September 20, 2016 by NowhereButPop
For all the controversy generated by the Mortal Kombat franchise, what most people don’t realize about the series is that it’s really a tongue-in-cheek comedy. All the over-the-top violence is there for the sake of overdoing the gore and making it as unrealistic as possible. Even though Mortal Kombat strives to be the most violet of absurdist comedies, there’s still something innately comical about seeing a Jean Claude Van Damme parody punch a four armed monster in the nuts. Everything from the fatalities, hari-kari, and friendship moves are designed to make us laugh with a sickened sense of gore overload. Even certain characters themselves are parodies of the ways in which the franchise has been seen as the poster child of the destructive influence that videogames have on children. A character like Meat, who’s just a bloodied skeleton displays this absurd sense of humor, as Meat is clearly an overdone response to this criticism levied against them.
With the immense popularity of the Mortal Kombat video games, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that a feature length movie was produced only a mere three years after the series was created. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, maker of terrible movies such as most Resident Evil’s, and Alien Vs. Predator, 1995’s Mortal Kombat stands as a testament to what a video game movie should be all about. Unlike Super Mario Bros., which captured neither the tone, characterizations, nor plot of the source material, Mortal Kombat is an incredibly faithful adaptation of the source material, right down to the offbeat, self-referential, and absurdist sense of humor.
Ed Boon, creator of the Mortal Kombat franchise is aware of how gory and uncomfortably violet his video games are, and it’s a self-awareness that seeps down into the video games, which the movie perfectly captures. Raiden, played perfectly by Christopher Lambert, of Highlander fame, is a sarcastic and wry mentor to Sonya Blade, Johnny Cage, and Lui Kang, who at one point refers to Sub-Zero and Scorpion as “sideshow freaks”. He’s someone who’s aware of the ridiculousness of the movie’s premise, so much so that he’s willing to insult some of the more popular characters of the franchise, and belittle his own fighters. Even at the end of the movie when asked by Lui Kang if he knew they’d win, Raiden responds that he “didn’t have a clue” betraying his lack of faith in his own fighters. Lambert’s Raiden is essentially the reverse of Burgess Meredith’s Mickey, but it’s Lambert’s Raiden that proves to be the most entertaining character, as he represents Ed Boon’s own amusement at the absurdly ridiculous and overly sanguine franchise that he created, while lampooning just how popular and controversial it became.
The most comical character in the game, Johnny Cage, is brought to life on the silver screen as well, as is his hammy and inflated ego, played perfectly by Linden Ashby. He mistakes Lui Kang, the eventual champion of the tournament for a bell boy, he mentions that Outworld reminds him of high school because everyone wants to kick his ass, and he punches Goro, the reigning champion, square in the nuts, humiliating him in front of everyone. If Mortal Kombat was really a deadly serious video game, a character like Johnny Cage (himself a parody of Van Damme) wouldn’t even exist.
All of the fighters involved, most of whom had never even heard of the Mortal Kombat tournament, are completely unfazed when they’re told of what exactly they’ve agreed to participate in and the stakes involved in this tournament. In fact, they take the news of immortal sorcerers, pagan gods, and alternate dimensions in stride as if they’ve heard it all before. No one is shocked to see an 8-foot, four armed monster in a loincloth, or even mildly disturbed to see Shang Tsung steal someone’s soul. Neither Sonya, Lui, or Cage question the normalcy of seeing a man shoot a metal snake out of his hand, or another man freeze a live human being. Everyone is completely unperturbed by everything that they see. They act as if all of these occurrences are a part of everyday life. Because no one freaks out at all during any part of the movie, it makes viewers question of the validity of the tournament and the seriousness of the consequences, which injects an element of humor into the movie. Since every character’s reaction to the movie is so far removed from reality, we expel our already suspended belief as we watch these characters fight for the fate of the planet with the same attitude as we watched the Dudley Boyz take on the Hardy Boyz in a TLC match.
If the characters involved don’t feel a sense of urgency, and other characters openly mock everyone and everything around them, then how can the audience be expected to take the movie seriously? The answer is that they aren’t supposed to; they’re supposed to acknowledge the ridiculousness and the absurdity of the premise and merely sit back and enjoy the ride. Even within the movie, there are a ton of gags that are purposefully left in to provide a laugh to keen eyed viewers. The actor who plays Kano is incredibly flabby and as out of shape as your next door neighbor, the director of Johnny Cage’s movie is supposed to be Steven Spielberg (who was supposed to be in the movie but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts), and the montage scene of Goro defeating fighter after fighter reuses footage of the same four fighters being vanquished. The movie strove to be as satirical and as over-the-top as the video games while attaining a PG-13 rating, and for a film that tried to satisfy the demands of the id without conflicting with the superego, Mortal Kombat succeeded in both of these tasks.
What makes the film even better is that while auditing for the role of Shang Tsung, Cary Tagawa, who was the filmmaker’s only choice for the role, read his lines sitting down, dressed in full costume. Everything about the film is laced with comedic value, just as the source material was. No other video game movie succeeded in capturing the spirit of the actual game better than Mortal Kombat. And for Mortal Kombat, it wasn’t about mindless violence, but a self-aware and self-referential sense of humor that perfectly mocks the perception of itself. The Mortal Kombat video games aren’t serious games, they’re silly games that are purposefully designed to give players sanguine overload; that’s where the comedy comes from—The sheer absurdity of the premise and the violence. Despite not being as violent as the source material, the film adaptation more than succeeds at capturing this sense of absurdist humor without sacrificing any of the action. By striving for laughs, Anderson and his crew dutifully transferred the essence of Mortal Kombat from video game to film.
It’s just a shame that it’s sequel Mortal Kombat Annihilation was a piece of shit that should have just hari-kari’ed itself for everyone’s sake.