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Let’s Hope the New ‘Mortal Kombat’ Is Half As Good-Bad As the Old ‘Mortal Kombat’

Revisiting the 1995 “classic” ahead of the ultra-ultra-grisly reboot hitting HBO Max and theaters this weekend

Scott Laven/Warner Bros.

“Trust me, I got a plan,” the conceited action-flick star Johnny Cage announces to his pals Liu Kang (dour hero), Sonya Blade (angry cop), and Raiden (god of lightning and protector of the realm of Earth), and not to spoil any element of the classic 1995 video-game-movie spectacular Mortal Kombat, but Johnny Cage’s plan, as executed two scenes later, is to do the splits and then punch Goro, four-armed general of the armies of Outworld and prince of the subterranean realm of Kuatan, in the nuts. And then run away. That’s the plan. We are stretching the definition of the word plan here, but so, too, the definitions of classic and spectacular. This, for your reference, is Goro.

Screenshots via New Line Cinema

(I didn’t light this movie.)

The plan works, BTW. Apologies once again for the spoiler. Goro cradles his kicked nuts in anguish with only two of his four hands, which to my mind is a missed comic opportunity. Mortal Kombat, directed by Not That Paul Anderson and a faithful (?!) adaptation of the bloody-AF 1992 arcade game, doesn’t miss comic or expositional opportunities—or at least Raiden (Christopher Lambert) doesn’t. (I will not name any of this film’s other actors for their own protection.) “The fate of billions will depend on you,” he informs our dour-angry-conceited heroes, having explained that they’ll face something vastly more important than ego, their enemy, or revenge whilst undertaking this sacred mission to defend the realm of Earth in a tournament called Mortal Kombat. Then he attempts a sinister laugh: “Ha ha ha ha.” Comic beat. “Sorry.” Best Actor at the 1996 Oscars went to Nicolas Cage for Leaving Las Vegas. Lambert was robbed.

On Friday, HBO Max and the few movie theaters that still remain will premiere a rebooted Mortal Kombat, directed by Simon McQuoid. It’s an attempt at a gritty rebirth for a series abandoned, at least cinematically, after the anguished punch in the nuts that was 1997’s risible Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. (The replacement Raiden was a huge downgrade, as was virtually everyone and everything else.) The big whoop with this new movie is that it’s got a gnarly red-band trailer and, per a recent Variety article, a mandate to push its hard-R rating to the bleeding edge of NC-17 via its depictions of the fighting game’s infamously brutal fatalities. “Yeah, they’re pretty gruesome,” enthused Lewis Tan, who stars as Cole Young, an MMA fighter not featured in any of the games, which is always a good sign. “I accidentally walked into a post-fatality set and I felt pretty sick to my stomach. [Laughs.] I was like, ‘What the hell is this? What happened here?’ It looked like somebody destroyed a buffet line, but there was no food.”

A few sickos employed by this website will be thrilled by this ultra-gory development, but I am not among them. The video game series, of course, has emphatically not been abandoned—back in 2019, I played the new Mortal Kombat 11 for a couple of weeks before I got so grossed out by all the ultra-gory fatalities that I deleted the whole game from my Xbox in an attempt to cleanse my very soul. (It didn’t work.) My fear, with this new Mortal Kombat flick, is that it will take the games’ ever-ascending commitment to mega-gnarliness far too seriously and will take itself far too seriously in general. My goal here today is to convince you to just rewatch the ’95 Mortal Kombat instead. My argument is that every line of dialogue that pops out of Shang Tsung’s mouth is dumb as hell in the raddest possible way. (All right, I’ll name one more actor: Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, as Shang Tsung, was robbed of an Oscar, also.) My request to you is that you remember that I didn’t light this movie.

Shang Tsung, of course, is an evil sorcerer who has seized control of Outworld and is now hosting, on his own private island, the once-in-a-generation Mortal Kombat tournament, a crucial step in his ultimate plan to—what the hell am I even doing here. You either know the plot better than I do or you don’t give a hoot. Various fighters pound the bejesus out of one another on a poorly lit private island whilst 1990s-ass EDM blares. There you go. Shang Tsung is the bad guy, which is to say the enslaver of souls, as he is eager to remind you.

Yes indeed, the first Mortal Kombat—directed by, OK, Paul W.S. Anderson, who went on to do Event Horizon (never watching that) and a bunch of Resident Evil movies, he’s cool, sorry for earlier—was the crown jewel of the mini-boom of ’90s video game movies, which are still inspiring thoughtful conversation to this day. Crown jewel of ’90s video game movies is a low bar to clear, perhaps: You clear this bar if you’re still above ground, basically. The 1994 Street Fighter movie sucked, for example, despite a cast that included Jean-Claude Van Damme, Raul Julia, and Kylie Minogue; I refuse to even compose a full sentence about 1993’s Super Mario Bros. Mortal Kombat is a film that would never call itself “a film,” and knows which side its bread is buttered on from its opening seconds, which is to say that you hear the beloved Guy Who Yells “Mortal Kombat” yell “Mortal Kombat!” before even the New Line Cinema logo has appeared on-screen.

What transpires from there is a bacchanal of defiantly wooden acting, delightfully overzealous set design, and woefully poor lighting that strings together a series of fight scenes that whiplash between medium-cool martial arts prowess (Johnny Cage and Scorpion kicking the crap out of each other) and wanton silliness (Johnny Cage showing off his gymnastics skills mid-fight on an improvised Outworld high bar). The vintage CGI vacillates wildly in quality from one moment to the next. (The kunai that emerges from Scorpion’s hand: Yes. The bolts of electricity that emerge from Raiden’s hands: No.) What I’m saying is that this movie understands that it’s built around the catchphrase “GET OVER HERE!” What I’m saying is that this was (and hopefully remains!) a first-ballot Teenage Boy Sleepover Movie Hall of Famer. What I’m saying is that craven IP exploitation just hit different in 1995, back when I, at least, didn’t know what IP was at all.

Roughly 10,000 dopey B-movies released in the past quarter century have attempted to replicate Mortal Kombat’s precise so-bad-it’s-good aura, but it’s harder to make a Good-Bad Movie than it is to make an Actually Good Movie. Right this very second, if you so desire, you can watch the first seven minutes of the 2021 Mortal Kombat, which takes place in 17th-century Japan, and features:

  1. A more compelling backstory than the central characters Sub-Zero and Scorpion have ever cinematically received, which is truly not necessary since they’re video game characters wearing the exact same outfit (in blue and yellow, respectively) because who really has the time to come up with a new costume for every character, and
  2. more spurting blood and bone-crunching gnarliness than the ’95 movie in its entirety, which makes the 2021 movie the Sega Genesis Mortal Kombat port to the 1995 movie’s Super Nintendo Mortal Kombat port, if that means anything to you, which if not, forget about it, and
  3. an origin story for the fucking kunai itself, for whoever requested this, and finally, and this point I will concede,
  4. way better lighting.

In short, this new movie aspires to be an actual movie, but this is not what I want from a Mortal Kombat movie: not tragic pasts, not coherent cinematography, and certainly not the destroyed buffet tables of blood and guts that long ago made the video games themselves virtually unplayable for delicate souls such as myself. The new movie will be truer to the newer video games, in short, but represent, in its very aspirations to prestige, a betrayal of the older movies. On Friday, I will fire up HBO Max and feel a genuine thrill, in every atom of my permanent-17-year-old being, the first time Tragic-Backstory Scorpion yells “Get over here.” I just hope I’ll be able to stomach the rest.