There is a well-known "curse" that plagues movie adaptations of video games. Either because Hollywood didn't understand video games, or because video games just didn't have a story worth telling beyond the controller, movies based on games have long been doomed for the bargain DVD bin. The last few years have seen the curse broken in pretty okay blockbusters, like Rampage (2018), Tomb Raider (2018), Detective Pikachu (2019), and this year's Sonic the Hedgehog. But the curse was actually broken long ago — in 1995.
Mortal Kombat, the kult klassic movie based on the red-hot arcade hit of the 1990s, remains one of the best movie adaptations of a video game even 25 years later. And it's the movie you need to watch before it leaves Netflix on September 30.
In Mortal Kombat, three fighters — a Shaolin monk, a special forces agent, and a Hollywood action star — represent Earth in an ancient and deadly martial arts tournament. Should the heroes lose, the evil Emperor Shao Kahn wins the right to send his alien forces to conquer Earth.
Based on the 1992 hit video game, the very one that wowed gamers and horrified parents and lawmakers in Washington, Mortal Kombat is still a thrill despite its outdated CGI and hammy dialogue. Its fight scenes hold up thanks to smart filmmaking; it is a principle from Hong Kong martial arts movies, like those starring Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, to keep a steady camera during fight scenes. This is a rule most Hollywood movies still refuse to follow, but Mortal Kombat did and that's why the movie is still worth talking about two and a half decades later.
And yes, it's violent. Though maybe not as gruesome as a snuff film, director Paul Anderson — who later went on to direct the Resident Evil franchise and next year's Monster Hunter, cementing a very specific brand to his career — knew how to tap into the game's absurd violence while still satisfying the commercial demands of the movie. Though Mortal Kombat was a gory game, its audience was still teenagers who couldn't see an R-rated movie on their own. Anderson got around limitations by still delivering the goods of well-made fight scenes grounded in character drama and tension without actually ripping out spines.
Teenagers are easy to please, and for Mortal Kombat that meant ensuring the characters look like they should. And they did. The movie's winning ensemble cast elevates it above low expectations. There's an understated comic genius in Christopher Lambert (as thunder sage Raiden), an absolute legendary Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa as Shang Tsung, and drop-dead beautiful Talisa Soto and Bridgette Wilson as Princess Kitana and spec-ops agent Sonya Blade respectively. Though Linden Ashby didn't have the swagger fans expect from Johnny Cage, Ashby still knew how to command the screen like a real Johnny Cage would. It is impossible to grow up watching Mortal Kombat and not quote "This is where you fall down" on the playground. Those were $500 sunglasses, asshole.
And then there's Robin Shou. Though serviceable as a protagonist, Shou shouldered the responsibility of leading the movie as a rare Asian-American star. It wasn't too long before Mortal Kombat that another video game movie, Street Fighter, diminished the significance of the franchise's Japanese protagonist Ryu (played by Byron Mann), in favor of Guile, a U.S. marine played by the decade's mega-star Jean-Claude Van Damme. With Mortal Kombat, for once the Asian male video game hero was allowed to anchor the Hollywood movie.
Not that it was easy. In a 2015 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Shou revealed he auditioned for the part an unheard-of seven times, an indication New Line had uncertainty about an Asian protagonist. "They were really hands-on as far as picking this Asian Liu Kang, because he's an Asian lead and they're investing millions," Shou said. "It was grueling."
(In a fun coincidence, it was Jean-Claude Van Damme that helped create Mortal Kombat. The original game was first pitched to Van Damme as a vehicle for him to star. When talks broke down, the developers at Midway continued production and imagined Johnny Cage around Van Damme, including his infamous leg split from Bloodsport. Van Damme nearly played Johnny Cage for the movie, but opted to do Street Fighter instead.)
The best thing about Mortal Kombat is, frankly, the art direction. Staying true to the game's original aesthetic — "What if an Iron Maiden music video was directed by the Shaw Brothers?" — the desolate landscapes of Outworld, the gothic Japanese throne rooms, and the lush island scenery and temples (shot in Thailand) really lends the film a distinct visual identity. And the animatronics for Goro, the half-human, half-dragon monster, are next level for 1995 standards.
Mortal Kombat is far from a flawless victory — mascots Sub-Zero and Scorpion are bit players who don't get to play out their storied rivalry — but it's still plenty of fun as an Enter the Dragon for '90s kids. The film honors everything that made the games special while contributing its own important legacies. The Belgian duo The Immortals made their Europop club theme before the movie, but its inclusion in the film's climax is why it's iconic. It's because of Hiroyuki-Tagawa that "Your soul is mine" is so quotable. While the movie lacks the gruesome violence that made the games infamous, it's the characters that made it so memorable.
Mortal Kombat is streaming now on Netflix until September 30.