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Plot: kickboxer is coerced into partaking in clandestine tournament

It's entirely within the realm of possibly that in 1995 Albert Pyun was spreading himself a bit thin, creatively. Not only did he direct the first Nemesis (1992) sequel Nemesis 2: Nebula, around the same time he shot three films on location in the Philippines. In a bout of creative economics he lensed the Bond imitation Spitfire, the pseudo-realistic thriller Hong Kong ’97 (1994) and the the Christopher Borkgren written cyberpunk martial arts romp Heatseeker. Despite a mildly promising premise, a relative nobody in the starring role, and a swath of Pyun regulars in tow Heatseeker looks exactly as lethargic and turgid as it sounds. It certainly won’t bother explaining why it is called Heatseeker. If the wretched Bloodmatch (1991) had anything going for it, it was Andy Sidaris babe Hope Marie Carlton. Heatseeker has to content itself with sometime Pyun muse Tina Cote.

In the far-flung future present of 2019 Sianon Corporation marketing executive Tsiu Tung (Norbert Weisser), who isn’t Asian despite his name, has devised the ultimate scheme for dominating the fledging international cybernetics market. In a clandestine, globally broadcast, mixed martial arts tournament rival corporations will be able to present their sponsored fighters, and the eventual winner, and its parent company, will monopolize the cybernetics market. In an unexpected turn of events Chance O’Brien (Keith Cooke), the last fully human competitor and one who is vocal in his condemnation of cybernetics, defeats Sianon grand champion Xao (Gary Daniels) in the ring. To ensure victory for the hosting house Sianon decks out their prize fighter with in-house enhancements in a sequence looking like a skid row re-enactment of the assembly scenes in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).

At the post-match press conference O’Brien and his fiancée/manager Jo (Tina Cote, as Tina Coté) announce their engagement, and they are soon beset by Tung with his price fighter in attendance. Refusing to bend knee to the interests of corporate overlords O’Brien and Jo head off to Paris, France for a short romantic getaway. Jo is abducted by Tung’s goons and implanted with a mind control chip, the workings of which will, of course, never be explained. Under aegis of Tung she is forced to train Sianon prize fighter Xao under the threat of bodily harm. To make matters worse, Jo is forced upon Xao because Tang apparently mistakes physical affection for love, neither of which Jo is prepared or willing to give. Xao himself doesn’t seem comfortable with the arrangement, and will often look dismayed – or that may just be Daniels’ complete inability to emote combined with the cold looking azure contacts he is forced to wear. To get O’Brien to do his bidding Tung threatens to kill Jo if he doesn’t follow his plan. How killing Jo is supposed to be beneficial to Xao’s training regiment is, of course, conveniently glossed over. Neither does Tung seem to have a contingency plan in place in case O’Brien doesn’t want to partake in the clandestine tournament, and is prepared to sacrifice Jo to facilitate his escape.

In tradition of Bloodsport (1988) and Kickboxer (1989) – wherein Jean-Claude van Damme is as oiled up and flexible as Cooke is here - the only way to avenge the killing/taking of one’s sibling or paramour is by partaking in an underground martial arts tournament, or a full-contact kumite. Checking in at his hotel in New Manila a helpful receptionist (Hazel Huelves) points him to the right direction to enroll in the tournament. The tournament is, to avoid all possible confusion, simply called The Tournament. Supposedly because The Arena, Kubate, or Mortal Kombat were already taken. As genre convention dictates upon arriving in the Filipino capital of New Manila, O’Brien has barely left the plane or he is accosted by street thugs, and robbed of both his clothing and whatever possessions he brought along - an old Filipino action movie convention that also could be found in the Cirio H. Santiago topless kung fu classics TNT Jackson (1974), Naked Fist (1981) and Angelfist (1993). It is here at O’Brien runs into Bradford (Thom Mathews), a corporate executive acting as his own sponsor and quite literally defending his firm in the ring. Bradford is supposed to act has a buddy to O’Brien, but nothing substantial is made of it. A subplot wherein Tung coerces Bradford to sell O’Brien down the river is brought up, but has no visible effect on the main plot.

As Chance works his way through the early part of The Tournament he attracts the attention of the Zanac Corporation, who decide to sponsor him. Corporate assistant Liu (Yau Chau-Yuet or Selena Mangharan, as Selena Mangh), who everybody refers to as “Lou”, makes sure O’Brien remains properly motivated. Eventually Chance faces reigning champion Xao, who multiple characters lovingly call “a tin man”, an obvious reference the Wonderful Wizard of Oz novel, who despite being almost completely rebuilt from cybernetic components still doesn’t reach his full potential as a fighter. Xao, like LL Cool J before him, needs love to unlock his true power as a cybernetic combatant. When O’Brien defeats Xao in the ring a second time, supposedly due to the fact that O’Brien is empowered by love, the latter sacrifices himself by taking a bullet meant for Jo. O’Brien, dimwitted as always, walks away from the situation oblivious to Xao’s rather blatant and obvious heroic self-sacrifice.

Unlike the vastly superior Mortal Kombat (1995) or the Jean-Claude van Damme box office bomb Street Fighter (1994), Heatseeker hardly, if ever, manages to deliver on its promise. The mildly interesting premise, the stylized look, and even the fights come across as overly stilted and daft. The cybernetic implants and upgrades are heavily emphasized in the mess of a screenplay but it’s impossible to tell which combatants are enhanced and which are not. Neither do said implants seem to give any of the more enhanced combatants any strategic upperhand or special skills. One of the bigger, and more important, problems for Heatseeker is the unequivocally flat and unenergetic action choreography. The fights universally and uniformly are clunky, slow, and lack in athleticism, rhythm, and grace.

If this had been a Hong Kong production at least the fights would have been good. Not so here. Further complicating matters is that there's a complete absence of interesting camera angles, every scene is shot in soft focus, and the fights are easily the most boring aspect of the production. A great deal is made of Heatseeker being about a full-contact kumite yet it's practically bloodless and the injuries of the cybernetic combatants are shown with small, budget-efficient exposing of wiring and circuitry embedded in human flesh. Each cybernetic combatant hits the canvas with the expected eruption of sparks, vapors of smoke, and light electronic buzzing. It’s a sad day for a budget-deficient martial arts movie when the referee (Mary Courtney) becomes the only aspect of a fight worth paying attention to.

Somewhere in Heatseeker there’s a worthwhile little martial arts movie, or a passable character study of cybernetic enhanced martial artists in search and contemplation of the nature of humanity, and their loss thereof - or a protest against the corporization and mass commercialization of popular sports entertainment. All of which director Albert Pyun, or most likely screenwriter Christopher Borkgren, has no interest in exploring to any degree. It’s interesting that two of Pyun’s more worthy offerings were far more grounded in reality than his usual dystopian cyberpunk vehicles. Hong Kong ’97 benefitted from having two lead stars (Robert Patrick and Ming-Na Wen) that could actually act, and Spitfire was a popcorn spy/adventure flick in the truest sense of the word. That Heatseeker, much more in Pyun’s comfort zone than anything else that year, is so immensely, unforgivingly stale that it might as well signal that Pyun was spreading himself a tad too thin creatively that year. Heatseeker makes one long for the glorious incompetence of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.

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.