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The first time I watched the 1995 movie Mortal Kombat I felt like I was drunk. Movies can sometimes be joyously terrible, such that they cease to be terrible and instead become transcendent. Reader, I was transported.
Since I first randomly encountered it while Netflix-surfing a few years ago, I have come to love Mortal Kombat — a movie made about a video game I have never played — so much that I no longer know whether I love it merely ironically or have crossed over into loving it sincerely.
But with the release of the much-anticipated remake, which follows the same basic premise and hits many of the same beats, in theaters and on HBO Max, now's a great time to discuss what works and what doesn't work about the original.
If, like me, you are a die-hard fan of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, watching bad movies ironically is one of life's greatest joys, and if you're a really committed fan, you find something enduring and life-giving about the deep earnestness that often underlies such movies, even when they're besieged with the kinds of production circumstances that tend to spell disaster. Too many producers. An "auteur" writer/director who's not as visionary as they think they are. A budget so small most of the sets and costumes must be borrowed from a neighboring elementary school.
Mortal Kombat has exactly none of those things going for it. The film had an expansive production budget of $18 million (about $31 million today). It had a still-novice but formidable director at the helm — the veritable Paul W.S. Anderson, who would go on to deliver a rapid-fire fusillade of sci-fi/horror classics like Event Horizon, Resident Evil, and Alien vs. Predator. It even had a few actors whose résumés contain plenty of legitimate credits, like Highlander star Christopher Lambert and Man in the High Castle's Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.
It boasts a lavish and immersive production design — featuring beautiful sets filmed mostly on location in remote areas of Thailand. It's got an absolutely killer score by jazz legend George Clinton. (Produced in just three weeks, the soundtrack was one of the first EDM soundtracks in history; it was also wildly successful, selling 1.5 million copies on release, and features one of the greatest theme songs of all time.)
Perhaps what's best about Mortal Kombat is what most fans came for back in 1995: the fighting itself. Thanks to the still-early days of CGI technology, the fighting is mostly Hong Kong-style martial arts performed with then-cutting-edge wire work. This was two years before The Matrix, so wuxia-style fighting was still pretty new to US viewers. Many of the actors were trained martial arts actors like Shou, and many of them insisted on doing their own stunts. So most of the fight scenes truly look like they're being carried out by real people. And despite the movie's flimsy writing, everyone involved seems to be having fun.— Aja Romano, Vox
Thu December 14, 7:30 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium
United States of America; 1995; in French, English, Italian; 101 min
Director: Paul W. S. Anderson, Screenplay: Kevin Droney, Cast: Robin Shou, Linden Ashby, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Christopher Lambert, Bridgette Wilson-Sampras