Beneath the veneer of cheesy 90s action and video game callbacks, Mortal Kombat holds poignant themes that still work even 25 years later.
25 years ago today, Mortal Kombat graced the big screen. Bringing Lui Kang, Johnny Cage, Sonya Blade, and other iconic fighters to life for the first time, the film remains one of the more successful video game adaptations around.
I absolutely loved this movie as a kid, but it’s been a number of years since I last watched it. Frankly speaking, I can’t remember the last time I did, though it was likely in high school (putting it 10-15 years ago). Because it had such an impact on me when I was younger, I decided to dive back into it in preparation for it’s 25th anniversary…I was pleasantly surprised.
Big Influence, Little Jordan
Many of you know, but Martial Arts has long been a passion (obsession at some points) in my life. While a big chunk of that can be laid at the feet of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the impact of Mortal Kombat on me cannot be understated. Though it launched a few years before I began my own martial arts journey, it only fueled my passion.
It’s packed to the brim with fight scenes, literally one right after another, delivering more pound-for-pound action than just about anything else on the market during that time…Well, at least that my parents would let me watch.
Growing up with very little in our household, the movie itself was my first foray in the world of Mortal Kombat. While I knew OF the game, having seen the arcade and watched friends play it on their home systems, I’d never spent any significant time with the gaming franchise on my own. To me, all this lore and information was brand new and I found myself eager to learn even more.
I was blown away the first time I watched it, during a sleepover at a friends house (VHS baby!), and proceeded to beg for a copy of it of my own. On an almost daily basis, my parents could find me in my room, or outside, “practicing” one of the cool moves I watched in the movie. Often rewinding, pausing, and re-watching specific sequences to try and teach myself.
While so many of those moves seems simple now, after 20+ years of actual training, I think back on those moments often. The initial drive to push myself to learn, to keep practicing day in, day out stems from that film. Hell, I still play around with some of those moves as part of my regular workouts today!
What I didn’t realize at the time was how much of that ambition is rooted in the deeper themes present within this goofy action/fantasy film…
To be honest, I was impressed with how well Mortal Kombat has held up in the past 25 years. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not exactly a “great” film and features dated VFX, fight choreography that feels weak compared to current films, and a big helping of cheese factor. Even so, I found myself having a blast watching it once more.
It’s very much a film that knows what it wants to do and goes all in for it. It doesn’t wasted much time with lengthy exposition, but still manages to convey a hefty amount of lore within a short period of time. There’s no hand-holding here, as it dives right into both the action and concept with taking us through the intricacies.
Many films these days seem to take too much time to try and explain every little thing. The horror genre, of late, suffers quite a bit from this, but even current action films (Star Wars isn’t immune either) use heavy-handed exposition beats to fully explain bits of lore in an effort to hook viewers deeper into the “world.”
As such, it was kind of refreshing to watch Mortal Kombat do the opposite. You either buy into the idea or you don’t. Either way, the film keeps trucking along and doubling down on its weird factor with nary a care in the world!
Now that I’m older and have plenty of experience with Mortal Kombat as a franchise overall and the various story incarnations, I’m even more impressed with how the original film handled adaptation some of those elements. Specifically, I’m really impressed with the casting choices. While they leave a little to be desired (though I’d chalk up most of that to the script) they still feel like the perfect incarnations of these characters.
Linden Ashby’s Johnny Cage is the perfect balance of ego and sincerity. Bridgette Wilson excellently captures the hard nature of Sonya Blade, while still bringing the feminine element to bear. Robin Shou brings Lui Kang to life in a way that’s tough to emulate; and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is still iconic as the evil Sorcerer Shang Tsung.
While Christopher Lambert feels a bit problematic as Raiden (the character is based on the Japanese god of Thunder after all), I can’t deny how much I love his portrayal here. To be fair, however, a big chunk of that love probably comes down to my other obsession with the original Highlander.
Either way, the casting choices have held up way better than I would have suspected. What was even more impressive to me, however, are how the themes held up. The movie is far from subtle when it comes to these, and they’re all laid out in a scene between Raiden and the three Earth champions. He discusses the fears that are holding each of them back, which they’ll have to conquer if there’s any hope of success.
For Johnny, it’s a fear of never being good enough. Sonya wants to be strong to the point of ever asking for help. Lui fears responsibility and the guilt associated with avoiding it. Though it beats you over the head with them, the themes brought up remain poignant for both martial artists and everyone else.
We cannot let our worries about not being adequate (imposter syndrome if you will) hold us back. Nor can we let it lead us to take stupid risks and get in way over our heads. Similarly, we cannot allow ourselves to get to the point that we don’t need help every now and then. And when we find a task that needs to be done, even if it’s hard and terrifying, we must face it.
These are ideas that continue to resonate and feel especially powerful in the world today. As a kid, these ideas helped fuel my drive in martial arts, and kept me working out and striving to be better. Even watching it now, I feel the pull to get out on the mat and push myself. Though the skills on display aren’t as impressive as they once were, the film stills gets me amped up and ready for action (coupled with a soundtrack that still kicks ass).
While there are a number of ways in which the film feels dated, the core concepts and themes are timeless. Even 25 years later, Mortal Kombat delivers on an improbable fun factor that manages to get the blood pumping despite those dated aspects. Even as we wait for Warner Bros. to revitalize the series on the big screen, it’s nice to know the original has aged far better than I expected.