Saturday, July 2, 2011

Mortal Kombat

It's time again for another foray into the realm of video game movie adaptations, this time requested by my friends in Big Dog Eat Child (or one of them, anyway).  Despite growing up in the dawn of the violent video game era, and despite spending several dollars in quarters playing the arcade game, I had never sat through Mortal Kombat before.  Well, at least not that I can remember; there are some hazy movie watching nights in college.  My favorite story about Mortal Kombat as a movie experience involved an old roommate of mine, who went to see this movie in the theater on opening night.  After the final preview ended and the lights went totally dim, someone in the audience stood up and bellowed "Moooortal Kombaaat!!!"  And the theater erupted in laughs and applause.  There aren't a whole lot of audiences that reward funny/obnoxious behavior like that*, but it really makes sense with this movie.  If you're not familiar with the MK battle cry, this commercial for the first game will clue you in:

Mortal Kombat the movie follows the general plot and format of the video game.  A group of humans (mortals) are chosen by a god and a sorcerer to fight for Earth in a series of one-on-one fights (kombat) to determine whether or not an extra-dimensional warlord can invade our world.  The fighters for good are a former monk, Liu Kang (Robin Shou), a movie star that is clearly not modeled after Jean-Claude Van Damme, Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby), and a tough as nails lady cop, Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson).
Sadly, not in this movie.
Why are these three picked?  Um.  Cuz?  On the side of eee-veel, we have the vaguely foreign and inexplicably cyborg-faced Kano (Trevor Goddard), the freeze-powered Sub-Zero, and the peculiar Scorpion, whose super power involved having a fleshy slit in his palm.  No wonder teenage boys like his character!
Least erotic Fleshlight ever.
After the good guys have had their way with these bad guys, they have to fight the sub-boss, Goro.  Goro has four arms and costume effects taken directly from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze.  He also is poorly designed, if only because four arms should lead to four pectoral muscles and not just extra abs.
If the good guys beat Goro, then they get to fight the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa).  Apparently, fighting games and movies are kind of like being in a union; to take on the big boss, you gotta pay your dues first.  Will the heroes of Earth win, or will they fail and allow the destruction of this dimension?  Or will they win and then see a set-up for a sequel?  The suspense probably will have you on the edge of boredom.

The acting in this film is obviously pretty bad, but it wasn't annoying.  Why not?  The director wisely chose to fill as much time as he could with action sequences, even when they are not particularly necessary.  When it is given screen time, the acting is awkward and grossly unnatural --- that's why most of the non-fight scenes have dialogue that consists primarily of quips.  The only actors that really stood out to me were Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Christopher Lambert.  Tagawa did a great job playing an over-the-top villain, thanks in part to his ability to make awesome facial expressions.
Tagawa isn't a talented actor, by any means, but he nails this character.  In a movie with a puddle-deep plot, the bad guy just has to be obviously bad.  Mission accomplished!  Christopher Lambert --- the most famous cast member, even now --- is awful, though, even by his standards.  Somehow, the filmmakers took a video game character that was clearly designed after the Three Storms in Big Trouble in Little China
and transformed him into a white guy with a funny accent.  I would forgive Lambert's always limited acting skills if he had any action scenes in the movie (he doesn't) or if his funny accent was racist (it's not).  Nope, Lambert was cast for his acting ability and star power.  That might please the fans of Highlander --- all four of you --- but the rest of us want a little more from our headlining actors than a raspy voice (except, inexplicably, at the end) and inappropriately timed chuckles.
Someone, please behead this immortal.

The tag line for this movie is "Nothing in this world has prepared you for this."  Personally, I think the promo posters took this movie a little too seriously.  That's not surprising, since the director, Paul W.S. Anderson, has a habit of making silly action movies that are blissfully unaware of their quality.  I will give Anderson credit; this movie has a lot of kombat in it (the "k" is for "kicks to the face").  Most of the fights include some decent hand-to-hand sparring.  Every so often, though, he gives the audience a wide shot and we see just how slow and choreographed the fight scenes are.  That doesn't bother me, since I laugh at things like that, but it's an odd choice in a movie that wants the audience to enjoy the fight scenes that take up most of the film.

It's probably easier to focus on the things this movie does right than what is wrong with it.  The 90s-techno theme song and the random shouts of "Mortal Kombat" are awesomely cheesy.  I loved that every punch and kick had a sound effect.  Most of the cannon fodder villains used exaggerated grunts instead of dialogue and --- given the quality of the script --- that was the right choice.  This is a movie that knew it needed a fight every few minutes to maintain interest, and it does its best to make that happen.

It's still a comically bad movie, though.  Any time your hero has a mullet is a clue that your movie is aiming for the "so bad it's good" market.  For a movie with so much fighting, it sure seems like half of the actors are waiting to get punched or kicked; there was a sequence where Liu Kang, Johnny Cage, and Sonja took out a whole room of Hammer pants-wearing thugs with kicks to the face.  I realize those guys are the underlings, but shouldn't one of them have a defense for that?  Like ducking, maybe, or just putting their arms in front of their face?  The special effects are awfully mid-90s, which means that they weren't very impressive; the CGI used for Reptile was the worst, though.  And the stupidity, oh the stupidity...
  • Shang Tsung, the main villain, prepares to fight wearing...a vesty pantsuit?
  • Every person that fights Sub-Zero waits until he has summoned his cold energy (or whatever) before they attempt to hit him.
  • Kano has manscaped his chest hair, and it looks suspiciously like that of Zangief from rival game series Street Fighter.
  • Scorpion's dialogue includes his in-game catch phrases "Get over here" and "C'mere."  It also includes "Get down here" and "Welcome," using the same voice.  I'm fine with the first two lines, if only because they make sense in the film.  The others...well, if he was trying to coax a cat out of a tree or followed "Welcome" with "Can I get you a drink?" they might seem a little less silly.
  • Sadly, the only black man in Mortal Kombat, and is not a character from the game, is used to show how tough the bad guys are.  Nobody saw that coming.
  • Every time Goro fights, these two greasy observers look deeply into each others eyes and scream "Gorooo!!!"  I think we're supposed to assume that they retire after the fight for some sweaty lovemaking.
  • Why is Sonja in this movie?  She winds up being a damsel in distress instead of some sort of martial arts bad-ass.  I do like that the bad guys that kidnap her take the time to tease out her hair and change her into an ugly dress.
  • Here's the scene: you are about to attack a known shape-shifting bad guy.  He shape-shifts into your dead brother.  Obviously, this is a trick because you know your brother is dead and because you saw the villain shift.  Every second spent not punching the bad guy is an insult to everyone's intelligence.

By any meaningful metric that measures film quality, Mortal Kombat is just plain dumb.

But, despite the slew of obvious awfulness in this movie, I feel pretty certain that it is as good as anyone involved in making the film expected.  This might have started out as a high-profile project (at one point, Cameron Diaz was in the cast, and it was rumored that Brandon Lee was set to star, too), but it went to B-movie status the second Christopher Lambert was hired to headline the film.  The direction is poor, the action is mediocre, the script is stupid, with pretty lame one-liners sprinkled throughout.  Then again, this is a movie based on a video game where you have people fight each other to the death, one at a time; who needs acting, directing, or a script?  With that in mind, I find myself curiously entertained by Mortal Kombat.  It's definitely bad, but certainly entertaining, which means a Lefty Gold rating of

* My personal favorite funny/obnoxious loud-thing-said-in-the-theater came from Danny O'D.  We went to a midnight showing of the Japanese anime classic, Akira, and the theater was packed with all sorts of nerds, most of whom were already familiar with the movie.  About thirty seconds into the movie, before any dialogue had been spoken, Dan loudly asked, "Wait, this is a cartoon?!?"  Only two people in the theater laughed, but I almost peed myself.  Good times.

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