BR: Mortal Kombat (1995)

April 28, 2011 | By


Film: Very Good

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Good

Label: New Line Home Video – Warner Home Video

Region: All

Released: April 19, 2011

Genre: Action / Martial Arts / Video Game

Synopsis: Combattants are recruited for a competition that will decide the fate of Earth from an evil Emperor. Based on the intellectually challenging video game that weighs quantum physics with transitional DNA theorems.

Special Features: 1995 Animated Home Video Special: “Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins” (39:07) with 4 chapters / Theatrical Trailer / Mortal Kombat 2011 Videogame Trailer (1:15)




Making a feature-length film based on a video game became vogue during the nineties as the level of graphic sophistication became more filmic, and the action component of games like Mortal Kombat [MK] could be expanded into familiar narratives without losing core elements of the original game, be it characters or action hubs in popular player levels.

MK still ranks as one of the best game-inspired films because its martial arts component were central to the drama, and if one distills the film script to its basics, it’s just a hybrid of Enter the Dragon (1973), where martial artists gather for an ultimate challenge that evolves into a clear battle to save good from a cancerous evil. People die, some win for a while, and ultimately there are heroes prepped to battle an even bigger uber-villain.

The trend for game-films began with Super Mario Bros. (1993), which proved how disastrous a venture could be if the game’s mythology was too weird, and screenwriters were forced to expand on the weirdness to compensate for a lack of coherent plotting. Street Fighter (1994) was more tongue-in-cheek, but it proved to be too cartoonish and lacked believable characters (let alone worthwhile archetypes).

MK raised the bar with a sophisticated production design, and perhaps benefitted from the game being inspired by martial arts films – a genre that was making greater penetration into western markets because more Asian film stars were being lured to appear in western co-productions, or have their older product distributed via labels such as Miramax (a good thing for mainstreaming Jackie Chan, but a bad thing for the way his films were recut, redubbed, retitled, rescored, and sometimes held back from release).

Besides a stellar special effects budget, the producers and director Paul W.S. Anderson also knew how to make more from less, and MK has a perfect blend of practical and CGI effects. In 1995, the digital effects were cutting edge – the film’s 9 min. end credits is primarily devoted to the multiple effects houses used to complete the film – and they still hold up well, although they are indicative of the colour schemes typical of the era, particularly the dialed down neon, saturated purple hues, and tinted cloudy skies.

Anderson’s direction was a perfect blend of gorgeous compositions, colours, and fast-editing that still remained respectful of the martial arts choreography performed by renowned athletes. In 2011, it’s actually surprising to see movements often covered in wider shots and zero shakycam effects; MK actually looks quite classical to the eyes, since the style of coverage has become more manic and visually impressionistic – not a great evolution when part of the fun is seeing the movements in splendid detail.

The cast was a mix of action / cult film favourites (Christopher Lambert, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and mostly film unknowns: martial artist Robin Shou, actor Linden Ashby, and striking actresses Bridgette Wilson and Talisa Soto. That combo largely ensured the game’s main characters, action scenes, and ambiance would dominate and obfuscate the weaknesses within the film.

The first third is strictly devoted to lengthy character intros featuring back stories, as well as their journey by junk to the isolated island where MK will be held, but it actually takes a while before there’s any major combat sequence. The opening fights are mere teasers, and it’s unusual the producers chose to hold back, deliberately offering little tidbits before the first hand-to-hand battle.

Even the small challenges by the beach feel compact, and most of the tension between trapped heroes and various nemeses – Lord Rayden (Lambert), Shang Tsung (Tagawa), Kano (Trevor Goddard), and killers Scorpion and Sub-Zero – is slowly elongated until the major battles in Outworld. By classical Asian martial arts film standards, the combat scenes are still pretty compact, but it’s not a stretch to suggest the combination of music video montages and pounding electronica influenced subsequent U.S. – Asian co-productions.


The Blu-ray & Extras

Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray sports a crisp transfer of the film, showcasing John R. Leonetti’s metallic colour palette and the superb Thailand locations. The sound mix is well-balanced for 5.1 surround, but it lacks a bit of the bass oomph that dominated the old Image laserdisc edition (which came in a Dolby AC3 and DTS split-run).

Although WHV’s BR contains the same theatrical trailer (a superb montage of money moments intercut with music and the flaming MK logo), the Dolby laserdisc also contained 3 TV spots (“Cutdown,” “Good Guys” and “Epic”). Both Dolby and DTS laserdiscs also sported an audio commentary track featuring co-producer Lawrence Kasanoff and Visual Effects Supervisor Alison Savitch – something fans of the film won’t find on the BR.

The pair’s commentary isn’t perfect – after the first half hour it’s clear the focus will revolve around visual effects and What You’re Seeing Onscreen Right Now – but there are important details not present in the BR copy text, such as the design of the effects, casting, and the amazing locations which spanned ancient Thai temples, and the partially razed steel plant that doubles for Outworld. (Both commentators were involved with James Cameron’s T2, and cite the location as being the vestiges of where the two Terminator units duke it out amid conveyor machinery and molten steel.)

Also MIA from the BR is the 1995 making-of TV special Mortal Kombat: Behind the Dragon which aired on TNT and is likely to disappear into that vast wasteland known as Promotional Ephemera.

Most likely rights issues kept the aforementioned extras off, or perhaps it a decision to streamline the extras in order to fit a HD trailer for the new MK game. Given the trailer will be seen no more than once, it would’ve made more sense to archive it online as a downloadable or streaming bonus, and save the space for the TV trailers and commentary, or offer a bonus DVD featuring the TV special, and the 15 min. making-of featurette that was a bonus extra on Image’s other tie-in laserdisc, Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins (1995), an animated primer on the video game’s mythology which also functioned as a backstory promo for the film.

WHV’s BR does contains the animated tie-in (running just over 39 mins.), which Kasanoff also produced and Droney also wrote (and perhaps drew from for reference when the MK mythos was getting a bit overwhelming). The story essentially follows Sonia Blade, Johnny Cage and Liu Kang (sporting a white boy accent) as they travel to the island and are given a tour by Lord Rayden. Backstory flashbacks are conveyed through 3D rendering (now quite chunky and primitive), whereas the rest of the animation it straight 2D cells that combine textured backgrounds, fogs, and fixtures with scanned line drawings reminiscent in style and cheapness to Krantz Animation’s Rocket Robin Hood series.

Journey is watchable, and although it’s best regarded by fans as a 1995 curio, its creation foreshadows New Line’s similar decision to produce a series of animated backstory shorts – The Animatrix (2003) – that were released on DVD in tandem with the theatrical runs of the two Matrix sequels, Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions (both 2003).

MK did very well at the box office, and from a franchise standpoint, it offered the perfect combination of multi-platform exploitation. Released in conjunction with the video game was a single and later album of The Immortals’ techno music (a rare release then, but wholly common now), the feature film, and the animated Journey which also functioned as a promo for the announced Mortal Kombat III video game.

With the aid of 4 writers, Kasanoff later doodled the story for the dreadful 1997 sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, but the franchise managed to have a bit more life on TV in the form of an animated series, Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm (1996), and the live-action series Mortal Kombat: Konquest (1998-1999) which seemed to consist of buffed, scantily clad models (including Painkiller Jane’s Kristana Loken) looking very serious in a foam-cast cave system.

Unlike actors Robin Shou and Talisa Soto, screenwriter Droney managed to avoid Annihilation, but was quickly engaged by New Line to write the wretched video game film Wing Commander (1999), before he returned to the realm of TV from whence he came.

In 2011, with New Line fully absorbed into Warner Bros., the franchise was re-launched on YouTube as a 10-episode web series, Mortal Kombat: Legacy. Directed by Kevin Tancharoen, the series (itself derived from Tancheroen’s short film Mortal Kombat: Rebirth) brought back Sonia Blade, Kano, Johnny Cage, and Shang Tsung, plus characters Jax and Baraka (present in Annihilation), and newcomer Stryker.



© 2011 Mark R. Hasan



External References:

IMDB Mortal Kombat Wikipedia — Soundtrack AlbumComposer Filmography

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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