Obsessively watching Teen Wolf and Sheriff Johnny Cage reminded me of something last week: I have never actually written a review for Mortal Kombat. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, yes. But Mortal Kombat itself? Nope.
This is one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies ever. Keep that in mind while I occasionally and lovingly rip it to shreds.
SPOILERS abound, people. Just in case you’re actually worried about that.
It’s up to a handful of human fighters — but especially Liu Kang (Robin Shou) — to save the realm of Earth by winning a tournament called Mortal Kombat.
1. When I was a kid, all I really wanted were my best friend’s toys — which, come to think of it, is probably what most kids want. Specifically, I wanted a trampoline, one of those bouncy ball things that you sit on, and a Sega Genesis. And I especially wanted that Sega so I could play hours and hours of Mortal Kombat.
I don’t plan to spend much time talking about the differences between the games and the movie — because plot? Who cares about plot? But I feel like I should mention that there is a distinct discrepancy between the level of violence between this movie and the game. Actually, to my great surprise, the movie is PG-13, which kind of makes me laugh because there’s very little about it that does not seem perfectly suited to a ten year old. (And yes, that’s about how old I was when I saw it for the first time.) The games — which I probably started playing around the age of eight — were considerably gorier, even if their graphics are now hideously and laughably outdated. Nobody gets sliced in half with a hat or has their spine ripped out in Mortal Kombat the movie. Unfortunately.
I actually don’t mind that the violence in the film gets severely toned down — I certainly don’t need any scenes where VOMIT comes into play, thanks, Noob Saibot — but it wouldn’t hurt for our fighters to occasionally sport a bruise. Johnny Cage gets the shit kicked out of him by Scorpion in the film, and there is nary a cut or a black eye in sight, which is just silly, really — although hardly the silliest thing about this movie.
2. What is the silliest thing? That’s hard to say. It could be Shang Tsung’s ever-changing hair styles. Seriously, it just ups and shapeshifts mid-scene.
Cause really. The only thing funnier than Shang-Tsung’s little man-bob is Liu Kang’s Fluffy Angst Mane — or Fluffy Mane of Failed Meditation. I can’t decide which name I like better.
You know, my hair just doesn’t get quite that kind of volume. I’m a tiny bit jealous.
3. Oh, okay. Let’s talk about the actual movie. Specifically, let’s talk characters. Here is our Chosen One again:
Liu Kang was trained his whole life to enter the Mortal Kombat tournament, but he had an identity crisis or something and went off to America where everyone watches television and eats junk food and knows that the world can’t be saved by people kicking inter-dimensional ass. So his brother, Chan, tries to step up to the role of Hero and is promptly murdered by Shang Tsung for it. Liu Kang, in his Green Lit Room of Angst, finds out about this in the very worst way possible.
Uh, folks? This is not the nicest way to let a person know their sibling has died. This is kind of like breaking up with someone by text message, only, you know, a thousand times worse.
Anyway, Liu Kang travels back to compete in the tournament so that he can avenge his brother’s death. At this point, even if you know nothing about the video games, it’s pretty clear that Liu Kang is going to be the one to defeat Shang Tsung and save the world. Which is fine, I guess, but when Rayden’s talking to Liu, Sonya, and Johnny Cage, and he’s all like, “One of you three will decide the fate of this tournament,” it’s kind of well, Jesus, I wonder which one it’s going to be, Rayden.
4. For the most part, Liu Kang is kind of boring. His best moments by far are any time he’s making fun of Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby).
I kind of love Johnny Cage, but he is sort of a tool. (Although less in this movie than in other iterations of Mortal Kombat, which is probably why he gets killed off a lot.) After all, he’s not the guy trying to take down his brother’s killer, or even his partner’s killer — he just wants proof to say that he does his own godamned stunts, really. Regardless, I generally enjoy Linden Ashby in this — he’s got some funny lines and amusing reactions, even if those reactions are not nearly as dialed up as they ought to be. (More on that in a bit.)
The real reason to love Johnny, though, is his fight with Goro, which is about as underhanded and unheroic as possible.
To defeat this dude, Johnny waits until Goro is distracted before doing his patented ‘I Can Do the Splits and Then Punch You in the Balls’ move — which, to be fair, is pretty impressive — and then totally runs away. He gets to a location he can actually use to his advantage and then basically kicks the bad guy off a cliff (into the Clouds of Insanity). It’s kind of awesome.
It is also the only actual Flawless Victory in this movie. Screw you, Liu Kang: you are wrong.
5. Unfortunately, Johnny also has a love interest in Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras).
Sonya Blade is a super cop who’s participating in the tournament so that she can kill Kano and avenge her partner’s murder. Johnny spends most of the movie hitting on her, and she spends most of the movie being disgusted with him, until they’re suddenly at some scenic spot sharing a Moment in The Worst Scene of All Time.
Actual lines from this scene:
Johnny: “Because I can’t let what happened to Art happen to you. Not to you.”
Sonya: “Oh, don’t you dare do this to protect me, Johnny Cage!”
It’s so much worse than it sounds. It is so bad. It is soul crushing. The lines are terrible, the delivery is terrible . . . it’s all basically terrible. Really, the only way to get through it is to act the scene out as you watch it on the couch with your very best ugly cry face. Not unlike how I watch Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, or how Sandra Bullock watches old beauty pageants in Miss Congeniality.
6. The frustrating thing about Sonya is that she’s treated very much as the Girl in a boy movie. What this means:
A. In group battles, Sonya fights one bad guy while Johnny and Liu fight three to four each.
B. A punch to Sonya’s face will hurt her exponentially more than it will hurt any of the other boy fighters.
C. She will scream. Repeatedly, and even occasionally in slow motion.
D. Both Shang-Tsung and Rayden will get up close and personal and whisper in her ear like creepy pervs, despite the fact that Rayden is a good guy who should probably not being doing that.
E. She’s kidnapped like a damsel in distress (despite the fact that she’s totally a super cop) and forced into this short dress because, you know. GIRL.
Now the thing about this particular bit: it’s kind of an homage to the game, where Sonya is tied up in one of the backgrounds. (Although no one has creepily changed her into some ugly mini dress or pulled out a crimper. Seriously, did Shang Tsung actually do Sonya’s hair before chaining her up? There’s a hair salon AU fanfiction somewhere in this movie; I just know it. Maybe a crossover with Blow Dry. Anyone else ever see that movie?)
And I’d totally be okay with the homage if there weren’t about eighty other examples in this movie about how Sonya is the weakest of the fighters and almost always needs to be saved by the boys. And before we get into the inevitable ‘women aren’t as strong as men argument’ — can we be clear about something? This movie is based on a game where women and men fighting one another as equals. That’s all there is to it. I really don’t want to hear complaints about realism when we have characters who can freeze people or do gravity defying bicycle kicks. Besides, action heroes — whether they’re male or female — are so very rarely realistic in any sense of the word, and yet it often seems like the only time we really complain about this is when the person kicking all kinds of ass is a woman. It get old to listen to.
7. Sonya is not, actually, the only girl in Mortal Kombat. There is also Kitana.
Unfortunately, Kitana (Talisa Soto) has zero personality and almost no character arc of any kind. She’s basically just around to deliver exposition and be Liu Kang’s love interest. She doesn’t even get to kiss anyone until they explode to death! It is hugely disappointing.
8. Luckily, Lord Rayden (Christopher Lambert) is around to make everything better.
Rayden is at his best when he’s making fun of his champions. All gods should be snarky — it makes them more interesting. Possibly my favorite part in this entire movie is when he tells our heroes, “The fate of billions will depend upon you,” then openly laughs at them. And then he’s all like, “Sorry.” It is kind of awesome.
9. Also making everything better? Shang-Tsung.
Shang Tsung (Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa) is, admittedly, a total creeper, but he’s also kind of hilarious. It’s not just his hair, either — he’s got this perfect sneer down, like, pat. Hiroyuki-Tagawa is super campy here, and I enjoy the hell out of him.
Here’s what we don’t get about Shang-Tsung, though: why, exactly, is he the one recruiting our heroes for this competition? Like, he basically has to trick everyone on board, but . . . shouldn’t that really be Rayden’s job? What happens if Shang-Tsung doesn’t get our heroes to compete? Does Earth forfeit — because, I think, Shang-Tsung would rather enjoy that. Or does Earth somehow automatically win? Because that seems pretty dumb. And if Shang-Tsung has to trick our heroes into the competition, shouldn’t Rayden have to somehow recruit our villains? I feel like that should be a balance thing.
Also — does Shang Tsung kill Chan in order to get Liu Kang to compete? Because Chan is clearly the weaker fighter, so that seems like a less than winning strategy, really. Or did Chan somehow challenge Shang Tsung before the tournament. Cause . . . that just seems like it should be against the rules. I mean, it was against the rules when Scorpion and Sub-Zero threatened our heroes, right? (Leading to one of my very favorite lines, mostly because of the way it’s hissed: “Your sideshow freaks attacked my fighters.”) Is there a double-standard against evil?
And even if it isn’t against the rules for Chan to challenge Shang Tsung . . . it seems like a dumb play. Why would you even do that? I’m so confused.
10. It should be said — Mortal Kombat totally has the best workout music. Come on. Who listens to this and doesn’t immediately want to start sparring? Crazy people, that’s who. A favorite diversion of mine: copying one of the Cast Your Might poses and then spontaneously attacking my sister.
To probably no one’s surprise at all, I usually go with Shang Tsung’s ‘mighty fist of evil’ pose.
11. In our remake — because of course Mekaela and I immediately started talking about how we’d do a remake — Shang Tsung would do a lot more shapeshifting. Because, seriously, shapeshifting is fun, and it’s a great way to introduce more cameos from the games. (Especially now that there are so many more characters.)
Another way to introduce good cameos? How about Shang Tsung’s 10,000 soul slaves?
Kitana solemnly intones that Liu Kang has to fight the souls of thousands of dead warriors . . . but what she really means is that he has to fight about ten guys who attack him one by one. It is hilariously lame. C’mon, Paul W.S. Anderson. Pull your shit together — this is totally Crazy 88 action time. This could have been so awesome.
12. Of course, the whole final battle is kind of bullshit, but let’s come back to that in a little bit. Actually, let’s briefly go over everyone’s very first battles in the movie.
Liu Kang gets to fight this human dude that I totally remember from WMAC Masters, and whose braids just seem like they’re getting in the way. Sonya Blade fights her nemesis, Kano, whose neck she breaks like a twig — and hilariously, it’s totally NOT self-defense, and there’s never any discussion on whether he’s worth it or the usual stuff you get when a hero flat-out murders somebody.
Johnny Cage, meanwhile, has to fight a dude with a secret skull face, fire breath, and a bite-y thing that comes out of his hand for his first fight. Oh, and he gets sucked into Pirate Hell.
It seems a little unfair. Also, I have honestly no idea how Johnny Cage gets out of Pirate Hell once he miraculously defeats Scorpion. I do kind of love the silly nod to the Friendship, though, even if it doesn’t make any logical sense.
13. While I’m thinking of Johnny, though — and really, of everyone in this tournament — let’s talk about having proper reactions to the absolutely horrifying shit that is happening around you. For instance, when you see some dude completely freeze some other dude, and the frozen dude flies threw the air and smashes into a bazillion pieces? This shouldn’t be your reaction:
Johnny Cage: “Little tournament, he said. Good for the career, he said. Yeah, right.”
I mean, it’s a funny line. I actually like how it’s delivered, but good Christ. A dude was just FROZEN AND DECAPITATED. The only proper reaction to something like that is screaming, thank you.
14. Also, in a remake, maybe Art shouldn’t be an original character? I mean, Art’s okay, and I’m sure they cast him because the actor is actually a martial arts expert in real life, which I suppose is cool for martial arts nerds. But his character is also so clearly and absolutely expendable that when he dies — I mean, I always do feel a little sorry for Art, but it’d be a lot more impressive if they killed an actual character from the games, or at the very least someone our heroes had a real relationship with — that way, when Johnny goes into vengeance mode or Sonya busts out her slow-motion horror movie scream, you know, it might seem real.
(My only problem is figuring out who to bring in and kill off. I would’t mind Jax actually being in the tournament, but I don’t really want him to die. Hm. Kung Lao, maybe? Johnny Cage seems like the obvious choice, but I like Johnny Cage, dammit.)
15. But let’s get back to that bullshit and hilarious final battle.
It starts off pretty good. We go up the awesomely bad CGI tower — mid 90’s CGI is the BEST — and Shang Tsung challenges Johnny Cage to fight. But Liu Kang’s all like, “No! You will fight me!” And Johnny Cage could be like, “Hey, dude, did you see how easily I took down Goro? I can totally take this guy,” but instead he’s like, “Nah, I’ll let you handle this one.” Not unlike how he stands around off screen and does absolutely nothing as Liu Kang fights Reptile for like seven minutes. (I like to think that Johnny Cage was just standing outside, whistling aimlessly to himself, while thinking, You know, I threw a four-armed monstrosity over a cliff earlier this afternoon. I think I’m good for the day.)
Anyway, Shang Tsung and Liu Kang square off in this kind of awesome fight scene that might have been my favorite in the movie if it was longer than forty-five seconds. When Liu Kang makes Shang Tsung bleed his own blood, Shang Tsung summons his ten useless warriors. This is the first of Liu’s three tests: Face Your Enemy, which he easily defeats.
Face Yourself is even worse. It lasts fourteen seconds — oh, I totally counted — and mostly consists of Liu Kang running up to meet Shang Tsung on the second story.
And then we get Face Your Worst Fear, which is apparently Liu facing the ghost of his brother, Chan.
I’m not saying that it wouldn’t hurt to see somebody use my dead sibling’s face to try and taunt me into killing myself, but I am saying that sort of thing is a tiny bit more effective when you don’t actually watch the shapeshifter turn into the dead brother with your own eyes. Oh, I know. Shang Tsung had his back turned. Please. Liu Kang clearly saw the guy transform, so when Shang Tsung/Chan says, “Rayden sent me to help you,” everybody watching should be like, WHAT? Are you kidding me right now? Who would even buy that? Shang Tsung, you’re an asshole. And when Liu Kang has to tell himself, “You’re not really Chan,” I’m like, gee, Liu, what was your first clue?
Then Shang Tsung/Chan is like, “Now I’m here to help you brother.” And immediately we’re given a shot of spikes coming out of the ground on the level below them — which is basically the the best juxtaposition shot I’ve ever seen. It’s like when that one terrorist in Die Hard’s all, “I promise I won’t hurt you,” as he loads a clip into his gun. Makes me laugh every time I watch it.
But Liu Kang says — with the appropriate amount of conviction — that he is not responsible for Chan’s death, that it’s totally Shang Tsung’s fault. So Shang Tsung stops his silly attempt to deceive him, changes back, and just starts kicking the crap out of Liu Kang. But THEN he makes the mistake of taunting Liu for being the Chosen One. Liu knows he IS the Chosen One, though, which he repeats with even more conviction, and this allows him to grab Shang Tsung’s arm all mightily, which is apparently all it takes for Shang Tsung’s soul slaves to start rebelling against him and fly away? I don’t even know.
Shang Tsung refuses to surrender and — after screaming that the souls are his FOREVER like a very spoiled child who refuses to share his toys — runs at Liu Kang in the stupidest manner possible, like I’m not sure what he thought he might accomplish by charging a dude with his arms spread wide at the sides, but whatevs. Liu Kang kicks the crap out of him and finally knocks him over the ledge with a fireball, where Shang Tsung lands on a spike and dies. And Liu Kang has the nerve to call this a flawless victory because he’s also an asshole. I mean, seriously, Liu Kang. Fatality would have been fine, but flawless victory? In the words of Lord Rayden: “I don’t think so.”
Then it’s all happy times back on Earth . . . until the Emperor, who is clearly a cheating cheater who cheats, shows up anyway, kind of negating the whole point of the movie. But our heroes get into fighter pose and prepare us for a sequel, or try.
Cause, really. Nothing could properly prepare us for the sadness that is Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.
Johnny Cage: “We got a guy with things coming out of his hands; we got another guy who freezes stuff, and then there’s a man who, as far as I can tell, appears to be made out of pure electricity. I mean, how did he disappear like that? What is going on here? Who is this guy?”
Sonya Blade: “Let’s just think this through. There is a rational explanation for this.”
Liu Kang: “He’s Rayden. God of Lightning and Protector of the Realm of Earth.”
Johnny Cage: “Oh, great. There’s your rational explanation.”
Sonya Blade: “Where the hell are we?”
Johnny Cage: “Do I look like your travel agent?”
Johnny Cage: “You know, you’ve got to admire her. When she puts her mind to something . . .”
Liu Kang: “It’s not her mind you’re admiring.”
Johnny Cage: “. . . it’s true.”
Johnny Cage: “This is not good. But I’m fine. I can handle this.”
Lord Rayden: “What have you done?”
Johnny Cage: “I made a choice. This is our tournament, remember? Mortal Kombat. We fight it.”
Sonya: “My friends will come for me.”
Shang Tsung: “Hoping against hope? Such an endearing human trait, I’m touched. Really.”
Johnny: “Sonya, you go ahead. Find out what that was. Liu and I will wait right here.”
Liu Kang: “Wait. What about me?”
Rayden: “Oh, you.”
Johnny: “Ha, ha ha ha, no more steps.”
Silliness. But super nostalgic silliness.
The best way to a flawless victory? A big old punch to the balls.