‘Mortal Kombat’: The PG-13 Brutality and Nostalgic Charm of the Original 1995 Movie

Mortal Kombat holds a very special place in my heart. The original game in the franchise was one of the first video games I ever played. Like many kids being introduced to Mortal Kombat, I fell in love with its action and violence. I was immediately drawn to Sub-Zero and Scorpion; their visual presentation caught me right away, as well as the former’s ice elemental attacks and the latter’s signature “Get over here!” move. I was blown away by the game and would seek it out in whatever arcade I was in. 

When I finally got the chance to see the first movie adaptation of Mortal Kombat (1995), I was in awe. The action and characters I loved were all there and they all kicked ass. The movie has become one of my personal favorite works of nostalgia; every couple years I’ll revisit it, and I still find that initial wonder. With the new iteration of Mortal Kombat hitting HBO Max and theatres this April, I wanted to revisit and speak to what makes the 1995 film so awesome. For while it may be a shlocky action flick, it is a film that pays excellent homage to its source material.

I have a deep love for film adaptations of video games (as I’ve shared in the past, like when I wrote about 2005’s Doom). Games were one of my first major loves in life, so having the opportunity to see them come to the big screen has always excited me. I’ve always been aware of the issues that plague these adaptations; to be fair, I see a lot of those points. On a production level, there’s more focus to presenting easter eggs rather than actual storytelling. It’s more important that character X is shown, rather than presenting them with depth.

Though they admittedly aren’t the most dimensional, Paul W.S. Anderson‘s Mortal Kombat provides enough detail to latch onto the iconic characters from the games, or at least portray them in a bad ass light. The audience is given a convincing motivation for Liu Kang to join the Mortal Kombat tournament, providing a personal element to an overall off-the-wall action movie. Sonya is also given a purposeful drive that leads her to the tournament, though her revenge storyline is wrapped up relatively quick. Johnny Cage is the comedic relief which makes for some great comedic beats. And of course, Sub-Zero and Scorpion are epic as all hell.

The Mortal Kombat movie elicits a great adrenaline equal to its video game counterpart. From its characters to the fight scenes themselves, the movie is a brilliant blend of ‘90s action cheese. Some may take cheese as a negative thing – as if a work is too goofy – but there is such a thing as purposeful, well-done cheese. Mortal Kombat is a type of action movie we just don’t get much of anymore; a form of ‘90s action cinema with nonstop ridiculous fun. Anderson’s movie contains a plethora of eccentric battles where people are throwing punches and drop kicking one another. The fighting choreography isn’t the strongest – compared to when I was 10, I notice now, for example, how many times the camera will cut away before a punch lands. But thanks to the kinetic speed in which the actors are moving, the high-octane music, and ironically, the movement of the camera, each fight is given ample feeling and aggression. 

The best examples of this, in my opinion, are the Johnny Cage vs. Scorpion fight, as well as Liu Kang vs. Reptile. Both fights display brutality and technique in each character’s martial arts move set. Reptile and Scorpion push Liu Kang and Johnny in their battles respectively, acting as a challenging force to overcome. Each fight not only makes for a spectacle to witness, but also an intriguing representation of beloved video game characters coming to life to throw down.

The film not only delivers on action-packed fun, but it also has its fair share of nods directed towards the source material. Goro is a beast to deal with in the game, and you know what, he’s a beast in the movie as well. On an interesting note, Shang Tsung feels more like a threat in the movie than he did in the initial Mortal Kombat (given that his appearance in the first game is brief). We get the likes of Kitana and Raiden, each who contribute to the film; though they may not have much going for them as characters, they at least bring an additional element of fun to the plot. The movie includes multiple characters from the game, and rarely does anyone feel shoehorned in. For the most part, everyone has some sort of genuine role within the story (whether small or large).

While directors and writers should care to craft a story of quality, it’s also important to capture the spirit of a game being adapted. It is important to understand the experience of the game. Mortal Kombat is an intense, dopamine-fueling action experience, and director Paul W.S. Anderson got that and properly translated it to the screen. He may not have created a stellar high-class action film in the process, but he did make a movie that understood what the game was about and what it offered to its players. And for that, I applaud the guy. 

1995’s Mortal Kombat is so much friggin’ fun. It is equal parts goofy and awesome. The characters are a blast, never meant to take too seriously, but enough to enjoy and want to follow. The film hits the right notes when it comes to fan service, providing several iconic characters and letting them beat each other up in classic MK fashion. If you are like me and adore Mortal Kombat, if you’re excited for the new movie, I heavily encourage you to check out Anderson’s take on the material. Even if you’ve seen it already, give it another whirl – you may find it’s a wonderful little blast from the past. 

The original movie from 1995 was of course followed up by a sequel, 1997’s Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, but maybe I’ll save my thoughts on that one for another time.