Revisiting the First Two Mortal Kombat of the ’90s

With James Wan-produced Mortal Kombat reboot arriving in cinemas this coming Thursday on April 8 (US audiences have to wait until April 23, where the movie will be released simultaneously in theatres and on the HBO Max streaming service), I spent my weekend revisiting both Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.

Both movies were released in 1995 and 1997 respectively, with the first one famously broke the video-game movie curse following the triple-whammy fiasco of Super Mario Bros. (1993), Double Dragon (1994) and a certain tournament-based video game movie called Street Fighter (1994).

But the initial journey of making Mortal Kombat wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. According to The Hollywood Reporter (it’s a fascinating feature piece about the movie’s production history worth reading here), Mortal Kombat producer Lawrence (Larry) Kasanoff was once being told that “this wouldn’t work and [his] career would be over”.

Coupled with the fact that hiring then-unknown Paul W.S. Anderson as the director, whose prior feature was the 1994’s little-seen debut called Shopping starring Sadie Frost and Jude Law didn’t inspire much confidence either. But Anderson, who happened to be a fan of the Mortal Kombat video game, proved to be the right man for the job. The only biggest setback was the limited budget given at just US$18 million, considering a video game movie like Mortal Kombat required a lot of extensive special effects.

A scene from "Mortal Kombat" (1995)

And yet, Anderson managed to make good use of the budget, beginning with the surprisingly better-than-average fight choreography that showcases some of the cool moves from the video games. This include scenes like Liu Kang (Robin Shou) vs. Sub-Zero (Francois Petit) and Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) vs. Scorpion (Chris Casamassa). For the former, I was kind of impressed with the special effects of Sub-Zero’s ability to possess power over ice.

Even without the blessing of should-have-been-a-R-rated movie, considering the video game’s gory contents, the otherwise toned-down PG-13 result remains justifiable. It also helps that most of the actors here performed their own stunts, which in turn, made the fight scenes more realistic and visceral. Equally worth mentioning is Anderson’s technical know-how on utilising effective cameraworks where we can admire the elaborate choreography of the fighting moves. No annoying shaky-cam or terribly choppy editing whatsoever. This was way before Anderson lost his credibility in staging a decent fight scene, as evidently seen in the likes of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2017) and the recent Monster Hunter (2020).

Let’s not forget about George S. Clinton’s music either and of course, The Immortals’ catchy vibe of Mortal Kombat main theme (“Techno Syndrome (Mortal Kombat)”) that was ironically more popular than the movie itself. The actors look the part, with the likes of Robin Shou’s Liu Kang, Christopher Lambert’s Lord Raiden and Talisa Soto’s Kitana brought their respective characters to life. But of all the cast in Mortal Kombat, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s pitch-perfect and now-iconic antagonist role as Shang Tsung impresses me the most.

Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Shang Tsung in "Mortal Kombat" (1995)

The story — credited to Kevin Droney, who previously served as a TV writer for series like The Equalizer (1988) and Highlander (1992-1993) — is pretty straightforward and doesn’t waste much time getting to the point. Of course, upon revisiting the movie, there were few things that didn’t work well. Among them includes some terribly dated CGI effects and don’t get me started with Goro, whose ill-fated combination of animatronics and puppetry look disappointingly cheesy. Even back when I first watched Mortal Kombat in 1995, Goro’s appearance felt like he should belong in the ’80s B-movie.

For years, I’ve been wondering if only the studio (New Line Cinema) gave Anderson a bigger budget, he would have come up with a more video game-accurate Mortal Kombat movie. Still, for what it’s worth, the first Mortal Kombat remains a rare example that how to effectively translate a popular video game into a movie. Originally released on August 18, 1995, with much fanfare, Mortal Kombat became a surprise hit at a respectable US$70.4 million in the US alone, with a cumulative worldwide total of US$124.7 million.

Raiden (James Remar) and Shao Kahn (Brian Thompson) in "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation" (1997)

With Anderson left an open ending in Mortal Kombat, a sequel was inevitable. Arrived just two years after the first movie, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation turned out to be polar opposite together. By polar opposite, I mean the sequel was inferior on almost every level. Paul W.S. Anderson declined to return and chose to direct the underrated Event Horizon (1997) instead, leaving the first movie’s cinematographer — John R. Leonetti — taking over the director’s seat.

While he did a good job serving as Mortal Kombat cinematographer, his inexperience as a first-time director was clearly evident in the sequel. Take the god-awful opening scene, for instance, with shoddy CGI background where the surviving heroes battling new enemies led by Shao Kahn (Brian Thompson).

The fight choreography is mostly a letdown — all monotonous and repetitive with too many somersaults and backflips while the overall editing is choppily put-together. Don’t get me wrong, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation did feature lots of fight scenes over the course of its 95-minute length. Unless you are hardly a demanding person, the action here is pretty much forgettable. Special effects are just as poor and despite given a bigger budget (US$30 million vs. the first movie’s US$18 million), the sequel actually looks shockingly amateurish.

(L-R) Liu Kang (Robin Shou), Sonya Blade (Sandra Hess) and Raiden (James Remar) in "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation" (1997)

Then, there’s the cast. Robin Shou and Talisa Soto — reprising their roles as Liu Kang and Kitana respectively — turned out to be the only two here from the original cast while others were replaced by different actors. James Remar, who took over Christopher Lambert’s role as Raiden, is woefully miscast and it didn’t help matters when there’s a later scene where he appeared with a new look. The new antagonist role played by Brian Thompson pales in comparison to Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s Shang Tsung character.

Frankly, it was already bad enough when I first saw Mortal Kombat: Annihilation back in the day. Revisited the sequel again didn’t change my perspective a bit. It didn’t even qualify under the so-bad-it’s-good category. As a result, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation flopped in the box office with a paltry US$51.3 million worldwide. Had the sequel became a hit, we would have gotten a third Mortal Kombat movie. Too bad that didn’t happen and it would only take decades of development hell before James Wan finally stepped in as a producer for the new Mortal Kombat movie.