Best of, Worst of… screw ‘em! It’s time to sink through the mire towards the stuff down there nestled under the surface. Past the big hits, kult klassics, and respected middle-tier stuff where the filler lives. Maybe even a little kloser to the bottom than the top. Treacherously klose to the bombs, the stinkers, and the abominations. Films that not only don’t get love but don’t really even deserve love.
Except here. So with that we bring you… Ten Mediocre Films We Kan’t Help But Embrace.
Note: Each of these films is embraced by a single editor. These are not kommittee decisions, not are they representative of one unified CHUD.com editorial focus. Each author is on their own.
Day Four – Mortal Kombat
Embraced by Renn Brown (email address for hate mail)
Director: Paul WS Anderson
Writers: Kevin Droney (Special Video Game story credit: Ed Boon, John Tobias)
Starring: Robin Shou, Linden Ashby, Bridgette Wilson, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, and Christopher Lambert
U.S. Box Office: $70,454,098 (Budget: $20,000,000 est.)
Rotten Rating: 24%
IMDB Rating: 5.4/10
It’s pretty fucking impressive how shitty a property-source video games have been for the movie studios. The greedy and unstoppable institution that has nearly strip-mined the wide expanse of mainstream American comics (with occasionally great results) has time and time again found little critical or consistent financial success with video game properties. Not even reaching mediocrity, most video game films have been outright pieces of shit. Early on though, back in that far away place called the mid-90s, they almost sorta kinda got it right. Nearly.
Mortal Kombat hit the scene in 1995, and managed to function in a way that was uniquely game-like, hitting a sweet spot that while fun and watchable, is far from flawless victory. To say that it still holds up today would imply that it ever held up better than a pan of Jell-O, but you can still watch it without shoving pieces of yourself into a meat grinder. So that’s something.
Paul WS Anderson has become an internet punchline, and part of the reason is that Mortal Kombat may well still be his best movie. Anderson shot Mortal Kombat with little to no panache, but it is a violently kompetent job. The ample fight scenes maintain a sense of geography and visibility, and even manage to engage your adrenal glands once or twice. In a brisk 100 minutes, Anderson wisely breezes through the dramatic and exposition elements he doesn’t have the chops to handle, and keeps the focus on the action, once even managing to go a full 21 minutes without interrupting fight sequences with plot.
The script also wisely undercuts every moment of heavy exposition or melodrama with a sense of humor that is corny, but not offensively so (there’s a genuine chuckle or two). Kristopher Lambert has the most fun with this duality, literally laughing at his own seriousness in a number of scenes. The other C-list actors* that populate this B-list flick also maintain a Luke, Leia, Han dynamic ripped straight from Star Wars, but the kemistry is believable enough to work.
Of course, all that really matters in a Mortal Kombat film is the fights, and beside the directorial kompetence I mentioned, they are also wisely plotted and conceived. Recalling the experience and structure of the games, the film is filled with one-on-one fights in varying locales. The production did a pretty great job mixing up the visual style, textures, and dynamics of the various sequences- the sunlit, gritty fights in the sand of Shang Tsung’s beach… the dusty, cobwebbed, seemingly infinite scaffolding of Scorpion’s personal hell… and more than one moody, candlelit temple chamber.
A credit to the source game as well- the fighters themselves are an interesting mix with three supernatural ninjas, the beastly Goro, and the uniquely styled human fighters all jumbled together in a way that gives each fight scene its own personality. For example, Johnny Cage and Scorpion are all about bruised bones and repetitive nailing impacts, while Liu Kang’s first battle is all sweat and thumpy body hits. Huge kudos are in order for the picture editing and sound team for cutting and mixing a film of explosive punches and kicks that give weight and power to the proceedings. That these fights sound huge and world-deciding, while being cut in a clear way, makes pretty rote fight koreography seem more epic than it deserves to be.
I fear that I’ve gotten a little heavy with the accolades for such a bad film, but there is actually more to praise. Probably the most enduring element of the film is Goro, a fully practical movie monster of impressive execution. Worthy of a Del Toro flick, he’s an 8 foot beast that seems to mix a man-in-suit with robotics to create a foe that’s genuinely scary and powerful. A Goro vs. Mr. Wink short film is the stuff of my dreams (and the characters that most assure me that Darkseid could one day be done right). The CGI Reptile, while incredibly primitive, is at least commendable- they tried to realize a character that wouldn’t have otherwise worked, and his invisibility gags are admirable attempts to do something worthwhile with the CG. The old school hand-animated effects are also occasionally great, when they escape the grasp of extremely clumsy compositing.
Even with all these notable elements, there are standout fuck ups as well. Shang Tsung’s mugging, Liu Kang’s grimaces, Sonya’s bitchy attitude, and Johnny Cage’s corny one-liners all take several steps too far throughout, instantly making you feel guilty for giving them credit at all. As badass as Goro is, his montage of victory -literally just 20 shots of guys stupidly diving onto the same bed of pebbles- is indescribably silly. Goro’s death plummet may very well be the most poorly put together fall in the history of film- a completely hilarious, horizontal side-slide into oblivion. Finally, on a personal note: Sub-Zero has always been my favorite character in the video games, and his fight scene is eye-bleedingly boring, and then he goes out like a bitch.
While its aspirations are smartly aimed at cheesy B-grade genre material, Mortal Kombat accomplishes its goal too well. The plot is logikal, but thin as the paper it was printed on. The character motivations are there, but they’re literally recited by Raiden in his motivational speeches. Twice. The electro-rock score helps create the right tone and identity for the film, but beside being dated as fuck, it’s a nakedly adolescent choice. This is a film that is the sum of some good, some okay, and some truly terrible parts, all averaged together into a big mediocre whole. The exploitation of the video game structure kinda works, but only once- we never need another one like it**.
Nearly exciting and almost good but pretty much bad and definitely stupid, Mortal Kombat is certainly something fun and I embrace it with all four arms.
*Sonya was originally supposed to be played by Cameron Diaz, who dodged a bullet by being unavailable. Johnny Cage was originally supposed to be played by Brandon lee, who tragically didn’t. Steven Spielberg was also set to make a cameo as Cage’s director, instead we got some guy who sorta looks like him.
** A too late example of which is Silent Hill, which could actually be fit into this review, if you exchange “good fight scene sequencing” with “good atmosphere” and “Goro” with “Pyramid Head.”
(I did not link to the double-pack with the sequel, because fuck that.)