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Here’s Why ‘Mortal Kombat’ Is Secretly the Best Film Ever

When pop culture writers talk about the best genre films, they tend to mention a few greatest hits: your Jurassic Parks, your Back To The Futures, your Dark Knights. Yet one film, time and time again, is ignored. Even if it is mentioned, it’s to be used as a punching bag. It’s time to finish this misconception once and for all. It’s time to change people’s opinions like Shang Tsung changes character skins. It’s time to explain exactly why Mortal Kombat is secretly the best movie ever.

 

Its screenplay is well-structured

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The movie introduces three protagonists — Liu Kang being our main hero, with Sonya Blade and Johnny Cage as support — with efficiency and clarity. Within one scene, we know exactly what each character is missing, what they want, and why they have to fight in the Mortal Kombat tournament to get it. It also cleanly sets the stakes of the world enough so we understand, but not so much that it gets bogged down in unnecessary exposition. Beyond the nuts-and-bolts, the screenplay is full of what we’d call “dope action movie pleasures”. One-liners are tossed around with ease and hilarity. Evil characters seethe with genuine menace. And the film’s use of “ironic echos” is unparalleled. Case in point: Johnny Cage’s dual usage of the line, “This is where you fall down.” Screenwriting professors, you’ve found your new template movie.

 

Those fight scenes? I mean, damn

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It’s a movie based on a fighting game, so the fighting better be good. And wowie zowie kaplowie it is. Each fight scene utilizes its special character’s unique moves, adapted seamlessly from the game, but maintains a level of real-world martial arts authenticity. Director Paul W.S. Anderson, who went on to create a video game movie franchise with Resident Evil, captures these battles with simple, effective techniques. Basically: you can actually see who’s fighting who. None of the overly-shaky cameras or hyper-aggressive editing we’ve unfortunately gotten so used to in our action movies today. Anderson sets up his camera so we can see the cool fighters fight each other cooly. Contemporary action directors, take notice. (We’re looking at you, Russo Brothers.)

 

Excellent, grounded performances

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Imagine being an actor reading the audition breakdowns for this movie. “Raiden. Immortal god of thunder. Shoots lightning out of his fingers.” How on earth would you approach that? If you’re Christopher Lambert, you imbue it with disarming informality. Raiden only turns on the godlike electricity when absolutely necessary. Beyond those moments, he’s warm, friendly, and even a little impulsive. And Lambert isn’t the only one doing great work here — Linden Ashby is the perfect Johnny Cage, oozing cockiness and charm in equal measure. Bridgette Wilson is steely and single-minded as Sonya Blade. And Robin Shou… what can we say? He’s vulnerable, tragic, and confident, all in one star-making performance.

 

Its fan-service moments feel organic

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Characters in this film say things like “Flawless victory” and “fatality”. Sub-Zero shoots freezie balls, Scorpion tells you to “Get over here”, Liu Kang does a bicycle kick. The references to the original video game are here, and they’re a-plenty. But thanks to the grounding of the rest of the film, such moments of recognition feel organically woven into the world. These fan-service moments are a feature of the film, not a bug. Also, like, we’re only human. When Johnny Cage beats Scorpion and throws his autographed headshot on him just like the game, what are we supposed to do, notcheer?

 

Its tone is right on the money

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The tone of genre adaptations is so hard to get right, and so essential to the work’s enjoyment. Mortal Kombat gets it right in the same way that Batman: The Animated Series did: by not trying to sidestep away from the big and broad choices inherent in the property. If you see Mortal Kombat, you will see a character named Reptile that’s an actual reptile that turns into a ninja. But it approaches these broad choices with a subtle, yet cogent, emotional thesis. Reptile, in this case, represents the unwarranted repression and surveillance of Princess Kitana. The movie takes its choices seriously without shouting at you, “We take this seriously!” It gives itself room to play with an anchor. Compare this movie to the Mortal Kombat: Legacy series, which aims for Christopher Nolan and hits Suicide Squad.

 

An Emotionally-Motivated Climax

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Spoilers ahead, you’ve been warned. Liu Kang can’t let go. The death of his brother at the hands of Shang Tsung hangs over his body and soul. He feels responsible, and it consumes him. How can he move on and know peace? Motivated by an ingenious bit of screenwriting, in which it’s established that Liu Kang must face his enemy, himself, and his worst fear, Shang Tsung transforms into Liu Kang’s brother at a pivotal point in their climactic fight. It’s emotional terrorism, plain and simple. Tsung-as-Kang’s-brother tells Kang exactly what he wants to hear. To win, Kang must let go. He must tell his brother he can’t be weighed down anymore. And finally, he lets go, and that’s how he wins. In an age where final battles too often devolve into CGI people pounding each other into the ground over and over, this moment is a flawless victory.

 

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