," which came out the same year as the movie, presumably as a promotion for it. The animation art is not particularly good, and the story line and characters are practically the same as the movie. Next, the disc comes with a digital-copy download code if you want to transfer the movie to iTunes or Windows Media, the offer expiring April 17, 2012. After that we find a "Mortal Kombat" video-game trailer in high def; a BD-Live feature for viewers who have their BD players hooked up to the Internet; and a voucher code for the download of a "Mortal Kombat" PS3 game add-on.
The extras conclude with twenty-seven scene selections; a non-anamorphic widescreen theatrical trailer; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The disc comes housed in a flimsy Eco-case with the plastic cut out of it front and back.
"Mortal Kombat" never lets you forget for a minute that it's essentially a video game. If you enjoy that sort of stuff, New Line produced a sequel several years later, 1997's "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation," which is more of the same but less. Some of the original stars came back, Robin Shou and Talisa Soto, for instance, but not Christopher Lambert, Lindon Ashby, or director Paul Anderson. New Line make it, too, available (separately) on Blu-ray for those viewers who care enough to want the movie in the best-possible picture and sound.