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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 (2009) 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.

Plot: high-ranking military officer must diffuse hostage situation in Southeast Asia 

Street Fighter wasn’t the earliest big screen videogame adaptation - that dubious honor going to 1993’s Super Mario Bros. with Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo – but the first of two high-profile beat ‘em ups to get a Hollywood treatment. In two consecutive years the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat videogame properties were given a big-screen adaptation, and while one would go on to spawn a modest franchise, the other would be condemned to the relative obscurity of shlock cinema. Unfortunately the third big beat ‘em up of the 1990s, arcade hit Killer Instinct (1995) would not be given the same treatment. Jean-Claude van Damme should be applauded for attempting to bring the martial arts movie into the big-budget blockbuster realm. Street Fighter, remarkably light on actual streetfighting, is an 80s action movie with enough 90s cultural sensibilities and PG-13 trappings as to completely misunderstand what its popular titular source material was about.

Written and directed by 1980s action specialist Steven E. de Souza, famous for writing the Rambo plagiate Commando (1985), The Running Man (1987) and the surprise blockbuster Die Hard (1988) with sitcom star Bruce Willis, amongst many others, is a bog-standard 1980s action movie decked out with Street Fighter II: The World Warrior lore. The star of Street Fighter is Belgian martial artist Jean-Claude van Damme, who infamously declined the role of Johnny Cage, a character based on his likeness, in Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat (1995) to star in this adaptation instead. Boasting an all-star line-up the main cast of Street Fighter consists of Jean-Claude van Damme, Raúl Juliá, Ming-Na Wen, Kylie Minogue, Damian Chapa, Byron Mann, and Wes Studi. Unfortunately, despite being called Street Fighter there’s nary a hint of that much pined after street fighting.

Colonel William F. Guile (Jean-Claude van Damme) from the Allied Nations is ordered to diffuse a hostage situation in the Southeast Asian country of Shadaloo, somewhere on the borders of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand in present-day Myanmar. Reporting on the ongoing conflict from the bombed out capital city is wartime correspondent Chun-Li Zang (Ming-Na Wen), with the always smiling Balrog (Grand L. Bush), who just happens to box, and a Hawaiian shirted E. Honda (Peter Navy Tuiasosopo), once a sumo wrestler, as her crew. The country is under tyrannic repression of the despotic M. Bison (Raúl Juliá), a mentally unstable warlord with something of a god-complex. Assisting Guile on the mission are Cammy (Kylie Minogue) and Sergeant First Class T. Hawk (Gregg Rainwater). Guile posits to Chun-Li that in the war against Bison there’s no place for a “personal vendetta” after which he spents the rest of the movie enacting one of his own.

Bison, with his two generals Dee Jay (Miguel A. Núñez Jr.), a computer technician, and Russian wrestler Zangief (Andrew Bryniarski) in tow, conducts Skinnerian behavioural programming straight out of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange (1971) on imprisoned soldier Carlos “Charlie” Blanka (Robert Mammone), a composit of Blanka from Street Fighter 2, and Charlie Nash, Guile’s deceased friend from Street Fighter Alpha. Leading the experiment, against his will, is Dr. Dhalsim (Roshan Seth). In cahoots with Bison are weapon smuggler and crimelord Victor Sagat (Wes Studi) and his prize fighter/torero Vega (Jay Tavere), the latter of whom was about to face con men Ken (Damian Chapa) and Ryu (Byron Mann) in the fighting arena. Street Fighter recreates all the game’s iconic fighters and most of their costumes (be it in slightly altered form), but instead of pitting them against each other, the Steven E. de Souza screenplay adheres to action movie conventions.

The problem with Street Fighter isn’t so much the plot itself, which is a fairly typical mid-90s affair, but that it delivers something entirely else than the property it is supposedly adapting. The premise of Street Fighter as a video game was incredibly simple with enough background for each participant. Under any circumstance the script that was written for Street Fighter should have been its own property. As an adaptation from a different medium Street Fighter is an abject failure as it forces recognizable and beloved game characters into stock action archetypes. Far more damning is that Street Fighter is almost completely bereft of any actual street fighting. More egregiously was the decision to rewrite most of the characters’ backstories to fit the solid but industry standard action script that was used for the adaptation. De Souza’s script does everything you’d expect of an industry-standard action screenplay, but it is left wanting since this is supposed to be Street Fighter. Fights and confrontations do happen, but none of them resemble their source material – and the great majority of them are straightforward gunfights. The candy-colored production design shows that money was sunk into the project, but it only raises the question whether or not some of that money was better spent on a more fitting script. Mortal Kombat (1995) would prove that screen adaptations do work.

That de Souza chose to adapt the Street Fighter lore the way he did at least is understandable given his background. Guile is the typical redblooded, muscled American hero. Cammy is the leggy, hot blonde sidekick, Chun-Li Zang the damsel-in-distress, and the main plot is set in motion by a buddy cop movie convention. Shadaloo is a stand-in for the genre-typical Asian (or Latin/South American) banana republic, and de Souza’s screenplay even includes the obligatory hostage situation, a nod to Die Hard (1988) and Under Siege (1992). The Allied Nations troops obviously represent the United Nations, and Bison is the game equivalent to the kind of dictator played by everybody from Franco Nero to Dan Hedaya. Since this is a 1980s action movie at heart Guile hates members of the press with a zeal, and when a trace on Bison fails he thanks reporter Zang for being “almost useful.” Prior to the mission briefing a city intercom can be heard yelling “Good morning, Shadaloo!”, a line surely meant as a callback to the Barry Levinson dramedy Goodmorning, Vietnam! (1987) with Robin Williams. At one point Street Fighter invokes memories of Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977) and Zombi Holocaust (1980) by having a disguised assailant brandishing a Shadaloo tattoo.

Street Fighter had an ensemble cast of respected actors, reliable character actors, an action star at the height of his popularity, and a down-and-out pop star. Everybody seems to realize the glorious mess they’re in, and are making the best of the situation. Raúl Juliá hams it up in what would be his final role, and Jean-Claude van Damme’s futile attempts at emoting are only surpassed by his thick French accent. Ming-Na Wen looks absolutely ravishing in the various garments she gets to wear as Chun-Li even though sadly her blue cheongsam or qipao makes no appearance. Australian pop singer Kylie Minogue is able to hold her own despite her accent, and her acting is far better than that of Milly Carlucci. Robert Mammone’s transformation into Blanka makes him look like a sub-Lou Ferrigno with a paintjob only slightly better than that of Eurociné trashtacular Zombie Lake (1981). Damian Chapa resembles a scruffy Scott Wolf from Double Dragon, that other videogame adaptation from 1994. Just two years before Damian Chapa was in Under Siege (1992). A decade down the line Byron Mann would end up in the risible Pitof comic book adaptation Catwoman. It’s not nearly as bad as it’s made out to be, but it is far from what it ought have been. This ought to be an Enter the Dragon (1973) variation and not this bog standard Steven Seagall action flick.

Jean-Claude van Damme seems to be under the mistaken impression that Street Fighter is a serious project, which is understandable since he declined a role in Mortal Kombat (1995) over this. Kylie Minogue and Ming-Na Wen obviously can’t hold a candle to Cynthia Rothrock, Brigitte Lin, Yukari Oshima, or Cynthia Khan as they neither of them has that sort of balletic grace, and vast martial arts skill set. What doesn’t help matters either is that the fight choreography focuses on squarely brawn and not on acrobatic elegance and rhythm. The fights in Street Fighter make the average Cirio H. Santiago topless kickboxing movie or Godfrey Ho martial arts epic look legitimate. Van Damme, as a trained martial artist, fares better for obvious reasons but his acting chops haven’t improved much, or at all, since Bloodsport (1988) and Cyborg (1989). Kylie Minogue would truly hit rock bottom with her appearance in the Pauly Shore comedy Bio-Dome (1996) two years down the line. Those hoping to see Minogue sporting her signature kaki bathing suit, red cap, combat boots and schoolgirl ponytails better look elsewhere. At least Mortal Kombat (1995) had Puerto-Rican beauty Talisa Soto in her leather figure-fitting corset. There are enough explosions, fisticuffs, pseudo-witty one-liners and bone-crushing takedowns to satisfy the average action fan. A much bigger problem is that a movie called Street Fighter constantly forces its purported heroes into gunfights, chases, and any and every other situation besides a street fight.

It was Hollywood that ruined the original Street Fighter movie, and Jean-Claude van Damme is the least complicit in its subsequent mishandling. With a specialist director and a reworked script it could’ve matched Mortal Kombat (1995) is sheer efficiency. The ever-present humor glosses the game’s darker story elements and every other character scene is followed by a Chun-Li costume change (her Arabic dance sequence in Sagat’s underground fighting arena, or the Thieves' Market, is particularly memorable) or some comedic interlude. The role of Ryu was perhaps a better fit for Keith Cooke than Byron Mann. While Mann obviously was a much better actor Cooke had the actual fighting chops. Ryu is a supporting character instead of the lead, Dhalsim is transformed into a scientist, and Cammy is one of the good guys. Suffice to say, Street Fighter gets more wrong than it gets right, and never recovers after making Shadaloo, Bison’s terrorist organisation, a country. There are more plotholes than in the average Albert Pyun production, and every major event is so telegraphed as to not rattle any cages. Street Fighter’s ill-repute is, unfortunately, well deserved. In short: this should have been better.