When Paul W. S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat film was released 25 years ago, not many people had any hope for it. At the time, video game adaptations weren’t seen as easy cash-grabs by Hollywood. And flops like Double Dragon and Super Mario Bros. the years prior didn’t leave anyone too optimistic about any sort of success.
Yet, Mortal Kombat came out of the gates swinging. In fact, it uppercut all its competitors as it took the top place at the box office for three weeks. While it received middling reviews from the fun-hating critics, it became the highest-grossing video game adaptation at the time, bringing in $122.1 million from a $18 million budget.
Surprisingly, the film wasn’t all smooth sailing. Brandon Lee had been the first choice for the part of Johnny Cage, but his death resulted in the casting agents looking towards Linden Ashby. Similarly, the legendary action hero Steve James had been cast as Jax, but his unfortunate passing resulted in the role being recast. Then, the original Sonya Blade, Cameron Diaz, hurt her wrist and also had to be recast…
Much like a game of Mortal Kombat, though, the actors and crew rolled with the punches to deliver an action-packed extravaganza. The film knew exactly what it was and never tried to be more intelligent or haute than necessary.
While the special effects might look a little dated today (though not more than its horrendous sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation), it’s remarkable how Anderson and his team managed to make a film look so good and innovative in 1995. Heck, even the animatronic Goro was a contraption that no one believed they could pull off.
Therefore, it might surprise you to know that Anderson winged it for the most part. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, he said:
“I had no experience with visual effects, so I went to Samuel French’s bookstore and I bought every single book I could find on visual effects, on matte paintings, on CGI. I had the jargon down. It sounded like I knew more about CG than anyone else in Hollywood, even though I’d never been into a visual effects house. I kind of bluffed my way in, but I think they could see the enthusiasm.”
While the storyline for the Mortal Kombat film might’ve been paper-thin and a generic warrior’s journey, it was the cast’s chemistry and delivery that elevated the film, making it a must-watch for both fans and non-fans of the franchise. Anderson maintains this was down to the cast having the freedom to experiment and play on set.
“When it came to actually shooting the movie, I really encouraged the actors to ad-lib quite a lot. It was a lot of the humour in the movie,” he said. “There’s a lot of good humour, especially coming from Linden Ashby and Christopher Lambert.”
Ashby confirmed this, stating he came up with iconic “Let’s dance” line in his intro as well as the “Those were $500 sunglasses, a**hole” quip during his fight with Goro. He, too, believed the script was nothing to write home about so the actors needed to improvise.
Of course, everyone tuned in for the combat – and the Mortal Kombat film delivered in droves as it brought in the best martial artists to train the actors and perform some of the sequences. Amazingly, the first cut of the film was found to be lacking in the fighting department, so Robin Shou, the actor who played Liu Kang, took charge of some reshoots. He choreographed and filmed a few new fight scenes, while also injuring himself in the process.
“When Pat [E. Johnson] choreographed the fights, he had to make it as comfortable as possible for me,” he said. “I had a lot of ideas from Hong Kong cinema. It’s a little bit stylised, but it’s an action, martial arts, kung fu movie, so it’s OK to be stylised. So, he gave me free rein to do whatever I wanted, basically.”
The jaw-dropping fight scenes aside, Mortal Kombat is also fondly remembered for its soundtrack that blended heavy metal and techno into one of the most ‘90s products you can think of. The thing is, you can’t imagine it any other way and everyone still gets pumped when the beat to the theme song kicks in.
With reboot set to hit in 2021, it’s got extremely big shoes to fit. It might not have been a perfect film or even the best film 0f 1995, but Mortal Kombat remains the best video game adaptation to date. If you disagree, we quote Shao Kahn: “Don’t make me laugh.”