6.07.2008

Mortal Kombat (1995) & Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)

DIRECTED BY
Paul W.S. Anderson (MK) & John R. Leonetti (MK:A)


STARRING
Robin Shou - Liu Kang
Linden Ashby (MK) & Chris Conrad (MK:A) - Johnny Cage Bridgette Wilson (MK) & Sandra Hess (MK:A) - Sonya Blade
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa - Shang Tsung
Christopher Lambert (MK) & James Remar (MK:A) - Lord Raiden
Talisa Soto - Princess Kitana
Trevor Goddard (MK) - Kano
Brian Thompson (MK:A) - Shao Khan
Lynn Red Williams (MK:A) - Lt. Jax Briggs
Musetta Vander (MK:A) - Queen Sindel
Irina Pantaevna (MK:A) - Jade

Year -
1995 (MK) & 1997 (MK:A)

Score -
3 Howls Outta 4 (MK) & 0.5 Howls Outta 4 (MK:A)


Let me just get this off of my chest: I'm a big Mortal Kombat fan. I've been playing the video games since the early 1990s when the original Mortal Kombat destroyed Street Fighter II at the arcades due its violence, blood, and gory Fatalities. I even owned these games at one time or another on home console systems, having friends and family over just to kick the crap out of them and vice-versa. Personally, my favorite Mortal Kombat is still Part II, with its awesome line up of characters, fatalities, friendships, and the idiotic Babalities.

I remember hearing that New Line Cinema [R.I.P.] was gonna make a movie adaptation of the video game, making me extremely apprehensive. Why? Well for starters, the film was gonna be rated PG-13. What the hell? A game known for its mature content watered down for teenagers? It couldn't be good. Plus, video games to movie adaptations didn't have the greatest of win-loss records before MORTAL KOMBAT. SUPER MARIO BROS. didn't deserve to find out that the Princess was in another castle. DOUBLE DRAGON made me wish for that Linda character to come to life so she could whip everyone who was involved with that crap. And STREET FIGHTER...well, the less said about that piece of shit, the better. Jean Claude Van Damme that film sucked!

So it came to my surprise when MORTAL KOMBAT was actually a pretty good adaptation of the video game. I wasn't the only one who felt that way because the film made a good box office return in the Summer of 1995, proving that video games-to-films can work if someone on the crew knew what in the hell they're doing. Of course, the success led to MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATON in 1997 and...well, let's just say it annihilated the franchise before it could really get going.

PLOT
In MORTAL KOMBAT, three different martial artists are invited and/or join a mysterious tournament to the death for different reasons. Shaolin Monk Liu Kang (Robin Shou) wants to avenge the death of his brother by going after the shape-shifting sorceror and winner of the past nine tournaments, Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) is an action film actor who wants to prove that his fighting skills are real and not generated for his films. And Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson) sneaks her way into the Mortal Kombat tournament to hunt down the man who killed her partner, Kano (Trevor Goddard). Shang Tsung tries to manipulate the three warriors, but Shaolin God of Lightning Raiden (Christopher Lambert) thwarts every attempt to protect them. As a guide, he warns the three that Shang Tsung can not win another Mortal Kombat tournament. Why? Because if he did, the emperor of another dimension called Outworld would be able to take over the Earth realm. On Shang Tsung's personal island, the three [with the help from both Raiden and Princess Kitana (Talisa Soto)] fight their ways through the tournament to defend Earth's survival and face their personal destinies.

In MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION, Liu Kang, Sonya Blade (Sandra Hess), Johnny Cage (Chris Conrad), Raiden (James Remar), and Kitana celebrate their victory in Mortal Kombat. However, the rules of the tournament are quickly broken by the emperor of Outworld, Shao Khan (Brian Thompson). Khan and his army [which includes Kitana's mother Sindel (Musetta Vander), Motaro (Deron McBee), and Sheeva (Marjean Holden)] decide to invade Earth anyway and have it merge with Outworld within six days time. The Earthrealm warriors must face their greatest challenge yet by discovering new fighting skills and allies to save Earth and defeat Shao Khan.

REVIEW
MORTAL KOMBAT is one of my guiltiest pleasures. I loved this film back when I was 14-years-old and watched it at the theater. Now...I still like it but can definitely see how flawed this film is. The plot is barely there and the CGI looks really cheesy now, but the action is pretty awesome and the characters are used correctly for the most part. It does what it needs to do well and that's really all I ask for.

Like I said, the story is pretty thin. But then again, it's hard to write a film for a fighting game franchise when you have so many characters and stories to tell that lead up to the same Mortal Kombat tournament. STREET FIGHTER greatly suffered from this, as it focused on the wrong main character. Guile was never the star of that video game franchise. That went to both Ryu and Ken. Even Chun-Li has more of a right to star in a STREET FIGHTER film than Guile does [which is what the prequel will be focusing on to be released next year]. Here, screenwriter Kevin Droney did his research and focused on the only character that was suitable enough to carry a Mortal Kombat story: Liu Kang. That line of thinking makes the film stay close to its source material and gives us a hero we can relate to and root for. His brother was killed by an evil sorceror and now he wants revenge on him by entering the tournament and defeating him. Simple and to the point. It helps when your two foils (Kang and Shang Tsung) are well written characters in context with the rest of the film and gives the movie a nice balance of good vs. evil that it needs. Sure, Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade have their own stories as well, but Kang's is the focus as it should be.

Speaking of the way the characters are written, they're definitely true to the video game. Liu Kang is honorable and is unsure of his destiny. Johnny Cage is a hothead who thinks he's the best thing since sliced bread. Sonya Blade is the tough-as-nails military soldier who wants payback for her partner's death by any means necessary. Shang Tsung shift-shapes to manipulate people and steals souls. Kano is the arrogant assassin who wants to torment Sonya. My only problem was with Raiden, who I felt was too much of a clown at times. I mean he's a fuckin' Thunder GOD. He should not be cracking jokes and laughing at them for no apparent reason. But at least he's closer to the video game version than ANNIHILATION. I'll get to that piece of bull later on. And what was up with Sub-Zero and Scorpion? They were just puppets instead of being the bad-asses like in the video game. Always bugs me.

And what makes up for the lack of story is the action. I like it. It's well choregraphed and I enjoyed some nods to the video game that were used. Like Cage's Shadow Kick, Scorpion's Spear and Fire Breath, Sub-Zero's Ice Blast, Liu Kang's Bicycle Kick and Fireball, and so on. I personally thought the best fight was between Johnny Cage and Scorpion. Even after all these years, it's still a blast to watch. From beginning to end, it kicks ass. That Johnny Cage autographed photo Friendship move at the end still makes me laugh [best Friendship in all of Mortal Kombat II, I believe]. I do think that some of the fights were a bit repetitive, which would become a greater issue in the sequel. Plus it was never as gory or violent as the video games themselves. I mean, this is a film based on what was the most violent video game at the time. It's a crime that it doesn't honor that through film. There was hardly any blood. What gives? Also, Bridgette Wilson didn't make a believable fighter to me but she held her own most of the time. And Goro still looks like a puppet, which takes the enjoyment out of his match against Johnny Cage for me. Still, the action is what makes the film and it works for the most part.

The direction by Paul W.S. Anderson in his debut film, who would go on to direct the first RESIDENT EVIL, ALIEN VS. PREDATOR, and the upcoming DEATH RACE remake, does fine here. He's the perfect director to make video game adaptations, as his style is very energenic with use of multiple and unique angles, slow motion, and his ability to maintain a decent pace that never leaves you feeling bored. He's obviously a fan of the video games and treats it with much respect visually. I also have to say that the editing is tight and the cinematography is absolutely beautiful. It's a nice looking film, which shows there was a lot of care behind the scenes to truly make MORTAL KOMBAT work.

The SFX was pretty good as well. The CGI establishment shots worked extremely well. The special effects were pretty cool. Scorpion's spear still looks as fake today as it did back then though, but I've seen a lot worse. And Goro looked like a puppet but it's better than a CGI Goro. So that gets points with me.

The acting was decent. Obviously you're not watching MORTAL KOMBAT for the thespian skill level, but it does help drive a story along and make it watchable. Robin Shou is perfectly cast as Liu Kang. He looks like the character and his delivery was a bit amateurish but believable at the same time. Plus the guy can kick your ass, so I won't bad mouth him - yet. Linden Ashby made the film for me as Johnny Cage. Funny, cocky, and just a very good actor period. He's a little older than what I would have pictured Cage to be, but he fits the role perfectly otherwise. He also had great chemistry with Bridgette Wilson, who played Sonya Blade. She was okay but seemed to be forcing the tough act a little bit at times. At least she was hot too look at. Christopher Lambert played a good Raiden, even though he had his clownish moments. I don't blame Lambert for that but it hurt the performance somewhat. And Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa rocked it as Shang Tsung. He was the most multi-dimensional character and Tagawa played a great villain. He seemed to be having fun too, which made me have it with him. Pretty good cast, I have to say.

I wish I could say the same about MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION but the only words that seem to come to mind first are:

WHAT THE FUCK!?

Anything that the first film did was pretty much ignored in the sequel for more characters and wall-to-wall action. These things aren't necessarily bad, but when these characters pop out just for the sake for fans to go, "Oooh, it's Baraka! Oh look, it's Mileena! Damn, wasn't that Sub-Zero's brother?", and the action is pretty much the same thing over and over and over AND OVER again, I get annoyed. This film just proves that some sequels sound great on paper and should STAY on paper.

I wish I could talk about the story or the plot or whatever ANNIHILATION attempts to call it, but I can't. There's nothing here to talk about. It continues from the ending of the first film and pretty much meanders until the conclusion. The characterization of the film's players is extremely weak, as we know barely anything about these people other than their abilities and their alliances. Sure, fans will know who is who, but what about non-fans who only know these characters based on the first film and are left confused by the appearances of others in the sequel? It doesn't have that the story isn't even coherent enough to make much sense on a deep level. Why should I care about Outworld sucking the life out of Earth? Why should I root for Liu Kang and his allies when I barely know anything about them or their adversaries? And how could you kill off the best character in the first one? Bastards. ANNIHILATION is bankrupt of any sort of intelligence and likability, which makes this film suffer greatly. When even Christopher Lambert can see that and refuse to be part of the sequel of probably the biggest film of his career besides HIGHLANDER, you know this film is bad.

The fight scenes in this film are also very monotonous. The first sequence is pretty cool, but it repeats again and again through other characters. It's boring to watch, really. Especially when you have no emotional investment to anyone in this film. Having interesting fight choregraphy and a variety of them in this film would have turned this film into a guilty pleasure. As far as I'm concerned, this film is just guilty. Just lame.

The introduction of characters and abilities is just too much in this sequel. Not only do we have to deal with several cast changes, which are distracting honestly, but a multitude of characters from the Mortal Kombat games. As a fan, I know who these people are and can roll call them. But for everyone else, it'll be like, "Who's that chick in the lavender outfit who looks like Kitana [she would be Mileena]?" Or, "Why do Sub-Zero, Scorpion, Reptile, and Rain wear the same outfits but in different colors? Why do Smoke, Sektor, and Cyrax wear the same armor but in different colors?" It can be confusing, especially when these characters are never explained as to their purpose in the film. Some of them aren't even given names [poor Baraka]! You can never settle down and get into the film because characters pop in left and right changing the pace of the movie. And the whole special abilities thing - um, where was that explained in the first film? And the Animality concept - lame. Brent V. Friedman and Bryce Zabel pretty much played the video games and decided to throw everything that was cool about it into their screenplay without thinking about how they all relate together and why they're even needed for the story to begin with. Even as a fan of the Mortal Kombat lore, I was still left confused as to what the fuck was going on in this film. It's cool to see these ideas from the video games on film, but when there's nothing substantial behind it, it doesn't mean a damn to me.

Even the SFX is pretty bad here and that's saying something. You'd think with a $30 million budget, which is twice as much as the first film, the CGI and effects would be a shitload better. Not here. The animality transformations are just ridiculous and laughable. And that fight scene between Shao Khan and Liu Kang is just unbearable, as two horribly constructed CGI animals fight each other to the death. It's sad when I find the battles on MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS to be more believable. And the blue/green screen effect is clearly seen here. You can tell that most of the backgrounds and environments were done on a back lot of some studio while a green screen displayed the setting behind them. It makes the film look extremely cheap, even though it does have a certain Mortal Kombat 3 feel to it visually. I'm wondering where the budget to this film went to because it sure wasn't on this.

The acting is no better. Robin Shou is given some really dull and ridiculous stuff to do, and he seems very uncomfortable with it all. The performance from the first film is truly lacking here. Worse than him is James Remar as Raiden. Whatever Lambert did in the original is totally destroyed here for reasons I can't explain. I know the character isn't written well here, but at least a good energenic performance could have made it better. Remar is wooden, monotone, and just looks uncomfortable sporting a bad white wig and doing fight choregraphy. Is this the same dude from THE WARRIORS? Nah, it couldn't be. Sandra Hess, however, was pretty okay and I found her Sonya to be much more believable than Wilson's. She was tough, bitchy, and actually moved well during the fight scenes. I liked her. Too bad her partner Jax, played by former AMERICAN GLADIATORS alum Lynn Red Williams [he was Sabre], annoyed the hell out of me. He played the stereotypical "angry black man from the 'hood", making me wish Shao Khan had used his hammer and bashed his brains in. It's pretty sad since the Jax in the original film was an intelligent, well-spoken man. Here, he's a joke. Talisa Soto didn't do much as Kitana, which is sad because Kitana is one of the coolest Mortal Kombat characters ever. At least she got to pull out the fans in battle. Brian Thompson looked the part of Shao Khan, but didn't have the presence needed to pull it off. He just looked like some meathead who put on his gladiator garb and skull mask for some trick-or-treating. Not a very credible villain. Musetta Vander looked hot as Sindel but her acting didn't do much for me here. Everyone else was just there, just like this film was. Too bad...I think this could have been a cool sequel if done right.

THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE PRESSING "UP, TOWARD, TOWARD, TOWARD, HIGH KICK + BLOCK" TO WRITE THIS LIST

1. Kano loves a punctual woman. So do I. When she's late, I get worried. Ya dig?

2. Shang Tsung can shift-shape into others. If I had that ability, I'd shift into Cash Warren so I could, um, help Jessica Alba star in better films. Yeah...that'd be the only reason why I'd be him...

3. Don't ever tell a girl to give you a break when she has her strong legs around your neck. No massage is gonna relieve that problem.

4. Liu Kang didn't bother throwing out Sub-Zero after he froze him to death. Man, that is so cold.

5. Never raise a series of metal spikes for your opponent. He's not the one who will fall on them. Save that kind of penetration for Clay Aiken or someone...

6. Sheeva has four arms. Man, she must be popular during orgies.

7. Raiden is worried that Outworld will merge with Earth. What's the big deal? I walk by the Village all the time and I'm fine.

8. If you move too fast, it'll be like not moving at all. I'm sure Superman uses that excuse all the time in the sack wth Lois.

9. Don't offer a female prisoner something to drink. She'll spit it all over you. Too bad...I was hoping she'd swallow.

10. Sindel, for some apparent reason, enjoys spinning round and round. Like a record, baby. Round. Round. Round. Round.

THE FINAL HOWL
MORTAL KOMBAT is still a pretty cool flick to watch after 13 years, as it shows how video game adaptations should be made. Obviously, Uwe Boll hasn't learned that yet. It doesn't take itself so seriously, which is why it still works. Unfortunately, ANNIHILATION is a disaster from beginning to end with some sprinkles of moments that stops it from being a complete failure. Still, I'm sending the sequel into the WTF? Vault where it can perform Fatalities on its fellow WTF?ees and kiss my ass. Another MORTAL KOMBAT film is supposedly being made [MORTAL KOMBAT: DEVASTATION in 2010] though it's been in pre-production hell for a while now. Hopefully it'll be on the level of the original, but I'm not crossing my fingers. Watch MORTAL KOMBAT and skip the sequel unless you need a good laugh or like to be bored. Or you could just play the video games and have more fun demolishing people until their limbs fly towards every corner of the screen. Whatever floats your boat.

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