The plot of Mortal Kombat is almost completely identical to the plot of every American martial arts movie made in the 90s—a demonic warlord from another dimension is planning to conquer earth and only three heroes have any chance of stopping him by defeating his chosen warriors in a tournament of the elder gods. To be perfectly frank, the plot is almost inconsequential; Mortal Kombat is an action movie out and out, one which doesn't disappoint. The production, soundtrack, and action are all first rate and the special effects rate favorably for that of a film produced in 1995. Mortal Kombat makes only one promise and on this it delivers: viewers expecting a first rate martial arts action extravaganza will be more than satisfied with what it has to offer.
I was extremely impressed with this film's choreography, in particular the stunt work of leading man Robin Shou as the heroic Liu Kang. For reasons unclear to me, Shou's is not a name well known in Hollywood action circles. I assert that the physical performance he delivers in this film rivals any by Hong Kong greats Donnie Yen, Chow Yun Fat, or even Jet Li. Further, if one is to compare his martial arts prowess to that of his American martial arts star contemporaries, he stands on even higher ground. Certainly, the very ability to lift his leg high enough to throw a sidekick outdoes any physical feat ever performed on screen by Steven Seagal, the poor man's Van Damme.
On the subject of Van Damme, one of the main characters from the video game on which this film was based was in turn based on Van Damme's portrayal of martial arts shyster Frank Dux in Bloodsport. The most vainglorious of the heroic trio, Johnny Cage is played with beautiful yuppie poise by Linden Ashby. Ashby is tremendous here, reveling in the shortcomings of his character. Rather than try to recreate Cage in the mold of an iron jawed John Wayne-Clint Eastwood hybrid, he instead has fun with the role, portraying the character as a pampered mountebank. Draped in excessive luggage and designer sunglasses, Ashby is convincing as a Hollywood hipster trying to be taken seriously. He is handsome, posh, and unapologetically narcissistic. I didn't buy the romance between the metrosexual Cage and the icy Sonya Blade for one moment; it felt tacked on and seemed to fly in the face of all common sense. But really, this is the smallest of complaints.
Heroes can only look heroic if they are matched on screen by adequate foils. There are no shortage of villains in this film, several of whom are either enhanced by or comprised solely of special effects animation. On the more human side of villainy, Trevor Goddard delivers a fine performance as the ill mannered henchman Kano. Here is a man who eats with his hands, doesn't think twice about hitting a woman, and makes no effort to disguise the pleasure he takes in human suffering. I enjoyed Goddard's performance as the brutish Kano almost as much as Cary-Hiroykui Togawa's brilliant performance as the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung. Tsung is the right hand man of the evil emperor Shou Kahn and his personal enforcer—the four armed, eight foot tall, half man-half dragon Prince Goro—is the reigning champion of the tournament. A fine martial artist in his own right, Togawa delivers the film's most memorable one liners ad nauseam, including in no particular order of importance "Finish him!" "Flawless victory," and of course, the spellbinding "Your soul...is mine!" Togawa nonchalantly oozes evil, stealing every scene with understated delivery.
Rounding out the supporting cast, the heroes are guided on their quest by earth's sworn protector, the lightning god Rayden (Christopher Lambert). It was a pleasure seeing Lambert on screen again in an action movie. Already known for his stoic deliveries, he seems to take his cues in this film from Togawa, commanding fear and respect without so much as lifting a finger. Credit director Paul W.S. Anderson for understanding that the truly powerful need not posture endlessly.
The women of Mortal Kombat are few and far between and, quite frankly, look a little out of place on screen standing beside real martial artists. Still, they are both very beautiful and deliver adequate, if not outstanding, performances. Bridgette Wilson, perhaps better known today as the wife of tennis great Pete Sampras, portrays the cagey, hardened Special Forces Lieutenant Sonya Blade with an aloof inclemency. Fiercely independent, Blade is on a mission of vengeance, seemingly willing to follow Kano to hell and back to avenge the murder of her partner. As attractive as Wilson is, she is upstaged by the absolutely breathtaking Talisa Soto. Soto is a visual feast as Princess Kitana, the renegade step daughter of the evil emperor Shou Kahn. You get the sense Kitana was thrown in to the script more for the sake of eye candy than necessity to the plot, and to this end, the contrivance works quite well. Mortal Kombat is an extremely good looking movie in more ways than one.
I already mentioned my dissatisfaction with the subplot of hinted romance between Cage and Blade, but let me take this time to mention how displeased I was regarding the general lack of character development of Blade. We at least see the death of Kang's brother on screen, and everywhere Cage goes, his underwhelming reception as a legitimate martial artist reaches hyperbolic proportions. (Note that this movie predates the popularization of the UFC; an action star wouldn't have to travel far these days to convince people he's the real deal.) Blade however is simply not given adequate screen time to explain why she is driven, vengeful, and independent to the point of being obstinate. Still, these are character discrepancies I am willing to forgive in a film as otherwise outstanding as Mortal Kombat.
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