Let’s be honest here, video game adaptations have (usually) never gone well. Beginning all the way back in 1993 with a big budget movie based upon the hugely successful Super Mario Bros. series, production companies like Buena Vista Pictures and Universal Pictures jumped on the video game bandwagon that was rapidly growing during the 90s and attempted to successfully bridge the gap between games and film and make millions of dollars doing so.
With both the Super Mario Bros. and Gramercy Pictures’ Double Dragon (1994), it quickly became evident that simply shapeshifting video games into feature length cinematic experiences was dangerously dodgy territory. Super Mario Bros. failed to recoup its 42-48 million dollar budget and was deemed both a critical and commercial failure on nearly every level while Double Dragon was a relatively small budget movie (just over 7 million dollars) but barely recouped 4 million dollars worldwide. Critics rightfully questioned video game movie logic and production companies questioned the lack of profit but after these initial mishaps, things began to look more positive.
At the tail end of 1994, Universal Pictures released Street Fighter, another video game adaptation that was tipped to prove the profitability and future success that was missing from previous failing attempts. Relying on the prominence of hugely successful action star Jean-Claude Van Damme, Street Fighter was a huge success, earning Universal close to 100 million dollars worldwide against a 35 million dollar budget. However, despite this huge success, Street Fighter was critically bashed and many considered it the worst video game adaptation. Heavy criticism was aimed at the acting (or lack of), direction and its weak plot. Even with this criticism, Street Fighter‘s modest success paved the way for New Line Cinema to green light the hugely anticipated Mortal Kombat movie that was in development at the time.
With 1995’s Mortal Kombat, New Line Cinema had a different approach to video game movies. Where Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon and Street Fighter were helmed by extremely inexperienced directors better known for their crew involvement with other productions, New Line decided to recruit English director, Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil film series, Soldier) who had recently received strong praise for his debut feature, Shopping (1994).
Believing Anderson to be the right man for the job, New Line provided him with a modest 18 million budget and a huge amount of free rein on the final edit. This meant Anderson would be unable to coup a popular action star like Van Damme for his flick. But ultimately, the smaller budget was a blessing in disguise as Anderson could tell the story he wanted without much studio interference (something that was highly evident on Double Dragon and Street Fighter).
Mortal Kombat was an enormous success becoming the first video game adaptation to earn more than 100 million dollars at the box office (122 million to be precise), earning nearly seven times as much as its initial budget cost. Not only was it a massive commercial success, it was also the first video game adaptation to receive a number of positive reviews with positivity being aimed at the overall direction, fight sequences, atmosphere and production values.
Anderson’s Mortal Kombat was so successful that a sequel was immediately planned and green lit and a number of tie-in projects were completed to capitalize on this success, cementing Mortal Kombat as the first truly successful video game to movie adaptation. So why was it such a dominating success and, even 25 years later, why is it still widely considered one of the best (if not the best) video game to movie adaptations ever made?
Mortal Kombat‘s success can be defined by a number of different factors but almost entirely by one singular understanding. Mortal Kombat has always been a series focused on providing adult themed content with arguably a more realistic approach to its style and presentation even if it may seem highly ridiculous to many. New Line Cinema understood this and aimed to give the fans exactly that.
Unlike Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon and even Street Fighter which all feature a cartoon style presentation in their respective video game series, Mortal Kombat was almost entirely cinematic in its approach to visuals. An approach that is far easier to translate to our big screens than pixelated retro graphics ever could.
Anderson had received particular praise for Shopping‘s visual style and presentation. He was able to apply that visual spark and flair to Mortal Kombat‘s Enter The Dragon/Bloodsport inspired approach. Given his background in film university and his impressive debut, it benefitted hugely from a more adult oriented tone that echoed the game’s similar stylings. Anderson also had the technical ability and flair to make it all feel impressive, satisfying and cinematic even if it didn’t quite hit the mark in other areas.
Even with a relatively small budget and the lack of a Jean-Claude Van Damme (who was actually offered the role of Johnny Cage before production but turned it down for his role in Street Fighter) or Arnold Schwarzenegger, Anderson cast a plethora of action stars that fans immediately embraced as appropriate – unlike the plethora of unknown, unproven stars Double Dragon and Street Fighter relied on. This would prove to be another defining characteristic in Mortal Kombat‘s success.
Cult action star Chirstopher Lambert (Highlander) was cast as Lord Raiden which was well received by fans, along with Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Licence To Kill, Showdown In Little Tokyo) as Shang Tsung and Robin Shou (City War, Tiger Cage 2) as Liu Kang. Anderson’s approach to casting proved that the filmmaker did not want to simply treat this opportunity as an uninspired paycheck. Instead, Anderson aimed to achieve as much authenticity in comparison to the game series as possible.
Another defining factor in Mortal Kombat‘s huge success was its soundtrack which has become beloved by many fans. Instead of simply emulating the soundtrack from the game series, Anderson looked to the likes of Orbital, KMFDM, Type O Negative and even underground favourites Fear Factory and Napalm Death to provide harsh laden soundscapes fans could get behind and it worked incredibly well. Fear Factory’s “Replica” became well recognized for acting as the backdrop for Johnny Cage’s memorable encounter with Scoprion and Orbital’s “Halycon On And On” has become beloved and immediately recognizable as the uplifting outro track to the film’s finale.
The icing on the cake is its martial arts fight sequences. Although not the most impressive fight scenes around in the 90’s, Mortal Kombat’s fights were rarely boring or uninspired and each fight sequence was unique showcasing Anderson’s flair for delivering the unexpected. Liu Kang’s encounter with Sub-Zero is short but calculated. Built around Liu Kang’s need to utilize his wits to defeat such an impressive otherworldly foe, Anderson made sure to realize each encounter differently. Johnny Cage’s iconic encounter with Scorpion culminates in a visual concept of Hell where impressive stuntwork shines through as Scorpion confronts his favourite movie star. But it is Liu Kang’s encounter with the infamous Reptile (admittedly more like his Chameleon counterpart here) that tops the bunch.
Reptile is unrelenting in his assualt of Liu Kang, much like his secret boss fight in the game series. It showcases a number of flips, kicks and impressive stuntwork ending with Liu Kang’s iconic bicycle kick to the fast paced thumping backdrop of Traci Lords/Juno Reactor’s track ‘Control’, sending Mortal Kombat fans into a respectful and fully deserved frenzy. Anderson really nailed the action, garnering admiration from a number of critics at the time.
Admittely not everything is strong. The acting at times is painfully wooden, particularly from Bridgette Wilson’s Sonya Blade. But this is easily dismissable given Mortal Kombat‘s tongue-in-cheek humour from the likes of Raiden and iconic one-liners from Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s Shang Tsung. They may not make much sense at times but they do just enough to earn a few chuckles and nods of approval from happy fans. The plot is also as barebones as it gets. But when your movie is based off a hit video game series about bludgeoning your opponent to an absolute pulp and then dispensing of them in vividly gruesome manner, it isn’t hard to overlook Mortal Kombat‘s plot issues. Ultimately, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Truthfully, neither should you.
Mortal Kombat was a triumph and deservedly so. Paul W.S. Anderson’s focus on providing a dark, realisitic cinematic portrayal of a hit video game series wasn’t an easy task. Particularly when attempting to break free of the critical damnation and commercial failure of previous video game adaptations. It succeeded defiantly. It is easy to see why, 25 years later, Mortal Kombat is still beloved among fans and widely considered one of the stronger video game to film adaptations. Just don’t get curious and check out it’s sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. A word of warning – I personally would rather watch paint dry.