Directed by: Paul W. S. Anderson  Simon McQuoid  || Produced by: Lawrence Kansanoff , James Wan, Todd Garner, Simon McQuoid, E. Bennett Walsh 
Screenplay by: Kevin Droney , Greg Russo, Dave Callaham  || Starring: Linden Ashby, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Robin Shou, Bridgette Wilson, Talisa Soto, Christopher Lambert , Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin, Chin Han, Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada 
Music by: George S. Clinton  Benjamin Wallfisch  || Cinematography: John R. Leonetti , Germain McMicking  || Edited by: Martin Hunter , Dan Lebental, Scott Gray  || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 101 minutes , 110 minutes  || 1 = Mortal Kombat (1995), 2 = Mortal Kombat (2021)
I have never been the biggest gamer, but every few years I’ll experience waves of enthusiasm for a particular genre (e.g. shooters, role-playing games, stealth games, etc.) or specific acclaimed titles (e.g. Splinter Cell , Halo [2001, 2004, 2007], The Elder Scrolls [2002, 2006, 2011], DOOM [2016, 2020], Dying Light , etc.) similar to if lesser than the joys I experience year round as a cinephile. One of the first videogames I embraced was Mortal Kombat 4 (1997), the final arcade title of the popular fantasy-themed fighting game series developed by Midway Games. Paul W. S. Anderson’s 1995 film adaptation of the videogame franchise was an integral part of my childhood fascination with the controversial, ultraviolent videogame, which my parents only allowed me to watch if I looked away when the villain, a charismatic Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, sucked characters’ souls from their bodies.
Reappraising that film years later, I noted not only many of its drawbacks that went unnoticed by my 7-10 year-old self (e.g. its terrible computer generated imagery [CGI], its bland cast, its inconsistent fight choreography, etc.), but also its perplexing lack of blood, gore, or anything close to the explicit, over-the-top violence fundamental to the videogames’ identity. The inexplicable teen-friendly violence of Anderson’s 1995 film (henceforth, MK 95; the movie was rated PG-13, or suitable for ages 13+) puzzles me to this day (see also Anderson’s Alien vs. Predator ), even more so given numerous Mortal Kombat (henceforth, MK) fans’ vehement nostalgia for the property.
To its credit, MK 95 emphasizes the game series’ fantasy lore well and takes its time establishing both its main cast (Robin Shou, Linden Ashby, Christopher Lambert, Bridgette Wilson, Tagawa) and the source material’s weird (re: ridiculous) fighting tournament diegesis. The thing I appreciate the most about MK 95 and what best compares to the 2021 reboot (henceforth, MK 21) is its pacing; the film clocks at 101 minutes, slowly unfolding its fantasy backdrop to its characters with minimal exposition and staging its fight sequences with adequate buildup. These attributes, the movie’s pace and sufficient production value behind its fantasy worldbuilding (e.g. sets, props, various practical FX), are perhaps the main reasons too many older Millennials remember it fondly.
I say too many because, in this humble cinephile’s assessment, the movie is both an overall lame adaptation of its eponymous interactive source material and a bad action movie. If its surrealist fantasy tone and practical FX hold up, its action filmmaking and digital FX most certainly do not. The fight choreography alternates between pretty good (e.g. Ashby’s Johnny Cage vs. Chris Casamassa’s Scorpion; Shou’s Lui Kang vs. Tagawa) and bad (e.g. Wilson’s Sonya Blade vs. Trevor Goddard’s Kano, Shou vs. Talisa Soto’s Kitana), while MK 95’s plentiful CGI was dated even for its time (for reference, Jurassic Park  and Titanic  preceded and followed by two years, respectfully). On top of these weaknesses, Shou’s protagonist and female leads Wilson and Soto are flatlines, while its censored violence makes Anthony and Joe Russo’s Marvel movies (e.g. The Winter Soldier , Civil War , Infinity War ) look hardcore. I’ll grant the film suffices for a cornball throwback to the mid-1990s, but a serious action film? No way.
MK 21, on the other hand, the directorial debut of one Simon McQuoid and a reboot of the film adaptation franchise some 24 years after the critically panned Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997), both takes its mystical, graphic novel-esque lore seriously and does justice to that lore’s grisly, hyperbolic violence. Its production-design is as good if not better than Anderson’s Hollywood breakout, while its digital FX are on par with superhero blockbusters multiple times its budget and its cast work far better with the series’ cornball one-liners and cheesy, melodramatic dialogue. Its cinematic violence and fight choreography are middling to above average given higher modern standards for dedicated action movies (e.g. Indonesian cinema’s The Raid [2011, 2014], The Night Comes for Us ; Hollywood’s John Wick [2014, 2017, 2019]; Korean cinema’s The Man from Nowhere , The Wolf Brigade , etc.), though certain characters’ special abilities (e.g. Hiroyuki Sanada’s Scorpion, Joe Taslim’s Sub-Zero) and the franchise’s ample bloodshed give its action a semi-unique flavor.
McQuoid’s reboot has weaknesses that are a function of its contemporary industry environment, however, much like its strengths; its overreliance on CGI, which, sure, is far more convincing than the FX of any 1990s or 2000s film, still cheapens the weight of its close-quarters combat. Its hilarious “fatality” moves (gory finishing techniques made popular from the games) notwithstanding, its commendable FX nevertheless transform multiple fight sequences into superhero-esque set-pieces that aren’t as interesting as its more grounded fight sequences between Sanada and Taslim, for example. Sometimes digital FX enhance MK 21’s cinematic violence, but just as often they water it down.
Perhaps the single greatest flaw of MK 21, however, is its overall narrative pace that leaves the movie feeling as if it had 10-15 minutes of scene transitions, establishing shots, and visual storytelling ripped out of it. I appreciate a genre film that doesn’t need to be 2.5 hours long given countless bloated superhero “epics” throughout the 2010s, but the end result is MK 21’s clunky intertitles, verbose exposition, and hackneyed storytelling rhythm.
With all that said, the postpubescent action fan in me is no longer satisfied by the cheap FX, boring characters, and censored violence of Paul W. S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat (1995), while at least Simon McQuoid’s 2021 reboot succeeds better on its terms, showcasing the franchise’s violent iconography on film in uncompromised form. Both films have significant weaknesses to the extent I wouldn’t recommend either beyond action junkies; however, anyone who thinks Mortal Kombat (2021) is equivalent to, let alone lesser than Mortal Kombat (1995), is smoking some serious nostalgia-fueled reefer.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Mortal Kombat (1995) is an amusing 1990s genre-hybrid that popularized Hollywood’s long, impotent trend of adapting videogame properties to film, including much of director Anderson’s filmography (see the Resident Evil [2002-2016] movies). However, it’s no great shakes at an actual movie, while this latest Hollywood franchise reboot, Mortal Kombat (2021), generates its fair share of primal bloodlust and testosterone-fueled swagger thanks to a much better cast, better one-liners, and an adult target audience. Its inconsistent CGI and problematic pacing, however, prevent it from winning over those who aren’t fans of its franchise label or action genre.
—> MK 95 is NOT RECOMMENDED, regardless of its older Millennial-fans’ rosy retrospection, while I’m ON THE FENCE with regards to MK 21 and its joyful yet inconsistent ultraviolence.
? If an actor is near the top of their movie’s official cast list, they have significant screentime, but if they’re near the bottom, they don’t.
MK 1, 2, and 3 were an integral part of my pre-adolescence although I never found myself pining for a proper film adaptation to extend their shelf life once Tekken came along and took over as the next king of fighting game.
I ditched most of my favorite fighting games as they lost their playable sheen and began featuring sprawling and convoluted stories (I want to stress playability and the user friendliness of playing the game. Shocking, I know! I mostly play Dark Souls and the latest GTA release now).
Sure, I was drawn to the back stories in the booklet that came with the MK3 cartridge. But that 1995 cringe fest was a serious cause of early disillusionment with video games made into a movie. No fatalities? No stages and evil buildings? No reason to ponder the possibilities of a more faithful attempt.
As regards videogame adaptations, the RE reference is an apt shout. Paul WS Anderson’s debasement of a hallowed video game franchise (for me at least) is at once a shrewd standalone money-making spinoff and a brazen self insert for his wife. But with no callback to the earlier games’ sense of besiegement and emphasis on labyrinthean architecture, I told that franchise to fuck itself after two movies.
Still, Apocalypse remains a guilty pleasure that I’ll defend for eternity even if a promising reboot is now in the works. You can see my comments on that film on my site.
Agreed with regards to Tekken vs. MK. I’ve spent many more hours with Tekken than MK despite my love for ultraviolence simply due to the fact that Tekken was the better game: Better controls, balance, etc.
To this day, the nostalgic appeal of MK 95 baffles me. Critically it has never been reappraised the way, say, John Carpenter’s filmography has been, or even Anderson’s own Event Horizon (1997), the latter of which garners some respect for its inventive, original screenplay and striking imagery. MK 95 doesn’t even hold up as a worthwhile adaptation of a better IP because it’s so obviously censored.
I commented on RE Apocalypse on your site. I have gone back and forth over whether I should marathon that entire series for another “My Take On… ” essay.