Any other movie I would gladly dismiss as just another stupid video game flick, but the cinematic masterpiece Mortal Kombat deserves more than that. As a representative of the Super Nintendo/Sega Genesis generation, I hold a special place in my heart for the 1995 video game adaptation, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. In fact, compared to 1997′s Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, 1994′s Street Fighter, or 1993′s Super Mario Bros., the film is something of a masterpiece.
A few months ago, Internet rumors started spreading that there was going to be a remake of the classic 1995 film. Within weeks of this announcement, there was already a trailer, seemingly authentic, with Michael Jai White (The Dark Knight) as Jax, Jeri Ryan (Star Trek: Voyager) as Sonya Blade, and a “re-imagined” setting. To the surprise and chagrin of many excited fans, it was later revealed that this “trailer” is actually a short film. Director Kevin Tancharoen made it so he would have something to help “sell his vision” on the feature-length version to Warner Bros.
It’s a cool concept, but tough to compare to the ’95 film. Both offer that super fake dialogue and total indifference toward a plausible representation of reality, but with alternative modes of framing the plot. The original went straight for the Kung Fu caricature suggested by the video game, while the “Rebirth” short film recycles the basic concepts into some sort of neo-noir thing. As something of a purist, I would normally say I prefer the route taken by the ’95 version, but it’s hardly fair to say Anderson’s film was true to the hallmarks of the original game story. (Since when were Sub-Zero and Scorpion ever buddies/co-workers? Plus, everyone knows it was Jax who messed up Kano’s face, not Shang Tsung.)
One thing I’ve never understood about video games movies is how much enjoyment they seem to derive out of announcing a character’s name for the first time. Even in the video above (produced within the last year), Michael Jai White emphatically says, “Code name… <long dramatic pause> … REPTILE“—almost the exact same line is used by Shang Tsung in the ’95 version. The mistake that so many of these video game movies make is trusting their characters will be charismatic and interesting enough that a good plot is just sort-of like a bonus. And just because I’m already familiar with the names of these characters does not presume I’ve automatically established a relationship with them. The movie version of Scorpion has to earn my love just like everybody else.
What made the ’95 Mortal Kombat more successful than its peers mentioned earlier is how well it established the mood of the game that people had come to know and love. After watching just the first 10 minutes of Anderon’s film, you can already tell it’s the kind of movie where someone’s head might explode in a shower of blood and the threat of falling into an alternate dimension is ever-present. This isn’t like Brian Singer’s X-Men films, where you’re trying to make something serious out of something fantastic and somewhat ridiculous. This is a movie about four-armed monsters, dudes eating other dude’s souls, folks that can shoot lightning out of their eyeballs, and lizard people from hell that know karate.
The whole point of Anderson’s Mortal Kombat is NOT to pretend like this is such a serious movie. Johnny Cage’s tragically funny one-liners just seem to make sense somehow; when he and Scorpion suddenly appear in some random forest with for no apparent, we don’t question it. Scorpion does his famous “Harpoon” move and you’re right back in your parents’ basement playing video games again. Despite the 35% Rotten Tomatoes rating, this is as much of a Mortal Kombat movie as the world should ever need. It was released right when the games were still somewhat new and exciting, and it doesn’t try to be any more highbrow and dramatic than what is suggested by the source material.
Case in point: this “Rebirth” concept seems kinda cool and all, but please don’t waste our time with another straight-up remake. If you’re going to “re-imagine” the setting, then I urge you to push it in that direction as far as possible. Let’s keep all that “Your soul is mine!” business in the past.
Tags: 1990s, action, adaptation, brian singer, christopher lambert, cult classic, jeri ryan, kung fu, linden ashby, michael jai white, mortal kombat, paul ws anderson, robin shou, scorpion, shang tsung, the dark knight, video games