Mortal Kombat (Paul W. S. Anderson, 1995)

Well, it was on my mind because of my (relatively) recent review of Robert Tai’s Death Cage, and the new Mortal Kombat X debuts this week, and it’s almost the twentieth anniversary of its release, so I watched Mortal Kombat today.

It’s tempting just to post the Cinema Sins youtube video here and call it a day, but I think there are actually some interesting aspects to Paul W. S. Anderson’s first of many video game movies. I grant that the story and dialog are preposterous, the fight choreography generally mediocre, and that it fails to really bring to the cinema screen what really made the games so entertaining: the absolutely senseless and incredibly silly gore and violence.

It was also that profoundly entertaining element that made Mortal Kombat, in both game and movie form, one of the forbidden fruits from my admittedly odd early years. My parents did not allow me to play the games or see the movie. I managed to play them anyway, usually waiting until they were out of sight when at the pizza parlor arcade to play it, an occasion rare enough that I became pretty good at the Fighting Vipers machine next to it in the narrow corridor that held the arcade games. Kids would gather around to see how far I would get on one credit (usually a match or two away from the final boss), while I would be looking over my shoulder to see if my mom or dad was still watching by the door so I could spend a couple of quarters on a game of Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. Helicopter parents. They certainly made some mundane childhood shit seem like an adventure.
And it’s that nostalgia that you have to have in order to enjoy anything in the Mortal Kombat feature film. You have to like that era of awful looking nineties CGI effects and forget all about the Hong Kong movies that were being made at the same time. The aesthetic is very much a product of a time when Hong Kong movies were even less a mainstream thing than they are now, and anime and manga and other Asian media too. So you get this weird mix of western fantasy elements, kung fu movie tropes and imagery -- “Bruce Lee” (scare quotes necessary) and ninjas particularly -- run through a silly ass game of telephone, and American action movie and comic book cliches to make up not only an aesthetic but a diegetic melange.

And this applied then to both the games and the movie and the sequel and the cartoon and the comics and etc. And even now, to the games and to the fan films and licensed media and etc.
See what I mean?
So the movie follows the story of the first game, with the focus mostly on Liu Kang (Robin Shou), Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson), and Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby), falling into the titular fighting tournament that will determine whether Shao Khan gets the right to invade Earthrealm. The ruler of Outworld must win ten consecutive mortal kombat tournaments to gain the permission of the elder gods to invade, and his team has won nine. Liu Kang wants to fight Shang Tsung (Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa, devouring the scenery), while Sonya hunts down Kano (Trevor Goddard), who killed her partner, and Johnny Cage wants to prove he’s not a fake. They get help from Raiden (Christopher Lambert) and Kitana (Talisa Soto, too beautiful to actually matter) as they fight against Shang Tsung’s incompetent guards. They defeat iconic characters from the games, like Goro, Sub-Zero, Scorpion and Reptile. And there’s a handful of incidental characters not from the games, like Art.
Art gets killed by Goro, it’s a big deal to everyone except the audience; we’ve seen him once before, briefly.
And it goes how you’d expect it to. Lots of talk about destiny, about how the characters need to “face the enemy, face yourself, face your greatest fear.” All of it’s meaningless. We just wanna see the fights damnit! Movies like this don’t need a plot or a story. They need a premise. Thankfully Mortal Kombat has it, and mostly delivers.

At least eighty percent of this movie is fight scenes. And I believe it was Seanbaby who first pointed out that in Mortal Kombat, the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line, but a backflip. The cgi effects are dated. Characters randomly appear in deserted orchards or cliff sides to duel. There’s some funny death scenes (all of them, really). And the set design is very much that weird blend I went through some length describing above.

If you like this sort of thing at all, it’s pretty glorious. 
And part of why it’s glorious is that the cast is pretty game for it. Linden Ashby, in particular, seems to be having a really great time as a non-martial artist playing a martial artist who makes movies while being accused of being a non-martial artist. “You can’t fake those moves...” Art says in the only scene he figures into before getting killed by Goro. Well no, no you can’t. He’s performing them all right. Doing them on a resisting opponent though...

Ashby gets to deliver some actually funny lines to: “What if the legends were true!” breathlessly exclaims Robin Shou as Liu Kang. “What legends?” Ashby’s Cage responds.

Christopher Lambert and Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa are on opposite ends of the awful spectrum. Hiroyuki-Tagawa is well into so-bad-it’s-good territory, relishing lines like “flawless victory” and “your soul is mine” with such hammy delight that it’s hard not to smile. Paul W. S. Anderson even mentions in one behind-the-scenes featurette that the crew was constantly imitating him. Christopher Lambert is just awful. But he’s always awful. He’s even worse in the sequel. Brigette Wilson doesn’t seem to be in on the joke, which makes her perfect.
Some of that great Pat Johnson fight choreography
And Robin Shou? He’s there to be a badass. And he is. And here’s the interesting thing about his presence: this is one of the movies that came out before The Matrix that really tried to capture some of the Hong Kong action magic in a Hollywood package. There’s a handful of these from the nineties which vary pretty widely in succeeding at that goal , but I think it worked out perfectly for Mortal Kombat because Mortal Kombat was never a very good imitation of the kung fu genre that partly inspired it.

Pat Johnson’s fight choreography is pretty staid Hollywood stuff, for the most part. You can see some guys from the periphery of martial arts cinema in bit parts. Hakim Alston (of “WMAC Masters” fame, lol) gets a nice fight scene with Robin Shou, for instance. Pat Johnson’s choreography does shine when performed by these guys though, which probably has far more to do with them than it does with him.

So Mortal Kombat is incredibly silly, badly dated, and just utter nonsense, but if it’s your kind of nonsense, then it’s only gotten better -- more fetid really -- with age. And with the new game coming out and its twentieth anniversary a few month away, it’s a perfect time to enjoy it. And dat theme song!


Kickboxer (Mark Disalle and David Worth, 1989)

At the beginning of my review of the odd Toby Russel/Robert Tai feature Death Cage, I listed off a bunch of movies that I remembered. Surprisingly enough, I failed to recall Kickboxer, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s follow up to his (I assume) biggest film, Bloodsport (Newt Arnold, 1988). Come to think of it, I didn’t even think of Bloodsport, initially. The similarities between Kickboxer and Death Cage are pretty striking, actually. Both feature location shooting in Thailand by non-Thai crews and Thai characters played by non-Thai actors. Even the martial arts choreography featured in both are
less than representative of actual Thai kickboxing.

Kickboxer tells the story of Kurt Sloan (Van Damme), the brother and corner-man of cocky kickboxing champ Eric Sloan (Dennis Alexio, an actual heavyweight kickboxing champ), who learns Muay Thai from Xian Chow (Hong Kong actor Dennis Chan), in order to avenge a crushing defeat of his brother at the hands of Tong Po (Michel Qissi) which has left him a paraplegic. Of course, the Thai boxing promotion is corrupt, with crime bosses exercising control over local territory with threats and violence. They don’t really want to see Kurt Sloan beat their guy, so they resort to underhanded methods, like kidnapping Xian Chow’s niece Mylee (Rochelle Ashana) and raping her, and holding Eric hostage. How this makes more sense than just shooting Kurt and killing him makes little sense (he will later die offscreen by this method in one of the sequels).

Kickboxer is quite risible. Structurally, it resembles its Hong Kong peers, setting up its simple revenge premise early, devoting a large portion of its run-time to training sequences, complicating the circumstances surrounding the final brawl, albeit according to some very Hollywood action movie conventions (raped girlfriends and whatnot were not the go to plot point for the Hong Kong martial arts genre) and ends the whole thing cleanly with a victory for the protagonist.

That’s not what makes it laughable. The humor comes from different sources, mostly related to the writing. There is some incredibly leaden expository dialog from the brothers Sloan, explaining why one of them has a Belgian accent, which resembles a real conversation between actual people the way that Van Damme and Michel Qissi’s fight choreography resembles actual Muay Thai. The acting by non-actors Van Damme and Alexio is, to put it nicely, quite apt for the writing here.

There’s also a typical Hollywood Black Guy named Winston (Haskell Anderson), who introduces Sloan to Xian, and mostly jabbers about how he doesn’t want to get involved. Mylee is eye-candy and designated love interest, who also has the important job of getting raped to provide extra motivation for Slaon, but since she doesn’t tell him before the fight, and he only gets angrier upon finding out, even this seems like it was pretty damn unnecessary. Why let her go after the fact? Wouldn’t it make more sense to keep her hostage if they wanted to mess with Sloan’s performance?

In spite of the fact that audiences and US film makers are far more sensitive about this sort of thing in the 2010’s than they ever were during the 1980’s, these character types are still relatively prevalent. We still get the typical Hollywood Black Guy and still have pretty designated inter-racial girlfriends. We even still have wizened Asian martial arts masters of indeterminate nationality and age. What we don’t usually have is the slope-browed antagonist played by an actor literally against genetic type. Michel Qissi’s character and performance would be accused of being horrifically racist caricature there days. And there would probably be more people describing Kickboxer that way if it weren’t for the fact that the whole thing is so endlessly silly that to take it seriously...

Let’s just say you can’t.

I actually really enjoy these earlier Jean-Claude Van Damme films. The fight scenes are preposterous, as are the training sequences. But while the fight choreography and even the shooting and editing might compare poorly to the same from Hong Kong during the same period (keep in mind that Jackie Chan was making films like Police Story 2 and Miracles around this time), the training sequences are definitely fun to watch.

I think the most interesting thing, when comparing Kickboxer to Death Cage, is that Death Cage apparently saw release in advance of Kickboxer. In other words, it isn’t a rip-off, one presumes. And a lot of the similarities can be accounted for by the nature of the productions. Each feature a Thai setting and Muay Thai, but neither utilize the local stunt talent, which, given the talent of Panna Rittikrai's crew even at this point, probably prevented them from being sorely upstaged. Smart move there. And so that may be why each feature so much ersatz Chinese martial arts in the training sequences. But at least Death Cage tells the audience that Mark Long is teaching Robin Shou Chinese Boxing. Kickboxer just throws in some Tai Chi looking stuff and calls it a day.

All said, I liked Kickboxer well enough. It’s hilarious to watch now, so transparent and goofy, that even the cornucopia of politically incorrectness can’t possibly be considered offensive by (the following word is important to read) normal people. As said, the fight choreography, which was once the film’s raison d’etre, is part of its unintended humor. But that's the appeal. And although he's no Roy Chiao, Dennis Chan is a plays a pretty grand martial arts master. And we get plenty of the rest of that dated, goofy appeal that make Van Damme so watchable. Like him doing the splits and dancing. Dancing seems to be a common denominator in movies I enjoy these days. Good times.