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Plot: contraband runner opposes the mightiest corporation in the world

Among video game purists Tekken is reviled, and while that sentiment is understandable to a degree, it misses the bigger picture that it’s also one of better video game adaptations. Not that the standards have been set high exactly to begin with. It was inevitable that Namco Bandai Games’ popular fighting franchise would eventually get the Hollywood treatment. Tekken’s character roster contains enough interpersonal drama, tragedy, and plenty of colorful personalities to fill multiple features. As a textbook example of a post-The Matrix (1999) American martial arts movie it distinguishes itself with its increased levels of acrobacy, athleticism, and far more complex action choreography. At heart Tekken is closer to Street Fighter (1994) than it is to Mortal Kombat (1995) in terms of faithfulness. Tekken, for better or worse, took the Hong Kong lessons from DOA: Dead or Alive (2006) to heart and did something with them. Sure, Tekken took plenty of artistic liberties with the source material it was supposedly adapting but on the plus side it benefitted for the most part from taking said license. As far as these things go, you could do far worse than Tekken.

That Tekken turned out half as well as it did is something of a miracle considering some of the talent behind it. Director Dwight H. Little is your standard smooth Hollywood filmmaker who worked his way up from the dregs of independent cinema. His style is technically polished but fairly interchangable with people like Renny Harlin, and Simon West. He’s the kind of director ideal for work-for-hire features and soulless Hollywood sequels. Little lensed everything from Marked for Death (1990) (arguably the last good Steven Seagal actioner before his lamentable and steep decline into direct-to-video hell and worse), Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home (1995) (the inevitable sequel to a Hollywood blockbuster), and Murder at 1600 (1997) (back when Wesley Snipes actually had a career) to Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid (2004) (the sort of unnecessary sequel that would have benefitted from J-Lo’s legendary ass).

Worse still is the fact that Tekken was written by Alan B. McElroy, the kind of Hollywood hack who makes Akiva Goldsman, Steven E. de Souza, and Joe Eszterhas look like nuanced scribes in comparison. McElroy infamously penned the Kirk Cameron Christian propaganda piece Left Behind (2000) (given the Hollywood remake treatment in 2014 with a sufficiently bewildered Nicholas Cage neckdeep in financial – and legal woes); that other video game adaptation that nobody talks about, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002) with Lucy Liu, Talisa Soto, and Antonio Banderas; as well as Wrong Turn (2003) (wherein Eliza Dushku acted primarily with her tank top) and the thinly-veiled recruiting video for the American military-industrial complex better known as The Marine (2006), or where wrestler John Cena acted better than most action stars at the time. Where did Little and McElroy start? Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988), or the last good sequel in a franchise that never should’ve lasted beyond the original.

It’s bad enough that most of the cast consists of television actors and anonymous stuntmen. The only big names (if you’re feeling in any way charitable) present are the always entertaining Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Tamlyn Tomita, and Jon Foo. There’s actually one genuine star to speak of but one-time Hollywood pretty boy Jason James Richter is relegated to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit part that he’s easily overlooked. Richter, of course, was the kid in Free Willy (1993) and its sequels before being chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine. Tagawa famously was Shang Tsung in Mortal Kombat (1995), and Tomita debuted in The Karate Kid Part II (1986). Foo on the other hand was a League Of Shadows extra in Batman Begins (2005). For all the criticism that can be levied at Street Fighter (1994), Mortal Kombat (1995), and DOA: Dead or Alive (2006) at least they had the decency of a halfway recognizable cast. Unlike in the Far East (China, Hong Kong, Japan) where talent is cast based upon past performances and martial arts prowess, Tekken was cast by the old Hollywood adage that they first and foremost must be pretty, irrespective of their fighting ability. Holly Valance was, by far, the worst actress in DOA: Dead or Alive (2006) yet in Tekken the entire female cast is made up of nothing but talent exactly like her. Kelly Overton, Candice Hillebrand, Marian Zapico, and Mircea Monroe are as pretty as they come but couldn’t act their way out of a paperbag let alone pull off a convincing fightscene. For the ladies there are enough shots of the glistening chests of Luke Goss, Roger Huerta, and Jon Foo but since this is a respectable production Overton, Hillebrand, and Zapico never bare theirs, although there’s a brief instance of sideboob from Mircea Monroe. Not that Monroe is in any way vital to the story, but we’ll take what we can get…

2039. In the aftermath of the Terror War what is left of civilization, all divided into territories, are not ruled by governments but by autocratic mega-corporations. The American territories are ruled by Tekken, the mightiest and cruelest of the surviving 8 corporations. Tekken is run by Heihachi Mishima (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and his son Kazuya (Ian Anthony Dale) in the industrial hub of Tekken City. Annually the 8 mega-corporations - under the collective banner of Iron Fist - organize The King Of Iron Fist tournament as a widely televised event to placate and scare the masses into submission and servitude. In the impoverished, burned out slums known as the Anvil young contraband runner Jin Kazama (Jon Foo) witnesses the murder of his mother Jun (Tamlyn Tomita) and his partner Bonner (John Pyper-Ferguson) by the Jackhammers. Kazama vows retaliation against Tekken CEO Heihachi and, much against the will of girlfriend Kara (Mircea Monroe), enters The King Of Iron Fist tournament. After his surprise victory against disgraced combatant Marshall Law (Cung Le, as Cung Lee) in Open Call Jin is allowed to enter the tournament. There he immediately befriends capoeira fighter Christie Monteiro (Kelly Overton) and lands a sponsorship from boxer Steve Fox (Luke Goss). In short order Kazama wins the crowds, becomes known as "The People's Choice", and a conventient representative for the rebel insurgents. Defeating anything and everyone in his way Jin will soon to able to face the man responsible for his mother’s death, whether that is the person he has in mind is something else…

As can be deduced from the above plot summary, McElroy was never above stealing when it suited him and Tekken is a beautiful illustrative example of just that. In Tekken the world is ruled by rivaling companies competing in a televised martial arts tournament. During said tournament one of the lead’s allies is blackmailed into betraying him, and a potential love interest of the lead is abducted at one point. The lead character is a small and unimportant everyman who leads a group of insurgents against a despotic, in this case corporate, ruler thus defying the existing power structure. If all of this sounds nothing like the Tekken video games and more than a passing resemblance to Heatseeker (1995) by way of Gladiator (2000), then you’d be right because that’s exactly what it is. It’s bad enough when Hollywood starts ripping off Albert Pyun. The story might be typical underdog fodder and not faithful in the slightest to the video game franchise it is supposedly adapting yet there are more than enough shots of Candice Hillebrand’s pink leather corset and Kelly Overton’s toned ass to make forget you about such trivialities as story and plot. To dispense with the obvious, Tekken is the movie that Heatseeker (1995) always wanted to be. If they were going to take liberties with the source material they could at least have traded Anna Williams for the more interesting Julia Chang, King, Combot, or Ling Xiaoju. Alan B. McElroy actually sank low enough to rip off Hawaiian trash specialist Albert Pyun. No wonder Namco Bandai disassociated themselves from Tekken when it was released.

What really kills Tekken is not so much the story it tells, which is pretty standard Hollywood fare, but its apparently random throwing together of characters from the original game as well as those from the sequels 2 to 6. Characters are true to their in-game counterparts in appearance but little else. Where the adaptation takes the most artistic license is with the relations and subplots between all of the characters. In Tekken the video game Eddy Gordo (Lateef Crowder) mentored Christie Monteiro into capoeira (not so here); Nina (Candice Hillebrand, as Candicé Hillebrand) and Anna Williams (Marian Zapico) indeed are sisters-assassins but no mention is made of their rivalry or Nina being Steve Fox’ biological mother; a throwaway line confirms that Bryan Fury (Gary Daniels) is a cyborg but nothing is made of the fact beyond that; Yoshimitsu (Gary Ray Stearns, as Gary Stearns) is not an alien lifeform, but reduced merely to an “advanced swordsman”. Tekken even goes as far as to invent an unnecessary non-canon love interest for Jin in the form Kara, and then proceeds to do absolutely nothing with her. Kara does nothing what the plot couldn't have done with Christie Monteiro. The only thing that McElroy has kept is the animosity between Kazuya Mishima and his father Heihachi and that Jin Kazama is Kazuya’s son and rightful heir to the Tekken empire. From a narrative standpoint Jin Kazama is an understandable choice as he’s the most internally conflicted but a Paul Phoenix, King, Julia Chang, Combot, or Ling Xiaoyu wouldn’t have hurt. Tekken excels in including any number of beloved characters and doing absolutely nothing beyond fanservice to develop them. To make matters worse none of the characters fight in their respective disciplines. In short, Mortal Kombat (1995) or DOA: Dead or Alive (2006) this certainly is not.

The bar is set admittedly low for video game adaptations and Tekken is a lot better than it has any right to be. Tekken is far from the worst of its kind but could have been a lot more than what it ended up being. By trying to please everybody, Tekken ends up pleasing nobody instead. Everything is decidedly vanilla from the start and it never attempts to pay lipservice to the mythos it’s adapting. Some of the creative choices are understandable, others not so much. There’s plenty of beef- and cheesecake to be had and Tekken doesn’t shy away from blood when it matters. Like any post-The Cell (2000) production the color palette is gritty, and desaturated for the sake of “realism”. Tekken (as a video game) was memorable – just like Street Fighter II: the World Warrior before it – because of its rich, candy-colored costumes and arenas. Up until at least Tekken 4 the world was full of warm, deep colors as it became thematically darker. Neither Dwight H. Little nor Alan B. McElroy seem to have understood this. As such Tekken is stereotypical Hollywood product churned out without much care or love. Tekken unfortunately is nothing more than a sum of its various individual parts, and that’s a shame. This could have been so much more, or better, if somebody had cared.

Plot: martial artists from all over the world compete in tournament on remote island

The “most controversial game of 1993” as Electronic Gaming Monthly called it was created by Ed Boon and John Tobias for Midway (now NetherRealm Studios). Whereas Street Fighter II: the World Warrior went for a very Japanese and anime style, Mortal Kombat became infamous for its photorealistic models and blood-splattering violence. Early in its ten-month development Mortal Kombat was to star Belgian martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme. Van Damme was in negotations with another company for a video game that eventually never materialized. Boon and Tobias parodied Van Damme with Johnny Cage, who does a split-groin punch as Van Damme famously did in Bloodsport (1988). Likewise had fellow action star Steven Seagal his own Genesis and SNES video game in production in 1993 with The Final Option. It was to be developed by Riedel Software Productions, Inc. and publisher TecMagik for an intended 1994 release before being inevitably pushed back to 1995 and subsequently cancelled. As these things tend to go Mortal Kombat was a smash hit in the arcades and led to a lucrative and enduring franchise popular to this day. The game’s over-the-top violence and the ensuing controversy and protests from parent groups led to the conception of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) and its now-familiar rating system.

Mortal Kombat wasn’t the first video game to be adapted for the big-screen. Super Mario Bros. (1993), Double Dragon (1994), and Street Fighter (1994) all tanked at the box office for various reasons but more importantly because they fundamentally misunderstood their source material. In fact Jean-Claude Van Damme was offered the role of Johnny Cage but he declined it to star in Street Fighter (1994). Mortal Kombat was only the second feature for British director Paul W.S. Anderson. Anderson would later helm the science-fiction/horror romp Event Horizon (1997) as well as being the creative force behind the Resident Evil franchise (2002–2016) starring his wife Milla Jovovich. He also was responsible for Death Race (2008), a remake/prequel to Paul Bartel’s subversive Roger Corman produced shlock classic Death Race 2000 (1975) with David Carradine and a young Sylvester Stallone. Mortal Kombat spent three weeks at number one at the U.S. box office, netting $70 million domestically and over $122 million worldwide. Not bad for a silly fantasy retelling of the Bruce Lee martial arts classic Enter the Dragon (1973) on a modest $18 million budget. Anderson would do the same thing again, this time as producer, 11 years later (and only to a fraction of the success) with the lovably zany DOA: Dead Or Alive (2006) and Tekken (2010) following with even less fanfare and star power a few years down the line. Rare/Midway’s completely over-the-top Killer Instinct from 1994 remains curiously unadaptated.

Three martial artists from different walks of life are summoned to a tournament on a mysterious island somewhere in Asia. Liu Kang (Robin Shou) is a Shaolin monk on self-imposed exile in America. He's currently in the midst of a massive crisis of faith as he puts no stock in the long-held prophecy the temple elders insist he's irrevocably entwined with and the destiny he's bound to fulfill. Instead Kang is concerned more with avenging the slaying of his younger brother Chan (Steven Ho). Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) is an egocentric action movie star whose detractors in the tabloid press write him off as a phony and he looks for any and every opportunity to prove them wrong. Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, as Bridgette Wilson) is a headstrong military officer in pursuit of fugitive Black Dragon cartel crimelord Kano (Trevor Goddard) who’s responsible for killing her partner. The three have been selected by the god of thunder Lord Raiden (Christopher Lambert) to defend Earthrealm in Mortal Kombat, the outcome of which will decide the fate of their own world. To ensure victory in Mortal Kombat shapeshifting sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) has bend the wills of fallen Lin Kuei warrior Sub-Zero (François Petit), the wraith/revenant Scorpion (Chris Casamassa), and Reptile (Keith Cooke, as Keith H. Cooke) as well as current tournament Grand Champion, the four-armed Shokan warlord Goro (Kevin Michael Richardson, as Kevin Richardson). The trio find an unlikely ally in leatherclad member of nobility Kitana (Talisa Soto), the enslaved princess of Outworld.

Instead of a renowned high-profile action director as Yuen Woo-ping, Ching Siu-tung, or Corey Yuen Mortal Kombat has to content itself with Pat E. Johnson and Robin Shou. Granted, Shou worked his way up from the dregs of Hong Kong cinema through a number of action - and martial arts movies, most notably In the Line of Duty III (1988) with Cynthia Khan and Michiko Nishiwaki and Princess Madam (1989) from Godfrey Ho. Shou cut his teeth under directors as Phillip Ko Fei and Jing Wong and Mortal Kombat was his debut in the English-speaking world. That is discounting the Warin Hussein made-for-TV drama Forbidden Nights (1990) for a moment. Although superior to his Western counterparts Shou by and large showcases the exact same moves as when he started out in the late eighties. In its defense the action choreography (thankfully) gravitates more towards HK cinema than it does the other way around. Which doesn’t change the fact that the Pat E. Johnson routines tend to be clunky, slow-moving and rely heavily on quick cuts and rapid editing. The two duels choreographed by Shou (Johnny Cage-Scorpion and Liu Kang-Reptile) are much more graceful, balletic and fluent in comparison. These two fights alone evince that Shou’s time sharing the screen with Cynthia Khan, Moon Lee, and Yukari Oshima did indeed pay off. The “fight” between Liu Kang and Kitana (if it can be called that) isn’t so much a fight as it is foreplay. Sonya Blade fighting Kano early on is more of a brawl than anything else. The fights and action choreography have their own problems depending on who's directing. Initial screenings were found unsatisfactory by test audiences and more duels were demanded. As a result we, thankfully, were given the Liu Kang-Reptile duel.

Kevin Droney’s screenplay is often (and unjustly as far as we’re concerned) lambasted for its overt simplicity. We’ll concur that the three-act screenplay is economic in exposition and uses the rather formulaic backgrounds of the human kombatants for easily relatable stereotypical Hollywood character motivation. It acknowledges that the entire affair is preposterous and it sells those aspects wonderfully well through a barrage of snarky witticism and comedic one-liners from Christopher Lambert (visibly enjoying the sheer silliness of it all) and Linden Ashby. Some of the best lines come from the constant sparring between self-absorbed Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade. That this Mortal Kombat isn't going to feature any of the game's infamous bloody Fatalities becomes clear enough when Lord Raiden intones that "Mortal Kombat isn't about death, but life." One of the greatest strengths of Mortal Kombat is that it takes itself just seriously enough to sell the ridiculousness of the game’s premise. As a product of Western fantasy Droney manages to at least pay lipservice to Asian values as honor, tradition, filial piety, ancestor veneration, and the perennial quest for spiritual enlightenment. Mortal Kombat takes its sweet time setting up the premise and central characters too. It isn’t until 45 minutes in that Mortal Kombat moves into the actual titular matches. From that point onward the plot never gets in the way of the multitude of fights. A point of contention is Sonya’s complete change of character around the halfway mark, but it is at least excuseable as Blade recognizes Shang Tsung’s superiority – and what better motivation for a character than a captive love interest?

To say that the romantic subplot between Liu Kang and Kitana is far-fetched and unnecessary is one thing. Kitana as a character gets all but two lines of character outline and then disappears to the background as a muse or sage-like figure. That Soto has few lines isn’t without reason as Vampirella (1996) would amply evince. Character development and plot are fairly minimal and only serve to progress the characters from one fighting scene to the next. Shang Tsung is an intelligent villain who schemes to delay his inevitable confrontation with Liu Kang. It is not until his resources are depleted, and his enforcer destroyed, that he engages Kang in battle. Lambert is visibly having fun in the role of Raiden and he spouts his lines with a grin. Linden Ashby possesses the right amount of underplayed arrogance, and his cynical witticisms greatly sell Johnny Cage as a believeable character. Liu Kang (who everybody simply calls “Lou”) experiences the greatest character arc, probably to compensate for Kitana’s arc being something of an informed attribute at the best of times. It’s anybody’s guess why Kitana is allowed so much freedom of movement when she’s vital to Shang Tsung’s scheme succeeding. Had Tsung kept Kitana out of bounds Kang would’ve never emerged victorious and Earthrealm would’ve merged with Outworld without drawing the ire of the Elder Gods. Obviously in a video game adaptation there’s bound to be bigger and smaller plotholes. As beautiful of a woman as Talisa Soto is an actress she most definitely is not.

If there’s anything that Mortal Kombat benefits from it’s the location shooting in Thailand and production design that faithfully recreates many of the game’s most beloved locations and fighting arenas. Among the featured landmarks are the Wat Phra Si Sanphet temple where Shang Tsung kills Chan during the opening, the Wat Ratchaburana temple where Liu Kang first meets Lord Raiden and Wat Chaiwatthanaram that stands in for the Temple Of Light. Then there’s Phra Nang beach where the “fight” between Liu Kang and Kitana takes place. Railay Beach is used as entrance to Shang Tsung’s Island. Sub-Zero, Scorpion and Reptile are true to their videogame counterparts as far as costumes is concerned. Sonya Blade won’t be seen wearing her revealing military outfit and Kitana’s black leather bustier/dominatrix corset, husky voice and bedroom eyes should provide more than enough fetish/fantasy fuel for any redblooded male even if her attire isn’t her signature blue. Likewise won’t Kitana’s metallic double-fans be making an appearance until the sequel two years later. The production design is positively lavish including recreations of the Courtyard, The Hall of Statues, The Tower, and seen in passing are both The Pit and the Portal. Most of the visual effects and CGI are good for the budget, except maybe that Reptile’s CGI form clearly shows its age, a thing that wouldn’t improve with the sequel. With an 18 million (one million exclusively for the Goro animatronic) budget the arenas, production - and character designs, and costumes are faithful to the games from whence they came.

Mortal Kombat is probably a lot better than it has any reason to be. It’s self-aware enough to realize that it is no match for the likes of Fist Of Legend (1994) or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) and it aspires to be nothing more than 90 minutes of vapid, chopsocky fun. As an Enter the Dragon (1973) variation you could do far worse. Keith Cooke headlined the turgid Albert Pyun martial arts feature Heatseeker (1995) and the sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997) helmed by cinematographer John R. Leonetti pretty much killed the franchise until Mortal Kombat: Rebirth (2010). With a soundtrack boasting everybody from Type O Negative, Fear Factory, and Napalm Death, to The Immortals, Traci Lords and Juno Reactor the Mortal Kombat soundtrack is a time-capsule for the nineties very much like Brainscan (1994) was. There's a peculiar aesthetic disconnect between the most controversial and violent fighting game of the day becoming a virtually bloodless affair through adaptation and Disneyfication. Mortal Kombat the movie is everything that Mortal Kombat the game wasn’t. Despite, or rather in spite of, that it somehow works. Mortal Kombat the movie understood the essence of Mortal Kombat the game. Nobody was coming into this expecting some kind of profound statement on the human condition. Nobody was aiming for some kind of cinematic high art. Mortal Kombat is fun, if you are prepared to meet it halfway. “Nothing in this world has prepared you for this.” For once the tagline was spot on.