Thoughts on ‘Street Fighter’

Last week we looked at a video game movie that worked. This time we’re tackling one that…doesn’t. At least, not in the way the filmmakers probably intended.

1991’s Street Fighter II was one of the most popular and influential fighting games ever made, laying foundations that the genre has built upon to this day. As video game movies began to take off, it was a natural consequence that it would get an adaptation. People were still excited about video-game movies at the time, and while they had no idea how to go about it, they hadn’t yet realized the fact.

Capcom and Universal were thrilled at the idea of Street Fighter movie. They got Steven de Souza, writer of Die Hard, Commando, and 48 Hours to direct and write the screenplay, and cast white-hot action-star Jean-Claude Van Damme as the lead. Everything seemed set for an action movie classic.

The phrase “this was a brilliant idea on paper,” springs to mind.

In the southeastern nation of Shadaloo, civil war is raging against the megalomaniac General Bison, whose forces are armed with high-tech weaponry to compensate for their smaller numbers. The ‘Allied Nations’ (AN) forces are led by Colonel Guille, an American officer with a comically thick Belgian accent, as well as his second-in-commands Cammy White and T. Hawk.

The plot is kicked off when Bison kidnaps a group of aid workers and ransoms them for twenty-billion dollars, threatening to execute them after three days (his control room helpfully has a huge digital countdown). He also captures Guille’s friend, Charlie Blanka, and starts to turn him into a supersoldier under the supervision of the idealistic, but cowed Dr. Dhalsim. Bison’s troops also include Jamaican computer wiz Dee Jay and dim-witted Russian strongman Zangief.

At the same time, ne’er-do-well conmen Ryu and Ken attempt to rip off the dangerous underworld boss Sagat, only to be found out and pitted against his chief henchman Vega before all of them are arrested. Guille recruits the two to work undercover to find Bison’s lair.

Meanwhile, hot-shot reporter Chun-Li is also working to track down Bison to avenge her murdered father, with the help of her news crew, Hawaiian sumo-wrestler E. Honda and boxer Balrog.

Unlike Mortal Kombat, I had not seen this movie all the way through before watching it for this series, though I had seen parts of if and of course knew many of the story beats and lines. Having now seen it, it’s…a very strange movie.

We’re adapting the world’s most famous fighting game. Let’s structure it as more or less a Jame Bond movie, only set during a fictionalized version of the Vietnam War. The all-American hero will be played by a thickly-accented Belgian, the 7’ Thai kickboxer bad guy by a 5’10” Cherokee, and we’ll also throw in an Australian pop star and one of the supporting cast of Gandhi.The game’s protagonists will become comic relief, we’ll include a lot of goofy sound-effects and odd jokes, the villain will be plotting to take over the world with a race of green-skinned, fright-wigged super-soldiers, and to play him we’ll cast a classically trained dramatic actor who has zero martial arts experience and who is currently terminally ill.

It’s hard to know where to begin with Street Fighter. It is such an odd, stupid, ill-conceived mess that you could talk about all that’s wrong with it for hours. To begin with, as indicated above, the plot is all over the place. We have the hostage crisis. We have the war plot. We have Bison wanting to make a race of atomic supermen to conquer the world. We have Chun-Li’s quest for revenge. We have Ryu and Ken going undercover with Sagat. And all the while it’s not clear just what Bison’s position even is: is he the rebel or the ruling power? If the latter, how come Guille can’t find him? Just who is fighting him apart from the AN? Is there a Shadaloo government? Or if Bison is the government, is there a local rebellion? Where are they during all this? We never see them. And why is Colonel Guille apparently in charge of the entire American Expeditionary Force, and why is he such a public figure that he gets his face on the cover of Newsweek as Bison’s arch-foe?

Even apart from the many plot holes, the whole premise of the film is just a weird choice. So, you’re making a movie out of a fighting game. Indeed, the top fighting game in the world. What basic plot structure do you employ? A tournament film? A crime film? Something like the classic Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan films? Maybe a revenge plot? No, apparently you make a sort-of James Bond movie crossed with a Vietnam War flick (complete with a radio anchor beginning his broadcast with, “Goooood Morning, Shadaloo!”).

This is such a strange decision. Who looks at the game and thinks ‘pseudo-Vietnam War’? (My own suspicion is that this entire plot exists to justify Bison’s military garb by making him a would-be tin-pot dictator).

But the problem is not just that this is completely unrelated to the plot of the game, such as it was. Like most if not all fighting games of the time, the plot to Street Fighter II was very thin, though certainly enough to build something interesting on. No, the problem is that this set up really doesn’t allow for – indeed, almost precludes – the kind of one-on-one martial arts duels that were the entire point and appeal of the game.

(To be fair, this is still less weird than the Blade Runner-aesthetic adopted for the Super Mario Brothers movie of a year earlier).

That’s really the point on which the film collapses (well, one of many, but perhaps the most fundamental): there’s very little actual fighting in this movie (and nothing at all that could be called ‘street fighting’, leaving the title bizarrely out of place), and most of what is there consists of the characters dispatching a random goon with one or two moves before moving on to the next one. At one point Ryu faces off with Vega in a cage match clearly inspired by Vega’s stage in the game. There’s a long build up and then…Guille bursts through the wall and arrests everyone just as the fight’s about to begin. Who the hell thought that one up?

Most of the action consists of gun battles and explosions. There are only a handful of real one-on-one fights in the film, and not only are they all pretty short, but the vast majority of them are crammed into the final ten-fifteen minutes and inter cut with one another.

Now, it is just conceivable that the film could work without the fights if they focused on making full use of the game’s large cast of colorful characters. The trouble is (and this is the other – or an other – big problem) that almost all of them are either completely irrelevant, all-but-unrecognizable, or both.

We’ll talk more about the fighting, such as it is, and the characters, such as they are, later. For now, back to the plot. So, Bison kidnaps a bunch of AN aid workers and holds them for a twenty-billion dollar ransom. Then Guille offends Bison with an off-color arm gesture, which enrages Bison so much that he somehow hacks into the TV signal to turn it into a two-way video chat, where each can see the other and talk (just what Guille is looking at when he talks to Bison through Chun-Li’s television camera is a mystery. This happens twice in the film, by the way, making me question whether the filmmakers understood how television works). Upon learning that one of his captives is Guille’s friend, Bison decides to use him as the test subject for his super-soldier program.

Except that, according to his later statements, the race of atomic supermen was Bison’s main goal in the first place, but I guess he wasn’t going to begin his experiments until Guille annoyed him and he found out one of the captives was his friend? Was he just waiting to get started on his world-domination plot until he got hold of one of Guille’s buddies? He was all set to execute the guy a minute earlier.

Meanwhile, Guille wants to go after Bison, but can’t pinpoint his location except the general area. Apparently, Guille has no surveillance planes or satellites or, heck, helicopters on hand to conduct reconnaissance. Otherwise he might not have needed to send a couple of con-men undercover with Bison’s supplier to find the giant temple crawling with uniformed guards and surrounded by radar dishes. But then Ryu and Ken (the protagonists of the game, by the way) would have had even less reason to be in this film, and God knows they don’t need that.

Speaking of which, we meet Ryu and Ken trying to swindle Sagat by giving him nerf guns instead of real guns. Now, in the first place, it’s incredibly stupid that they ever thought that would work (did they think no one would so much as touch the weapons before paying?). But then there’s a bit where Sagat ‘tests’ the duo by having his men aim the weapons at them and fire, saying “Surely you’re not afraid of your own weapons.” Does Sagat think that a real firearm is so enchanted that it would never harm the man who sold it?

(This is just one example of the sometimes nonsensical dialogue in the film. At another point Sagat asks Ken “Are you with me or against me?” to which Ken quips “Is this multiple choice?” Uh, yes, it is. He gave you two choices. How is that even a joke?)

Sagat punishes the duo by subjecting Ryu to a cage match with his henchman Vega, promising Ken that he’ll be next. But just when we’re daring to hope there might be some fighting in this movie, Guille bursts through the wall in an armored truck and declares everyone under arrest. Later, still fuming about his inability to find Bison (again, have you tried searching the area you know he is in?), Guille notices Ryu and Ken fighting some of Sagat’s men in the prison yard and decides to recruit them to go undercover in Sagat’s organization. I don’t know, I can’t really see Sagat trusting these two idiots, even if they help him escape. More likely he’d dump by the side of the road and call it even because he didn’t kill them.

Their escape also involves hijacking the prison truck while it’s still parked in the middle of an army base, instead of waiting for it to drive them outside the city. I mean, it was a set-up, but still.

Though I will give the film credit that it at least shows refugees, people being hurt by the war, and uses the sight of them to justify Ryu and Ken’s accepting Guille’s offer. That was a good touch.

I also like Chun-Li’s infiltration of Guille’s headquarters. Security is much too light, of course, but she gets some good moves, like where she watches from a staircase as a guard passes by, then flips over the railing as he goes up the stairs behind her.

Later on, there’s a scene where Bison and Sagat are having an arm’s deal, and Chun-Li and her crew plan to assassinate him with a truck-bomb (which is kind of dark for a heroic character: apparently she doesn’t mind blowing up any servants or entertainers present). The trio run into Ryu and Ken, and the film then plays it as if the plot was foiled and the trio captured because the two con-men were trying to save their own skins (after they wandered into a Mexican standoff between Bison and Sagat because they somehow failed to notice either the screaming servant girls running past them or the two large groups of men pointing guns at each other. Also because they somehow thought it was a good idea to go back to the place they were just told is about to be the target of a bombing).

But the thing is, Chun-Li was the one who decided to send Bison another two-way television message gloating over his impending fate. Even then, it still might have worked had she had waited to do so until after she’d set the bomb, or at least if she hadn’t provided live footage of the approaching truck (no, I don’t know how she has that), giving ample time for everyone to escape even after standing around gawking for a bit. I mean, what did she think was going to happen?

Though the scene does feature one of the funniest (intentional) jokes in the film, where Zangief sees the truck coming on the television screen and shouts, “Quick, change the channel!”

We also learn in this scene that E. Honda and Balrog are after Bison because he ruined their sumo and boxing careers, respectively. So, a drug-lord / dictator in southeast Asia really thought it worth his time to wreck the sumo wrestling career of a guy in Hawaii? I mean, petty as he was, I can’t picture Mao spending the time or effort to sabotage the career of, say, Barbara Ann Scott, the champion figure skater, so thoroughly that nothing was left to her but to seek revenge (though if anyone cared to make a movie about that…).

Also, as noted the above scene features Sagat’s men turning their guns on Bison in outrage after he tries to pay them in ‘Bison dollars’, and Bison’s men responding in kind. The very next scene, they’re working together harmoniously once more. Why on Earth would Sagat continue to do business with Bison after that? He knows he’s not going to get paid in anything worthwhile. Or why would Bison trust Sagat to the point of bringing him into his secret headquarters? Actually, why would he do that regardless if secrecy is so important to him? Sagat could easily sell the information to Guille for anything he liked, and he obviously has no personal loyalty to Bison, so…why? Apart from the need to get all the villains in the same place for the climax, I mean.

Chun-Li and her crew are captured off-screen after that, and she’s put into something like her classic costume (though inexplicably red instead of blue) by Bison and sent to his chambers, where she recounts how he murdered her father. This is a legitimately pretty good scene, by the way, and prompts prompts probably the best line in the film. Chun-Li lays out the full story of her father’s heroic death, her voice dripping with hatred and contempt as she throws his crime in Bison’s face…only for him to spoil the whole thing by admitting that he doesn’t even remember the event. “For you,” he says, “The day Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me…it was Tuesday.”

(I love Julia’s performance here, by the way: he isn’t taunting her, or angry, or disturbed in any way. He’s just mildly interested in the story of the genuinely long-forgotten incident).

Chun-Li then breaks out of her restraints and proceeds to kick the crap out of Bison, giving us one of our rare one-on-one fights. Well, sort of: it’s not so much a fight as it is her mercilessly kicking him for a minute or so before the other good guys rush in to rescue her and he takes advantage of the distraction to escape.

Turns out Bison’s private chamber has a switch just outside the door that seals the entrances and releases sleeping gas. He’s apparently very confident in his minions’ loyalty and the integrity of his security. Not to mention the good will of the guy who was ready to shoot him about two scenes before.

Meanwhile, Guille is ordered to pull out by what may be the most cartoonishly smarmy bureaucrat ever committed to film. Instead he delivers a stirring speech about freedom and justice and promises to go up river and “kick that son-af-a-bitch Bison’s ass so hard. That the next Bison wannabe. Is gonna feel it.”

Not quite the ‘Patton in front of the flag’ speech

Again, this does lead into a handful of decent jokes, like when the bureaucrat reports to his superiors that not all Guille’s men have left, at which point we cut to a morose-looking cook in an otherwise empty base. The bureaucrat himself is such a ridiculous caricature that I found him hilarious.

We then get what fans of the game really wanted to see: Guille’s invisible boat riding through a minefield and blowing up radar stations (did the filmmakers play the wrong game at the arcade or something?). During this, Bison uses a control panel modeled directly after the arcade cabinet to direct his defenses. Nice idea in theory, but looks laughably out-of-place in what’s supposed to be a piece of military hardware. Maybe Bison just likes the bright colors. He blows up the boat, but Guille, Cammy, and T. Hawk escape and sneak in on foot (Guille chooses the moment when they’re literally crawling directly under the noses of some of Bison’s guards to ask T. Hawk about his headband).

During this time, Dr. Dhalsim has secretly switched out the software meant to condition Blanka into an unstoppable killing machine for software apparently meant to make him nice. The former consists of non-stop war newsreels, while the later is a mix of happy stock footage (and why did they even have that?). That’s all it takes to re-program a brain, I guess. In any case, this results in Blanka escaping and electrocuting his guard.

Guille gets in and is ready to euthanize Blanka, but Dhalsim stops him with some cartoon-level platitudes about choice and so on. There’s a big assault on Bison’s base and we finally get a few actual one-on-one fights: E. Honda vs. Zangief, Ryu and Ken vs. Sagat and Vega, and, of course, Guille vs. Bison (which happens after Bison has clearly already lost), while the other characters dispatch a goon or two in passing while hustling the hostages out of the fortress. During their escape, Chun-Li pauses to question Cammy’s hair-style, and she responds in kind.

At about this point, Ryu and Ken have the standard “temporary break up because one is idealistic, the other is practical.” The entire thing, from the disagreement to the reconciliation, takes place over the course of about five minutes. It ends with Ken giving Sagat the gold statue he was going to loot from Bison’s headquarters saying, “if I hadn’t met you, I might have become you.” Uh, at what point was Ken ever tempted to be like Sagat?

(It occurs to me it might be a reference to Sagat’s early comment about how the last kickboxing champion “Retired and became me.” I like that line, but again, nothing in Ken’s storyline indicates that was a possibility for him).

Guille defeats Bison, but he’s revived by his suit, which is then powered up to allow him to fly and shoot lighting (why would I make that up?). He beats Guille up a bit with his new powers (“You came here to fight a madman and instead you found a god!”), then Guille kicks him into a wall of screens and he dies again. Then the building blows up, but more or less everyone escapes and delivers their victory poses from the game.

I guess this is as good a time as any to talk a bit more about the fighting. Again, there’s very little actual martial arts action going on here: a few quick group shots and individual moves against random goons making up the bulk of it. There are almost no wide, long shots of the actors going at it: the fights are generally filmed close-in, with numerous cuts, presumably to better help disguise the lack of training among the participants. There are also a number of ill-conceived bits of choreography, the funniest of which occurs when Cammy jumps on a guy’s back, snaps his neck, flips him over, and then punches him out.

The fight between Zangief and E. Honda is a cool idea on paper (and Honda becomes one of the few characters to actually use one of his moves from the game), and is at least fun to watch, but it has zero stakes and mostly involves them simply wrestling around a bit until Honda just declares the fight over and runs off with his friends.

To be fair, Zangief is as confused and disappointed by this as we are.

Ryu and Ken vs. Sagat and Vega is probably the most competent fight in the film, since it’s the only one where most of the participants seem to have a respectable level of skill (I don’t think Wes Studi was a trained fighter, but he’s at least athletic enough to fake it). Bryan Mann as Ryu and Jay Tavare as Vega in particular get to show some decent athleticism (Vega is possibly the best realized character in the film, which isn’t saying much since he’s basically just a henchman here, but he at least looks and acts right). It also includes what might possibly be Ken’s famous ‘Shoryuken’ move…but also might just be a normal uppercut.

By the way, the fight takes place in a locker-room / gym. Ryu defeats Vega by opening up an incinerator door and using it to heat up his metal mask.

Why does the locker room have an incinerator?

“What? You never had to get rid of really old gym shorts?”

Probably the most embarrassing fight of all is Chun-Li’s attack on Bison. Yes, it’s kind of cool to see the First Lady of Fighting Games cutting loose and proving her metal on screen, but the fact that she so thoroughly trounces him and is only prevented from outright killing him by circumstances kind of undermines him as a threat (as if we needed that given Raul Julia’s wan face and evident lack of martial arts training).

Then there’s Guille vs. Bison, otherwise known as ‘Jean-Claude Van Damme beats up a 52-year-old cancer patient.’ It’s as awkward and unimpressive as you can imagine, with many, many cuts to try to disguise Julia’s lack of fighting ability (including one bit where it looks like they under crank the film to make him look faster than he is). They then give up and just give him superpowers, which involves hanging him on wires and running him into Guille again and again (this was never foreshadowed or set up, by the way: it just comes out of nowhere to give Guille an actual challenge).

The battle of the century

On that note, let’s talk about the characters. As indicated above, the film is hampered by the studio-mandated need to feature every single one of the game’s sixteen fighters (they ended up excluding exactly one, Fei Long, though the character of Captain Sawada seems more less based on him). And not just in cameos, but present throughout the film. However, for the most part they only vaguely resemble their counterparts from the game and have nothing of what made them memorable. Only a minority even have anything that you could call a personality trait.

Left to right: Bison, Ken, Ryu, Chun-Li, Balrog, Honda

The script is visibly struggling to include all of them, which results in odd things like the aforementioned ‘Bison ruined E. Honda’s sumo career,’ or the fact that the names ‘Dee-Jay’ and ‘Dhalsim’ are pretty much just penciled in over completely different stock characters (arguably, so were ‘Ryu’ and ‘Ken’). This is also a likely cause of the film’s bloated, convoluted plot: the super-soldier element, for instance, pretty clearly exists solely to justify Blanka’s existence, as it ties into nothing else.

Many of the characters are just names: T. Hawk could have been cut out and no one would have noticed. Balrog likewise contributes nothing apart from the fact that Grand L. Bush (best known as one of the Agents Johnson in Die Hard) is utterly unconvincing as a boxer. He’s a good actor, as seen in his other work, but he’s not particularly big or muscular (middle-weight at best) and has a professional, intelligent, sophisticate kind of screen persona that is the polar opposite of Mike Tyson-avatar Balrog.

Kylie Minogue is cute as a button, and though not a great actress has good charisma and comes across as just incredibly sweet on screen, which makes her nothing short of ridiculous as Cammy, whether talking the game version or the film’s supposed special-forces soldier (I actually wish she’d done more movies, to be honest: she’d be a great fit in a romantic comedy. Not so much an action film, or at least not an action role). She pretty much just exists as someone for Guille to talk to, as she likewise contributes nothing to the plot except being charming.

E. Honda is at least big enough (there’s a funny moment early on where he squeezes past Balrog while they’re all crammed in the news van) and he comes across okay as far as he goes, though he spends most of his time driving Chun-Li’s van around and of course bears little resemblance to his game counterpart. Again, Dhalsim and Dee-Jay are names and ethnicities and nothing else, and they’re otherwise just the ‘scientist cowed into working the villain’ and ‘evil computer guy’, respectively (though Dee-Jay does get a few laughs, like when he responds to one of Bison’s grandiloquent pronouncements with a thoroughly disinterested, “okay”).

Wes Studi as Sagat looks like he’s wondering just what the heck he’s doing there most of the time, though to be fair that fits the character as envisioned in the film. He’s obviously nothing like the towering Muay Thai giant he was in the games, in fact if anything he’s shorter than most of the other characters, meaning he really only has the eye patch and the scar – visible precisely once – in concession to the role. Though he is at least authoritative enough to be convincingly dangerous nonetheless. It’s funny to think that one year later he’d be part of the acting all-star game that is Heat.

(On that note I have to say how weird it is to see great dramatic actors like Raul Julia, Wes Studi, and Roshan Seth trading this Saturday-morning-cartoon-level bad dialogue back and forth).

Ryu and Ken are all-but unrecognizable, being reduced to bumbling comic-relief con-men, though as noted they at least get a decent fight in at one point, which puts them ahead of most everyone else. Blanka is pretty much just a plot point, spending most of the film sitting in a booth being programmed and then a few minutes running around a dark stage in really bad green make-up and a wig, looking more like a troll doll come to life than the ape-like wildman from the games. Captain Sawada, the Fei Long stand in, is…well, the thing there is that Ken Sawada, the actor playing him, was originally cast as Ryu, until it was discovered that his English was terrible and so he was recast in a minor role that only kinda-sorta existed in the game and then just pops up once in a while. He’s dubbed in the role, but I don’t know why they bothered with this, since I almost have to believe that any performance he might have given would have been better than that of whoever did his dubbing.

On the other hand, Andrew Bryniarski as Zangief seems to have simply walked out of the game, and though he doesn’t get much to do and his fight with Honda is pretty lackluster compared with what it might have been (Bryniarksi had been a professional wrestler, but he doesn’t really get to show any wrestling moves here), he’s still one of the best things in the film for his dim-witted antics (“You got…paid?”). As noted, Vega is likewise one of the best realized characters, as far as he goes.

The only other character who more or less comes off intact is Chun-Li. Ming-Na Wen isn’t as bubbly as the character seems to be in the games, but she otherwise fits the role pretty well, and legitimately has the charisma to pull off such an iconic character (no small compliment, given that Chun-Li is considered one of the classic video game beauties). She also actually gets a plot-line and some characterization and even a handful of decent action scenes. I don’t know if she’s a trained fighter, but she’s athletic enough to not be absurd at least.

https://i.guim.co.uk/img/media/fa61cbbb33dbf298e1cc8d2ea013de1b542b5d0e/0_99_3087_1851/master/3087.jpg?width=700&quality=85&auto=format&fit=max&s=3d44a936bb6de2ea0921387a3202a8cf

And yes, I do love the fact that Chun-Li later became the voice of Mulan.

What about the two leads?

I have to admit, I haven’t seen any of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s other movies (unless you want to count Kung Fu Panda 2), so I don’t know if he’s always this bad or if it was a result of his well and truly not giving a damn while being coked out of his mind for the whole shoot. But, yeah, his performance is the stuff of legends, and his thick Belgian accent is hilariously distracting in what is supposed to be an explicitly all-American character (the guy has the flag tattooed on his bicep, which gets a helpful close-up at one point).

Otherwise, he’s just Jean-Claude Van Damme, since I’m not sure Van Damme could play any other roles (actually, judging by this film, I’m not sure he could play that one): your straight-up American military badass maverick from a thousand other 80s-style action films. That’s fine as far as it goes, and is a perfectly acceptable interpretation of the character (not withstanding the accent), though attempts to play him up as an inspiring leader and hero fall laughably flat. And again, his position doesn’t make a lot of sense: why is a special forces colonel the public face and military commander of apparently the entire war?

As for Raul Julia as Bison, he exists beyond criticism. Like Jon Voight in Anaconda, what we have here is a genuinely great actor cutting loose and going full-bore pulp-film ham on a role. You can’t call the performance either good or bad: it simply is. This is really the chief reason to see the movie, and every moment he’s on screen is a treasure of bizarre, whole-hearted entertainment. Bison is a gloriously over-the-top character, the kind for whom the phrase ‘delusions of grandeur’ is far too tame. He does things like paying Sagat in ‘Bison dollars’, which he assures him will be worth five British pounds after he’s kidnapped the Queen. He just tosses that off causally, as something that of course he’ll be able to do once he gets around to it. Or there’s a bit where he’s planning his capital city of ‘Bisonopolis’ and comments that the food court is too small, since “all the big franchises will want to get in.” Right down to the pettiest points, he not only assumes himself superior, but assumes everyone else will agree.

“…Until the very planet is in the loving grip of the Pax Bisonica!”

As I say, Julia was a great actor and it’s pretty clear this is not him mocking the film, but legitimately how he thinks the role should be played. He apparently did a lot of research into dictators and crime lords to inform his performance and, yeah, you can definitely see that: that sort of absolutely self-assured, narcissistic perspective combined with an almost childish impracticality. Bison’s a cartoon, but an accurate cartoon. And again, he’s just a joy to watch as he sweeps about the sets with Shakespearean authority, delivering his gloriously cheesy lines with seemingly boundless energy (“Keep your own God! In fact, now would be a good time to pray to Him!”). It’s all the more impressive when you remember the man was actually dying at the time, yet he still dives into the role with so much gusto that apart from his thin face you would never know it.

“GAAAAME OVEEER!”

(For those who don’t know the story, Raul Julia was suffering from stomach cancer at the time the film was being made. He knew it was likely going to be his last performance, so he let his kids pick which role he’d play. They were big fans of the game and so picked M. Bison, and he pulled out all the stops to give them a performance they would enjoy – as well as taking a hefty paycheck to ensure their support. He died not long after filming wrapped, two months before the movie’s release.

I could never fault Julia taking the role, and have nothing to complain of in the result, but I do have to wonder who thought of him in the role in the first place).

“Why settle for mere money? After I defeat the AN, what if I were to share the country with you?”

That said, Bison is fun, but he isn’t exactly an impressive villain. One of the first things we see him do is lose his temper just because Guille makes an off-color hand gesture to him on a news report (though later completely unfazed when Chun-Li calls him a coward to his face). His ridiculously over-the-top speeches and grandiose plans come across as simply goofy (the fact that many other characters, including his underling Dee-Jay, clearly don’t take his pretensions very seriously doesn’t help), and there are several points where he lets himself get placed in positions of weakness through either incompetence or neglect, from which he only escapes because his enemies are as incompetent as he is. And of course, the second time we see him in a fight, the female lead walks all over him.

None of this is exactly out of character – again, he’s a petty dictator with extreme delusions of grandeur – but it doesn’t really do much to make him a convincing threat or up the stakes any. Heck, by the time he and Guille have their showdown, his base has been found out and mostly conquered, meaning he’s already lost the main plot (not to mention that the AN troops only need to shoot him for the film to be over).

The thing about the characters in general is not so much that they are different from the games. Again, it isn’t like the games had much characterization. Rather, it’s that you have this great roster of colorful characters representing an insane gamut of different types, and you turn them into a group that wouldn’t look out of place at a PTA meeting and you spend most of the time just having them stand around doing menial work (watch E. Honda drive a van! Watch Cammy chair a meeting! Watch Dhalsim use a computer! Watch T. Hawk…which one’s T. Hawk?).

For instance, in the game, E. Honda is a sumo wrestler who wants to prove that sumo is a legitimate martial art and so enters the wold tournament to pit his brand of sumo wrestling against the best fighters in the world. That’s not deep characterization, but it’s at least original. Here he’s a fat Hawaiian guy who drives a van and is mad because his promising sumo wrestling career got scuttled by a power-mad dictator. Oh, and at one point he demonstrates a high pain tolerance, which isn’t set up by anything and which never comes into play again. That’s it.

It isn’t that it’s different, it’s that it’s so much less interesting.

So, the plot is a mess, the characters are mostly flops, and the action is lame. What else?

Well, what surprised me was how cheap the film looks. The sets are adequate, but by and large, look to me like they might have come from a decently-budgeted TV show. Dhalsim’s lab in particular wouldn’t be out of place on something like The Man From UNCLE. Bison’s command center is nothing much to look at: just a rather cluttered Bond villain lair copied by someone with half the budget. I don’t know whether this is because they’re actually cheap, or just over-busy and ill-shot. Most of the rest of the film takes place in board rooms or generic Asian city streets (though no fighting in those streets). Bison’s holed up in an ancient temple, but we don’t get many shots of the exterior and, again, the interior’s just a bog-standard villain lair. The sets often feel rather small and cramped somehow, like a stage set where the environment is compressed to fit into the available space, and the fight scenes mostly take place in these cramped, dull locations.

I do love how Bison has a dedicated ‘hostage pit’, complete with automated announcement related to it on the intercom. Apparently, the situation really does come up that much in his life. and all that said, there are some creative details sprinkled about. I especially appreciated the propaganda posters lining the walls in Bison’s hideout, depicting the AN forces as evil claws gripping at the nation. Someone did their homework there. Another set detail I appreciated was that the reclining Buddha statue from Sagat’s stage in the game appears as part of the décor in his club.

Bison’s private chamber likewise has some amusing touches, like the Napoleon-style self-portrait and the John Wayne Gacy-style abstract painting. Though again, these are amusing, but not really anything else: they’re too broad and obvious a joke and don’t really make sense taken together (if they were going for a Hitlerian artistic taste, it should be nothing but classical-style art: the Gacy painting is jarringly out of place for that). It’s pretty much just an ‘I understood that reference’ joke.

That is another thing, the film at times feels like a parody of itself. There are odd jokes, like the bit where a Godzilla roar plays over Honda and Zangief’s fight for no reason, or Bison’s intercom reminding his troops that their benefits depend on their performance, or the aforementioned gag of Ryu and Ken trying to sell nerf-guns to Sagat. Bison’s winged skull logo shows up everywhere in his hideout to the point of absurdity, even in places like the backs of chairs and topping his martini stick! There’s also the fact that Bison is never once shown without his hat, and has a set of differently colored ones for various occasions.

I don’t know what they were going for here, because the film isn’t structured like a comedy but it often plays like one, and not just unintentionally. It’s as if part of the crew thought they were making an action film and the rest thought they were making a spoof of action movie.

Now, all that having been said, as bad as this movie is – and it is a very bad movie – you really can’t dislike it. It’s so stupid, so ridiculous, and so cartoonish that it becomes rather charming. This is one of the classic bad films of its generation, like The Room or Plan 9. In any case,it’s definitely not boring. Between Van Damme’s incredibly distracting accent, Raul Julia’s performance, and the spectacle of futilely trying to cram so many characters and plot-lines in, it’s frankly hilarious. And again, some of the jokes do land: “change the channel,” “I’d love to, but some idiot just canned me,” or Bison’s (ad-libbed), “I guess you didn’t see that!” taunt directed at Sagat. There are, honestly, some decent things here, though mostly superficial: Chun-Li and Zangief surviving the transition to the screen, a few individual moments, some decent lines, and again, Raul Julia, who really can’t be mentioned often enough as by far the best thing in the film.

Besides all that, there’s just something downright charming about the film. It’s a bad movie, but it isn’t malicious in any way, and the filmmakers are clearly really trying to give the audience an entertaining ride.

All things considered, I definitely would recommend seeing it at least once for the sheer entertainment value, and for one of the most memorable final performances ever committed to film.

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“SHORYUK…Oh, wait, we’re not doing that here.”

Friday Flotsam: Mundane Thoughts of Last Week

1. Been a fairly busy week. Got my latest appreciation video up and running, been working on tomorrow’s entry in the ‘compare / contrast’ series, as well as working on my current book and doing stuff around the house. Also had to do some research / testing for another project, but that seems all in place, so probably look for that soon.

2. Last weekend I watched 101 Dalmations in, ah, ‘honor’ of Cruella. That’s really the kind of quirky, off-beat, creative stories that you just wouldn’t see made today. It doesn’t follow much of a formula; it starts off with almost a short film about a dog trying to set his master (or ‘pet’) up with a suitable girl. Then it cuts to after they’re married and a kidnapping plot ensues, with just more and more dogs being added all the time. You can’t really pitch a movie like that with the current “It’s like x crossed with y” formula.

My favorite aspect of the movie, personally, is the way all the dogs and other animals across the country pitch in to help. It’s a sweet image of community support and strangers working for a good end simply because everyone can see at a glance it’s the right thing to do (even the cast of Lady and the Tramp can be seen lending a paw).

3. Hm, writing that I realize there’s a ‘charity vs. selfishness’ theme going on: the heroes are charitable and loving, going out of their way to help others (such as Pongo declaring that they’ll take the whole lot of 84 extra puppies with them, even though it’ll make their journey exponentially more dangerous), while the villains are heartless and self-centered, simply trying to turn everything into a quick profit / source of vanity. In any case, do I even need to say that it’s a very good movie?

4. I also love the ‘What’s My Crime‘ parody of ‘What’s My Line‘. Now there’s a topical spoof that hasn’t aged a day, even though most people won’t remember the real show (“He is a burglar by trade, but this particular crime was not larceny”).

5. Went out shopping last weekend and found a certain kind of item that has been largely unattainable in recent months is back on the shelves. Rationed (in most variants), but available. I’ve been feeling under-supplied in this particular area lately, so I picked up a fair amount. Once I start my new job (got my offer letter today, so it’s a done deal), think that item is going to be a regular investment. It’s a non-perishable item, after all, so no chance of them going bad.

For any of our noble overlords reading this, I’m talking about crackers. Ritz crackers. Can’t get enough of them. I just wish I could find the, uh…non-crumbly versions? (Okay, that euphemism probably doesn’t work. I’m talking about slugs. 12-guage slug crackers. And by ’12-gauge’ I mean ‘yummy’).

6. Noticed that none of the places I went to insisted upon my wearing a mask. Seeing fewer and fewer of those around lately. I don’t know if this is because more and more people are getting vaccinated, or because the revelation that the architect of the Imposition was privately telling people they don’t actually work. Probably a little of both. I’ll take it.

Kaiju Appreciation: Sanda & Gaira

For those who don’t know, one of my hobbies is editing together music videos, particularly ones celebrating the various Godzilla and other Toho characters. My latest one (first in nearly a year for one reason or another) is for Sanda & Gaira, the gargantua brothers from War of the Gargantuas.

For those unfamiliar with Kaiju eiga, War of the Gargantuas is a loose sequel to Frankenstein Conquers the World and tells the story of two giants or ‘gargantuas’ that grew from pieces cast off of the regenerating Frankenstein monster from that film. One, Sanda (the brown gargantua), was raised by humans who loved and cared for him, the other, Gaira (the green one) grew up alone in the sea. Now fully grown, Gaira is a savage monster who preys upon people (spitting out their clothing), but when the military traps and nearly kills him, Sanda appears to rescue his brother and care for him. Only, when Sanda discovers his brother’s murderous appetites, he tries to beat the habit out of him, prompting a war between them.

This is really one of the best kaiju films of Toho’s classic era. It’s a good story based on a creative premise, and there’s a lot of real pathos in the relationship between the two monsters, where Sanda genuinely cares for Gaira and keeps trying to reach out to him even well into their fight, but Gaira is having none of it. But you can’t help feeling bad for him nonetheless, because Gaira clearly doesn’t have the capacity to understand the idea that Sanda can love him and still chastise him, making their showdown a full-blown tragedy (most of the best monster films are tragedies at heart).

Haruo Nakajima, best known for playing Godzilla in the first twelve films of the series, here assails Gaira. He called this his favorite non-Godzilla role by far, since the costumes left the actor’s eyes exposed, allowing for much greater emoting. I imagine the lighter costume and greater scope to show his athleticism also helped.

Anyway, for this appreciation I went with the song “How Can I Live” by Ill Nino, which seemed to fit the tragic, yet violent tone of the film (it’s the song that played during the credits of Freddy vs. Jason, though I actually first discovered it in a now-long-lost video tribute to…War of the Gargantuas!).

Enjoy

Thoughts on ‘Mortal Kombat'(1995)

Video Game movies seem to be going through a bit of a renaissance at the moment. Which is rather ironic, given the state of the film industry in general.

2019 gave us Detective Pikachu, a light-hearted, fun, and generally well-received take on one of the biggest gaming franchises out there, being essentially a family adventure-comedy that happens to be set in the Pokemon world. 2020 saw Sonic the Hedgehog, another light-hearted, easy-going family film buoyed along by massive amounts of good-will and a hamtastically delightful turn by Jim Carrey. And just recently we had the new Mortal Kombat, which I haven’t seen (and don’t really have much interest in from what I’ve heard), but which I think is probably not a light-hearted family film. In any case, it seems to have done pretty well at the box-office last I heard.

As such, it seems a good time to revisit a couple of the major early efforts at adapting video games to the screen, back when the medium itself was, it not in its infancy, at the very least in its childhood. We’re going to look at one that I think works and one that doesn’t and then compare and contrast.

And we’re going to start with the one that works: what was, for a very long time (as in, probably up until 2019), considered the best of the bunch.

MORTAL KOMBAT!

For the proper effect, listen to the theme song.

We open in spectacular fashion with the rousing cry of “MORTAL KOMBAT!” accompanied by the driving techno theme song as the credits play over flames shooting out of a giant version of the dragon logo. This pretty much lets you know right away what kind of film you’re in for.

From there we swiftly (as in, over the course of less than five minutes) meet our three protagonists and learn their motivations. First there is Liu Kang, a Shaolin monk who ran away to America to escape his supposed destiny, but who is summoned home when his brother is killed by the kung-fu sorcerer Shang Tsung (who has the power to steal the souls of the people he kills). Then there’s Sonya Blade, a badass, self-reliant cop on the trail of the slimy underworld boss Kano, who murdered her partner (and who is in league with Shang). Finally there’s Johnny Cage, an egotistical Hollywood action star whose martial arts skills are derided as fake by the press and who secretly fears this might be true.

All three eventually meet up on a boat bound for Shang Tsung’s island, where they will partake in the mystical tournament of Mortal Kombat. They get a taste of the kind of opposition they can expect when they come face-to-face with two of Shang’s enslaved champions: Scorpion and Sub-Zero, both of whom wield supernatural powers (Sub-Zero demonstrates his cryomancy by destroying Sonya’s pistol, swiftly removing any firearms from the film).

The rules are then laid out for them by Raiden, the god of thunder and lightning and protector of Earth. Mortal Kombat isn’t just any martial arts tournament: it is part of a mystical ritual that, if completed, would give Shang’s master, the Emperor of Outworld, the right to invade and conquer earth. For one realm to win the right to attack another, their champions must win ten Mortal Kombat tournaments in a row. And Shang’s champions have won nine so far.

Upon arriving on the island, our three heroes uncover more of the plot, including the fact that Shang is seeking to manipulate them for his own purposes, and that they may have another ally in the form of Princess Kitana, rightful heir to the throne of Outworld. Also that Shang’s ace-in-the-hole is an eight-foot, four-armed monster named Goro.

From there the tournament begins in earnest, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance and Shang and Raiden each trying to guide our heroes into their preferred outcome.

I think if I were to sum up the movie, I would call it “if Bruce Lee and Ray Harryhausen did a film together.” It’s Enter the Dragon with a fantasy twist.

Upon re-watching this film for the first time in years for this review, I was rather surprised to find just how good it really is. Don’t get me wrong: it isn’t a great film by any means, and there are many elements that could be picked apart. But it is a good film, given what it is, with many very real strengths, some remarkably solid, even excellent storytelling touches, and, most importantly, it’s fun.

In the first place, as noted above, the film wastes no time at all. We meet our three protagonists, two of the antagonists, and get an idea of their motives and personalities within the first five minutes. Liu wakes up from a nightmare of his brother being killed at the Shaolin temple to find himself amid the trappings of a normal American life and reads a telegram summoning him home. That right there, in almost no dialogue, establishes a fundamentally conflicted nature as well as setting his motives. Sonya is found snapping orders at her subordinates, dismissing the idea of trust, and butting dancers in the head with her shotgun as she makes her way through a crowded nightclub in pursuit of Kano, establishing a single-minded, self-reliant character who doesn’t play well with others. Johnny’s introduction has him taking on a bunch of thugs…only for one of them to miss his cue and expose the flashy martial arts we just witnessed as nothing but a show, which prompts Johnny to storm off the set in anger. We thus have a perfect illustration of both his self-absorbed personality and his doubts regarding the reality of his talent.

(Linden Ashby as Johnny Cage is really the stand-out among the three leads, acting wise, by the way. He gets most of the best lines – partly ad-libbed – while also employing some strong, simple emoting to convey his character. I especially like the immediate affection and respect that comes into his face when he meets his old instructor, or the drop of his eyes as he comments on the press deriding him as a fake).

All this requires a good deal of writing short-hand. Most of the plot points and characterization are things we’ve seen in other films, so the movies takes advantage of this to get things moving quickly. For instance, a modern film would likely have a whole scene of Johnny trying to defend his skills to the press and being challenged on it. Here the point is established in a throwaway line, followed by seeing the amusingly on-the-nose “Johnny Cage a Fake!” headline, leading directly to a discussion of the tournament with his old instructor (all while giving Johnny a chance to both crack-wise and show his sincere side). No time is lost and vital plot and character points are established swiftly and smoothly, often two or three at a time. Johnny’s a superficially flashy actor who secretly wonders if he has any legitimate talent: we’ve seen this sort of thing dozens of times before, so the movie can trust us to ‘get it’ right away and move on.

The plotting is remarkably solid as well. Of the three, Liu knows more or less the truth about the tournament, though he’s become a skeptic and only gets involved for personal reasons (amusingly shown when he announces his intention to avenge his brother and then adds with a touch of sarcasm, “Oh, yes, I forgot. We’re fighting for the fate of the world!”). Johnny is only told that it’s a great martial arts tournament and a chance to test his skills against the best of the best, and Sonya is tricked into going without intending to compete at all. Thus each one is there for a reason that fits with their characters and motivations without having to clutter up the narrative (e.g. Sonya clearly wouldn’t be interested in going to a martial arts tournament for its own sake and Johnny isn’t the type to volunteer to defend the world). Not to mention that it gives an excuse for any necessary expository dialogue as the characters in the know – Liu and Raiden – have to explain things to the characters who aren’t.

This also helps prevent matters from seeming contrived or repetitive and to give each character their own motive and plot-line. Then, when the characters do things, even seemingly foolish things, there’s always a reason for it. They never just do something stupid to move the plot along; all their actions follow their characters and motivations.

For instance, after Shang welcomes the fighters to the island, Sonya follows him into inner recesses of the palace (as she knows he has information on Kano). Liu goes with her, since he wants to fight and kill Shang to avenge his brother. And Johnny goes with them because he’s interested in Sonya (“You know, you have to admire her. When she sets her mind on something…” “It’s not her mind you’re admiring.” “…It’s true.”).

Basically, the characters aren’t stupid, and that includes the villain. Shang Tsung is legitimately cunning and avoids many of the standard ‘evil overlord’ tropes. Much of his plot involves trying to subtly rig the tournament so that he won’t have to fight Liu Kang – the one supposedly chosen by destiny to save the world – in the final battle, but instead be able to take on one of the other two, who would be far easier targets. He is confident in his own ability to win regardless, but he’s not fighting for his own ego. His goal is simply to win the tournament for his master, so he’s going to do anything he can to make that easier and safer for himself without actually cheating (he also has a slimy interest in Sonya, but again, he works that in to his greater goal). Really, how many bad guys show this kind of focus and pragmatism?

His manipulations are themselves pretty clever, with multiple contingencies to ensure his preferred outcome. In the ordinary course of the tournament, he’ll let his fighters try to win. If they start to lose, he’ll send out the four-armed giant Goro to dominate the mortals. When Johnny requests a duel with Goro, Shang turns it to an opportunity to select his own challenger for the final match (this despite the fact that everyone fully expects Johnny to lose). He also knows that Kitana is a dangerous potential ally to the heroes and so assigns Reptile to be her chaperone (forcing her to make contact with Liu by challenging him to a fight and delivering cryptic advice, which has to be cryptic since Shang is watching them).

In short, the film shows Shang covering his bases and not just assuming that his plan will succeed or barreling forward out of sheer pride. He’s convincingly portrayed as an intelligent villain whose evil scheme fails primarily because the heroes were brave and skilled enough to triumph over it in spite of his planning rather than because of his own stupidity or arrogance.

Speaking of which, the film does a good job of laying out the rules by simply having the characters ask Raiden about them: obvious questions from characters trying to get a grasp on the situation like “so why doesn’t Outworld just invade Earth?” “What about the other fighters on the boat?” and so on. The stakes are established early on and then reinforced near the end when we see Outworld and learn its history, illustrating the fate that awaits Earth if the heroes fail.

(At the same time, the movie wisely doesn’t over explain things and leaves a lot of what we see a mystery. Why can Sub-Zero freeze people? Just what the heck is Scorpion? What’s the deal with those weird cruciform statues in Outworld and why does Reptile become a human ninja when he’s pulled into one? Briefly, because this isn’t the world we know. Enough is explained to know the gist of what’s happening, but both we and the characters are in uncharted territory where everything is strange and it isn’t clear what is and is not possible anymore. At one point Liu faces off with a seemingly ordinary opponent, and then the man suddenly growls like a lion at him. It’s never explained or even comes up in dialogue, it’s just a reminder that – as indicated by Sonya’s spinning compass – we’re off the edge of the map here.)

Another clever bit of exposition comes after Shang Tsungs’s champions threaten the heroes before the start of the tournament. Raiden steps in with a rare showing of anger, hurling the bad guys about with his lightning and chewing Shang out for violating the rules. Shang apologizes and then ‘helpfully’ reminds Raiden that things will be different once they reach Shang’s island. This lets us know that Raiden won’t be able to just zap the bad guys for us and smoothly justifies providing the information by the sorcerer clearly meaning it as a subtle dig against the deity (“My domains are well known to me, sorcerer!”).

On that note, Christopher Lambert’s Raiden is one of the most delightful aspects of the movie. The biggest name actor in the cast, he’s very clearly having a blast playing the larger-than-life thunder god, disappearing into his role as a smooth, supremely self-assured, yet somewhat playful character. But it isn’t just his charisma and enthusiasm that makes the role, but also the fact that he manages to convey a distinctly non-human perspective (something honestly rare amid movie deities).

One the best moments of the film comes when he solemnly informs the heroes: “The fate of billions will depend upon you,” and then bursts into a delighted laugh before catching himself and apologizing with a shrug. That tells us pretty clearly what we’re dealing with here: Raiden is legitimately on the side of the angels, but he’s chiefly hoping the mortals will at least put on a good show (besides which, whatever happens it’s not his neck on the line). Throughout the film he approaches them with a gently patronizing, somewhat sarcastic attitude, as if they were precocious children, yet always while doing what he can to help them along without either violating the rules or making things too dull.

There’s another good moment when he chastises Johnny for challenging Goro and Johnny pushes back by reminding him that it’s Mortal Kombat and therefore up for them to decide how to fight it. Rather than getting angry or standing on his dignity, Raiden is delighted that, “at last one of them has understood.”

I also love the faux-politeness Shang shows to Raiden whenever they share a scene, bowing when he enters and maintaining an even, almost reverent tone when he addresses him, though one dripping with barely-veiled sarcasm (“You grace us with your…presence”). It’s a great touch: acknowledging that, though they are in opposing camps, Raiden is nevertheless of a much higher status than Shang and the sorcerer knows it. Again, it’s not a huge deal, but it’s something they bothered to think about and to get right.

It’s these little details that I think really show the passion and care on the part of the filmmakers. Another is the way Shang bows. The traditional Kung Fu salute is a palm-over-fist pose that (I am told) symbolizes ‘peace over power’. Shang bows fist-over-palm, indicating ‘power over peace.’ No one ever draws attention to this in the movie, and most viewers won’t even notice it, but it’s something that the filmmakers or possibly the actor came up with and included as a bit of visual characterization.

Again, much credit to veteran actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Shang Tsung, who like Lambert (and really everyone for that matter) is obviously having a great time in the role and who invests the character with a tremendous amount of life and personality. He does a marvelous trick where, for most of the movie, he keeps a fairly stoical expression, but with enough small variations to convey the actual emotion behind it as effectively as if he’d been broadly mugging to the camera. Then when he does cut loose, he hams it up gloriously (“Your soul is mine!”). He is also, like most of the cast, an accomplished martial artist, allowing him to convey a convincingly intimidating air and to go into the climactic battle with gusto.

“IT HAS BEGUN!”

What about the rest of the cast?

Well, I’ll say first off that this isn’t an ‘acting’ movie. The filmmakers (wisely in my opinion) largely chose to prioritize fighting ability over histrionic power, so most of them are just adequate. Hong Kong veteran Robin Shou as Liu Kang gets the most attention and the biggest story arc, and while he doesn’t stand out acting wise, he gets plenty of good moments showing a good-natured, but defiant personality (again, I like the touch of sarcasm when he parrots the ‘official’ reason for fighting in Mortal Kombat). His interactions with Johnny are pretty fun, where Liu enjoys poking the filmstar’s ego. When he has to do heavy emoting, he’s what you might call ‘b-movie adequate:’ not great, but he gets the job done enough that you’re not pulled out of the film.

As said, , Linden Ashby is the stand out among the three protagonists as Johnny Cage. He provides most of the film’s comic relief with his ‘everyman’ perspective, frequent jokes, and occasional slapstick (such as his enormous, but ever-dwindling supply of suitcases in the early scenes). At the same time, as noted above, he gets some really quite good moments that call for actual emoting, and, refreshingly, he’s allowed to be an honest-to-goodness hero underneath his ostensibly shallow, self-absorbed exterior. I especially like the matter-of-fact chivalry he shows towards Sonya by repeatedly stepping in to defend her almost from the moment they meet (when she gives him the “I don’t need your help” line he replies “We can’t help it, it’s a guy thing”). Though he also gently mocks this trait in himself by suggesting Sonya should take point after they catch their first glimpse of Goro, preventing the touch from being too mawkish. Honestly, Johnny’s just a flat-out likable character, with a decent story arc of his own that comes to a satisfying conclusion when he takes on Goro and has to forego any ego-saving flashiness to come out on top. He also gets one of the best fights in the film in his duel with Scorpion, allowing Ashby to show his martial arts skills to the fullest.

“WELCOME!”

The main weak point in the cast is Bridgette Wilson as Sonya. Her acting is again adequate: not great, but not distracting, and the character comes across perfectly well as a self-reliant, somewhat abrasive tough girl single-mindedly focused on her goal (which makes for an amusing contrast with Johnny). No, the problem is that she’s the one non-martial artist in the main cast and it shows. This was apparently due to her being a last-minute replacement when the original actress, Cameron Diaz (!!) injured herself during training, leaving no time to bring her up to snuff.

To their credit, the filmmakers work around this as well as they can. Sonya has the fewest fights of any of the leads and they use careful staging and quick edits to make her look more skilled than she is. It works pretty well during a big group fight where the three heroes take on a gang of baddies, but her solo fight against Kano is pretty awkward (though her lack of training is most apparent when she’s tossing slow, clumsy air punches right before the match). Let no one say she wasn’t game, though: that’s really her doing all the fighting and stunts without a double (most of the actors did the majority of their own stunts and fighting, which helps immensely to sell the film).

Of course, the idea that Bridgette Wilson could defeat ex-professional-boxer Trevor Goddard is probably the least believable thing in the entire movie. Though again to their credit, they at least make a point of showing that she feels his blows a lot more than he feels hers and she finishes him with a wrestling move that could at least conceivably work in that situation (rather than pummeling him into submission or something equally ridiculous).

Looks like a fair and even fight

Kano himself is mostly just a slimy pig, but he really doesn’t need to be anything else, and Goddard’s gleefully horrible performance is a lot of fun to watch. I especially like the scene where he’s chomping down on the provided feast while chatting with an unimpressed Goro. It’s just such a ridiculous situation, and yet one that naturally might occur under those circumstances. I also like the contrast Kano, the slovenly crime boss, presents to the more dignified Outworld villains, allowing the audience to sense at once that they are on a different level of dangerous compared to a mere criminal.

By this time there had been two games in the franchise, with a third one coming out the same year as the film. The filmmakers wisely chose to focus primarily on the first game, drawing the cast almost entirely from its roster, which consisted of seven fighters, one hidden fighter (Reptile), and two boss characters. They also include Kitana and Jax from the second game (and Jax is pretty much just a cameo).

(Jax’s presence, by the way, is itself a nice touch: they needed someone for Sonya to talk to in her early scenes, so they took a character already connected with her from the games and just declared ‘this is that guy’; a nice nod to the fans and a way of saying that they were paying attention.

I was going to say that I wish they had done something similar with Art Lean, a friend of Johnny’s who gets killed by Goro…until I reviewed the line-up for the first two games and realized that there really wasn’t a suitable character to fill that role. Which also shows that they didn’t just shove a familiar name into an unsuitable position – e.g. calling him ‘Smoke’ or something – simply to be able to say they had the character).

With such a large cast to account for, however (and with a limited budget and run time), someone was going to get the short shrift, and in this case it’s Scorpion and Sub-Zero (ironically enough, given that they’ve become the faces of the franchise). Their rivalry is only obliquely alluded to, neither gets anything that could be considered characterization, and they’re pretty much just one step-up from the interchangeable faceless thugs. This could understandably annoy fans of the franchise.

Me, I more appreciate the fact that the filmmakers knew they couldn’t fit everything in and so picked their battles. Rather than overstuffing the movie with irrelevant side-plots, they focus on the three protagonists and their conflict with the villain and structured everything else around that. Scorpion and Sub-Zero’s storyline didn’t fit, so they ended up sidelined in order to streamline the film. It isn’t ideal, obviously, and I’m not sure they couldn’t have fit them in better if they had wanted to, but it seems to me an acceptable sacrifice to have a leaner, more focused story.

Their role here is to provide antagonists for the characters to face and defeat, but this is a role that these two characters (plus Reptile, whom we’ll get to in a minute) are well suited to perform due to their supernatural powers. The three heroes are all normal, well-trained humans (well, Liu shows some pseudo-supernatural moves toward the end, but nothing too crazy or out-of-the-way for a martial arts hero), so pitting them against super-human opponents ups the stakes considerably and lets us know just how far they’re out-classed.

This meant that the filmmakers sensibly didn’t bother casting actors in the roles of Scorpion, Sub-Zero, and Reptile, as only Scorpion has any dialogue at all (and that just a few disparate words, including his “GET OVER HERE!” catchphrase, all of which were dubbed by Ed Boon, the game’s co-creator) and none are ever seen outside their ninja outfits. Instead, they cast professional martial artists and stuntmen – some of whom also served as trainers the other actors – thereby shoring up the all-important fight scenes and probably saving more than a few pennies of their modest budget.

That said, I think Chris Casamassa does get some good eye takes as Scorpion, especially his creepily ambiguous twitch after Johnny destroys his harpoon.

On that subject, as an adaptation I think Mortal Kombat is really one of the best examples of how to translate something like a video game into a movie. They take the central story idea – a mystical martial arts tournament – and the core structure – fight through a series of opponents until you take on first the villain’s chief henchman and then the villain himself – and applied it to a tried and true film template – Enter the Dragon and its successors. Then when that superstructure is functional they focus on how to make the distinctive elements of the game work in the new medium, with smaller details – aesthetics, dialogue, specific moves – thrown in as a treat for the fans.

Having played the game on an emulator (well, most of it: it’s a tough game and harder on a keyboard), I found that the film managed to fit in a surprising amount from the source material. Not everything, obviously, and not perfectly, but enough to convince me that the filmmakers were invested in what they were doing.

Though there is one major element of the game that didn’t make it in: the gore. The film is rated PG-13, despite the famously over-the-top fatalities of the games. Its absence is particularly conspicuous given that this was one of the most distinctive elements of the series. This was done because most of the fans of the game were teenagers or kids at the time and so the studio wanted to make sure they would be able to come out to see it. Again, many fans might find this annoying.

That said, they do push the rating a fair bit. There’s a good deal of bone-cracks during the fights and several over-the-top deaths: Sub-Zero freezing an opponent so that he shatters into a thousand pieces, Scorpion’s fiery demise, etc. It’s toned down from the games, even at the time (they’ve gotten a lot more extreme since then to keep their reputation up), but I think the filmmakers found a good balance between following the games and working within the rating requirement. Obviously an R-rating would have been preferable (as far at matching the games is concerned), but you can understand why they went they way they did and they clearly tried to do their best in spite of it.

Of course, the most important thing in the film are the fights, and they’re pretty impressive. The film takes its time building up to them, then when the tournament begins we get three or four in a row. Most of the cast are trained martial artists and their moves are consequently crisp, fast, and well-choreographed, with plenty of flashy show moves to spice things up and judicious use of wirework (as well as some over-the-top silliness in places – especially the Reptile fight – but not as much as you might think). Credit too to director Paul W. S. Anderson for shooting the fights in a way that you can clearly see what’s happening (if only he’d remembered this when he made Alien vs. Predator), and for giving each fight its own pace and structure so that no two feel like a repeat of each other. My own favorites are Johnny’s fight with Scorpion (a lot of people consider that the best fight in the film), Liu’s climactic fight with Shang Tsung, and the early group fight. I also like Liu’s fight with Sub-Zero for the clever way he was dispatched, and Johnny’s duel with Goro, though that’s more of a character scene than a fight scene.

Round One: Fight!

Speaking of Goro, let’s talk about the special effects. They’re…a mixed bag. In fact, you have here a pretty direct compare / contrast between practical effects and CGI. On the one hand you have Reptile, realized for most of the film’s run time as a truly awful computer-generated creature, one that looks like it came out of a demo reel for the Nintendo 64. On the other you have Goro, realized in an elaborate costume and puppet. Goro doesn’t look ‘real’ as you might say – he’s clearly a puppet – but the interesting thing is that he goes down a lot easier than Reptile, and you eventually kind of just accept him as a character. This is because Goro is actually there, actually on camera and interacting with the other characters, which lends him much more life and presence than the animated creature. People have a much easier time ascribing personality to an actual physical object, however un-lifelike, than they do to something they know isn’t there at all.

This isn’t to say that practical effects are always and objectively ‘better’ than CGI, but that there is a difference between them, and it means that bad practical effects can still be charming and even functional, while bad CGI is just bad.

That said, Goro’s puppet is pretty impressive. It reminds me in some ways of the turtle costumes from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, with a similar sense of “it doesn’t look ‘real,’ but it works nonetheless.”

“I am Goro! General of the armies of Outworld and Prince of the subterranean real of Shokan!”

There are some other effects, such as Scorpion’s living ‘harpoon’ (which looks just as bad as Reptile, and frankly was an odd stylistic choice to begin with), some composite shots, and a number of electricity and freezing effects, most of which are just fine and acceptable in a cheesy kind of way. Thankfully, Reptile has the power to camouflage himself, and when he fights Liu he first turns into a human ninja through some weird fantasy magic, so he has very little screen time as a wee cg beastie.

On the other side of the equation, the sets are gorgeous. These are really a high point of the film: towering, ornate banquet halls and palace corridors lined with statues, mountain-top temples, a fire-lit cavern filled with rickety platforms lined with skeletons, an eerie, smoke-filled chamber, lush beaches, and maze-like forests. Clearly a good chunk of the film’s modest budget went to constructing or traveling to interesting environments for the fights to take place in, which I would say is money well spent. At times the movie looks like it’s set in a Weird Tales cover.

And, of course, I have to mention that famous techno-beat theme song, which opens and ends the film, as well as playing during several of the fights. It’s the absolute perfect theme for the film: driving, energetic, and with just the right amount of cheesiness.

In terms of flaws, well, there are plenty, though for my money they don’t detract much from the overall effect of the film. The sometimes wooden acting and questionable special effects have been mentioned. There are debatable issues like Raiden flat out telling the characters what their arcs are supposed to be at one point (though as he’s their mentor and they’re up against the wall, you could argue that’s what he ought to do). In the climactic battle, Shang Tsung’s “army of souls” is rather laughably shown as five or six bad guys who go down with one or two hits each, and Liu’s progression through the ‘battles of enemy, self, and deepest fear’ is rather lackluster. Also, Shang tries to trick at one point by turning into his dead brother, but he does so right in front of him, so why wouldn’t he immediately see through it (I mean, his back is turned, but still they could have staged that better)? Likewise, Johnny inexplicably just disappears from the film during the Reptile fight, despite the fact that he had been right there a second ago. You could be generous and say he was distracted by something, but they should have had a scene to at least show what he was doing all that time.

There’s a bit where Goro goes on a rampage, devastating the mortal fighters in a montage, then gets a set-piece fight where he kills Art Lean. For some reason, everyone’s shocked by Goro’s appearance, but shouldn’t they have already seen him while he was killing all those other people? It would have been better to put the fight first and the montage after.

Then there’s the fact that the theme of ‘Mortal men and women deciding their own destiny’ seems kind of at odds with Liu Kang’s status as ‘the chosen one’ or that he specifically wasn’t able to escape his destiny to fight in Mortal Kombat.

Finally, I don’t like the cliffhanger ending (I’m generally against these, and not just because it led to the infamous sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation). I always prefer to go out on a high note, and the ending doesn’t really make any sense given what’s been established.

By the way, in the aforementioned ‘Raiden tells everyone the lesson they need to learn’ scene, I rather love how Sonya’s lesson amounts to the gloriously un-PC “recognize when you’re a damsel in distress and just need to be rescued.”

As I say, Mortal Kombat was long regarded as the best video-game adaptation yet made. It was a bona-fide hit when it came out, spending three weeks at the top of the US box office. What is more, it was so well-received by fans of the games that many of its changes, story elements, and characterizations were integrated into the games themselves. For instance, Kano was originally envisioned as a Japanese or Japanese-American character. But following Trevor Goddard’s deliciously slimy depiction, he was forever after portrayed as Australian. Likewise the notion of having to win ten Mortal Kombats in a row and Johnny Cage’s romance with Sonya, among other story beats, were integrated into the mythos of the games.

Now, let’s be clear: Mortal Kombat is no one’s idea of a classic. It’s a B-Movie through and through, with everything that implies: it’s silly, cheesy, the acting is mostly only fair, the effects are often down-right bad, and there are several goofy moments or gaps in logic. But it’s a B-Movie done very well, by filmmakers who clearly cared about what they were doing and strove to make the best product they could with the limited resources at their command. Most importantly, it’s just a very enjoyable, simple little film. It knows exactly what it is and what it’s trying to do and puts in the effort to make it happen, and it’s done with a degree of competence and creative energy that many more prestigious films would envy.

“MORTAL KOMBAT!”

Fun Fact of the Day

During the filming of Rocky IV, director-star Sylvester Stallone thought it would be a good idea (for realism) to do a shot where Dolph Lundgren actually punched him as hard as he could.

The next thing he knew, Stallone was spending four days in intensive care with a bruised heart.

He then had to convince his skeptical insurance company that the injury had, in fact, been caused by a punch and not (as is usually the case with that sort of injury) from being hit by a truck. He finally showed them the footage and exclaimed, “Dolph is a truck!”

Stallone later admitted that this had not been a good idea.

A Terrible Fate

I found this video the other day. It’s a shockingly well-done short film depicting the backstory to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Not only is the animation beautiful and of a professional-grade quality, but most importantly I feel like they really captured the tone and atmosphere of the game perfectly. Not just of the Zelda franchise as a whole, but more specifically of that game, which is arguably the most atmospheric of the entire series.

If they ever were to make a Legend of Zelda movie, this is what it ought to look like.

(Late) Early Thoughts on ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’

As I mentioned a couple Friday Flotsams ago, I got out to see Godzilla vs. Kong: first time back in a theater for a long time. I have to delve into full spoilers in order to discuss my thoughts, so fair warning now. If you haven’t seen it an have any interest in doing so, I’ll just say that I liked it a lot, despite it being utterly ridiculous and abounding in stupidity. I am also very glad I got to see it without any (or many) spoilers, for reasons that will become apparent.

That out of the way:

The plot is that some years after the events of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Godzilla suddenly begins making raids on coastal cities, targeting facilities of the ‘Apex’ corporation: a cybernetics company. With Godzilla seemingly turning hostile, public opinion swerves against him.

Meanwhile, Skull Island has become completely consumed by the surrounding storm, rendering it uninhabitable and wiping out most of the native life, including the people except for one little girl (I have to say: having been irritated by the utopian colonial-penance figures in Kong: Skull Island I was rather darkly amused to learn they had all been killed off by natural forces). Kong himself is kept alive inside an enormous containment dome that preserves part of the jungle, though he’s growing restless and has become too large for the environment to sustain him.

(This film takes its predecessor’s trend of creating absurdly enormous and expensive devices and cranks it up beyond infinity, by the way. Who the heck approve funding for the miles-wide biodome with holographic technology to preserve the giant ape on an isolated, extremely hostile island? “Well, we can either give every American a complete income tax refund for the next few years or keep the giant gorilla alive.” “Let’s do that one”).

Kong’s chief researcher recognizes that Kong can’t survive here, but fears that if they try to move him it will provoke Godzilla, who won’t tolerate another Alpha kaiju in his territory.

Through some manipulation by the Apex corporation (which has its own agenda), an apparent old flame of hers convinces her to bring Kong to Antarctica, where there’s an entrance to the hollow earth (there’s some ridiculous nonsense about ‘bio-memories’ where creatures naturally want to return to where their species originated. I mean, even by the goofy standards of the science in the Monsterverse, that’s another level. Though, in the film’s defense, it doesn’t work in the event).

In any case, Kong is sedated, loaded onto a barge, and shipped to Antarctica, putting him on a collision course with an already-angered Godzilla.

Meanwhile, Maddy Russell from King of the Monsters, accompanied by her loser friend and a goofy conspiracy-theorist has taken up the investigation of Apex, convinced that Godzilla must have a reason for what he does and determined to prove it.

So, the film is utterly ridiculous, even for a kaiju flick (and to be honest, I prefer them to be more restrained than this: the Heisei films of the 90s are about the sweet spot for me when it comes to tone).

Now, to me the most important thing about this film was that the monsters would be played with respect and, well, frankly, how they ended the fight. And I’m please to say that in both cases I thought the film passed with flying colors (Godzilla is still a little too heroic for my tastes, but he’s otherwise pretty perfectly in character).

The battles give full scope to both monsters’ power and capabilities (well, Godzilla has a harder time tagging Kong with his ray than he probably should, but you can see why that was necessary). Kong is agile and clever, using tools and tricks to his advantage, while Godzilla is overwhelmingly powerful and durable, with a potential trump card in his atomic ray. When they fight on the ocean, Godzilla thoroughly dominates due to being a semi-aquatic creature. When they fight in the city, Kong has more of an advantage due to the abundant cover and high-ground (Kong’s talent for climbing buildings is used to a frankly ridiculous extent here, as I’m highly skeptical these buildings could support his new weight. But again, it fits the tone of the film and it’s what we want to see). He also picks up an axe from the center of the earth that allows him to even the playing field a bit against Godzilla’s ray.

In short, the film allows its title bout to play out more or less according to the nature of the characters. Which is to say: Godzilla not only wins, but wins decisively, taking both rounds with Kong, while the best Kong can do is knock him down for a bit. To top everything off, Godzilla finishes the second bout in a manner that suggests he had actually been holding back for most of the film. Once he goes all-out, Godzilla utterly dominates Kong. Oh, Kong puts up a good fight, but at the end of the day Godzilla is simply a much more powerful being than he is and much credit to the filmmakers for being honest enough to see that a fight between them can really only end one way.

I also really like how the fight ends: Godzilla savagely mauls Kong, puts his foot on his chest, and roars in his face. He makes it clear in no uncertain terms that he could kill Kong easily in that moment. But then…he doesn’t. Whether out of respect or simply because he perceives that Kong is no longer a threat, Godzilla spares him and leaves him to live or die on his own. That’s a great touch, re-asserting the fundamental nobility and dignity of the Godzilla character and ending their battle on a satisfying note. Not to mention that it makes their subsequent alliance that much more believable.

(I can’t resist noting that this means that Godzilla shows more mercy and humanity than Batman. But that’s another story).

So, I found the film’s take on the titular match up to be, by and large, extremely satisfying. It actually reminded me of something like a full-length Death Battle episode, where the goal seems to be just to show off all that the respective combatants can do and how they stack up against each other. Again, things like Kong climbing on buildings (there’s a bit where he waits on top of a skyscraper to ambush Godzilla: posed just as he was in the original film), Godzilla using his nature as a sea monster to full advantage, Kong using crude weapons, trying to pull Godzilla’s jaws apart, and so on. There was really no effort whatever to make any of this realistic. The goal seems to have been to make it ‘what you would imagine’ the fight to be, the kind of cartoonish, comic-book style action suggested by the question “Who would win: King Kong or Godzilla?” (Freddy vs. Jason did something similar, though to a less extreme degree). It’s probably not to everyone’s tastes, but I enjoyed the heck out of it.

As for the rest of the film…ah, mixed bag.

In the first place, I rather liked ‘Team Kong’: the researcher, her maybe-ex-boyfriend, and the little girl. The fact that the latter only speaks in sign language was a nice touch (the fact that Kong now speaks it is…well, interesting. Certainly not out of the question for the character). I especially appreciate that the boyfriend, though he gets sneered at for being nervous around Kong (and why? How is that in any way an unreasonable reaction?), he subsequently gets many opportunities to show his courage and be heroic, protecting the woman and child, and actually gets acknowledged and appreciated for it. Thank you movie for that!

‘Team Godzilla’, on the other hand, is mostly just annoying. We have the smart, on-the-ball teenage girl, her overweight nerdy male friend, and the goofy conspiracy theorist. Pretty standard contemporary dynamic. Why couldn’t we have the male friend be on a level with her? Why couldn’t the adult be actually mature and level-headed? Why couldn’t you have had some kind of balance of the three, or baring that, just drop one or more to make everyone heroic and useful (Team Kong had that courtesy), or at bare minimum, not annoying? To be fair, nerdy friend does get to save the day in the end with a moment of inspiration, but gets no appreciation or growth from it. Kyle Chandler’s character is likewise completely wasted in the ‘not now, kiddo’ role. Why not have father and daughter both working on the problem and dump conspiracy theorist and loser friend? That way we’d have an actual, you know, relationship on our hands.

Also, the Apex facilities have ridiculously incompetent security, but I suppose that’s to be expected.

The human villains aren’t much to write home about either. Evil corporate guy has a plan to eliminate and replace Godzilla, his haughty ‘corporate chick’ daughter serves as the heavy on Team Kong while being ridiculously stupid at several points, and then there’s the henchman / pilot. The latter is inexplicably named ‘Ren Serizawa’, suggesting a connection with Ken Watanabe’s character of the past films. This never effects anything or even comes up, making me wonder why they bothered.

It’s not much of a spoiler at this point to say that Apex is making Mechagodzilla. But there is a bit of a twist: they’re using one of King Ghidorah’s heads as the control basis so that they can piggy-back off of his telepathy.

Now I love this idea: blending two of Godzilla’s biggest and most important opponents and giving his archnemesis another shot at him to close out the trilogy. In fact, I like the idea so much that I wish they had given Mechagodzilla his own film to fully explore the implications. I mean, a man is mentally linked up with King Ghidorah: there is a tremendous amount of stuff you can do with that idea (as a matter of fact, this idea seems to have been drawn from one of Marc Ceresini’s novels, which did explore the implications. In the book the pilot of Mecha-Ghidorah was a teenage girl, who becomes increasingly twisted by her contact with the King of Terror. At one point her guardian recounts coming home to find her eating a bird she’d killed. As I say, this is an idea that you really need time to explore).

This also reminds me of how much I wish they had dropped the stupid ‘Orca’ device from the previous film and just brought back the telepathy angle of the Heisei films. They could have made the Millie-Bobby Brown character this series’ version of Miki Saegusa. That would have covered about five or six plot holes right there. But I digress.

Anyway, though I wish the Mechagodzilla stuff had been given more time, what they have is pretty good, giving full-scope to his overwhelming power even with his limited screentime. We get the traditional beam-lock with Godzilla, as well as several new weapons, like a drill-tipped tail. I can’t say I care for the new design that much, however: it’s too busy and lacks the cold, smooth, metallic look of previous incarnations that stood out so well against its living counterpart. I also wish that Godzilla had been allowed to participate more in finishing him off, but I suppose they wanted to throw Kong a bone after losing the title fight. It also works given that it was Kong’s persistence that left Godzilla too worn-out to properly challenge Mechagodzilla in the first place, making it something of a penitential act on Kong’s part to finish the job.

The ‘energy source’ plot was great in concept: of course for something like Mechagodzilla the biggest problem would be finding a way to power him (in the 1992 film they specified that they were using a nuclear reactor). Employing Kong to find a secret source of power is also directly taken from the plot of King Kong Escapes, which is all kinds of awesome (I should say that the filmmakers include many homages and nods to classic Toho; they clearly did their research). However, when they actually find it, they sort of…email the energy? Huh? I get they wanted to move things along, but they should have bitten the bullet and just had someone ferry it back to the surface (it would have meant differing corporate chick’s comeuppance, but then they could have gotten it without her being suicidally stupid).

Speaking of which, the additions to Kong’s character were…interesting. At the very least, they show a willingness on the part of the filmmakers to get creative and to try to add something to such a venerable figure. The trip to the hollow earth was a glorious piece of pulp sci-fi nonsense, a chance to go creatively crazy with landscapes above and below and a shifting gravity field, as well as, of course, your standard horrible monsters for Kong to fight (flying snake things: certainly an appropriate denizen for the center of the earth).

On that note, the movie takes a kind of ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach to creativity, drawing from classic Toho films, pulp adventures, previous Kong films, and others for a hodgepodge of sci-fi ideas. We have giant monsters, giant robots, telepathic aliens, a globe-spanning underground fast-delivery system, a prehistoric world at the center of the earth, conspiracies, gravitational anomalies, and on and on. I love the freedom and exuberance that the filmmakers show in just throwing all this stuff at the screen.

That said, I’m not sure about the suggestion of a Kong culture that once existed in the center of the Earth, or of an actual war between Kongs and Godzillas (frankly, I don’t particularly like the idea of Godzilla being a species in the first place: he ought to be a unique or almost unique being, mutated out of whatever genus he had once occupied into what he is now. Again, the Heisei films gave what I thought was the best origin story for him). It seems a little too much. Though the bit where Kong takes his seat on a giant throne, an actual king at last, was pretty cool.

Godzilla being able to blast down in the center of the Earth with his ray was frankly the most ridiculously stupid thing in the film. Actually, my main complaint about his portrayal here is that he uses his ray way too much and for too long at a stretch: a one point he keeps it going for minutes on end while trying to tag Kong. That kind of undermines it as a weapon, and I think he should have a pretty clear limit on how long he can fire it for, so that when he does use it for an extended period, it’s more impactful for the fact that he’s clearly making a special effort (e.g. when he shoots the meteor at the end of Godzilla: Final Wars). They over do his plates lighting up as well: I don’t really like him using it as a threat display. I prefer to know that once they start to glow, it means the ray is coming. But that’s more a problem from the previous film.

Again, though, I was overall very satisfied. The most important thing wasn’t necessarily that the plot was well-thought out or that the monster’s abilities were perfectly portrayed. It was that the characters were treated with respect and allowed to be themselves. And they pretty much nailed that: Godzilla and Kong are both the dangerous, noble, ferocious kings they ought to be. Their dynamic, with Godzilla being the unstoppable, world-defying juggernaut tasked with battling existential threats and Kong the scrappy, defiant, but ultimately out-classed independent party just seeking a place to survive, was perfect.

That is really the chief difference between them, thematically: Kong is about nature being conquered by man. For all his power, he ultimately can’t compete with human civilization and so falls. Here, in a more modern twist, man is alternately trying to preserve and protect Kong and exploit him for their own ends. In any case, Kong is ultimately vulnerable to man. Godzilla, on the other hand, is nature that cannot be conquered: he is the consequence of that supposed conquest. As Boethius put it, anything that escapes from the order assigned to it only falls back into a different order. If man disrupts the order of nature, a more fundamental order, one that he cannot disrupt, is called into play. Godzilla is the embodiment of this deeper nature: the unexpected, disastrous, and uncontrollable consequences of disruption.

So, thematically, you could put it that when man kills Kong, he creates Godzilla (which is sort of what happened with the original films, as Godzilla was partly inspired by King Kong).

Of course, this is another reason the fight can only end one way. For all his power, Kong is fundamentally vulnerable to man. Godzilla isn’t. The question facing the humans in one case is ‘what do we do with Kong?’ whereas in the other it’s ‘can we do anything against Godzilla?’ This is what makes each one interesting, and also what dictates the outcome of their encounter.

In any case, I really enjoyed Godzilla vs. Kong. It was a completely insane, ridiculous, and delightful romp with some of my all-time favorite characters, and for once the filmmakers actually paid what felt like genuine respect to the classics that came before them rather than adopting a faux-superior stance. It could have been a lot better (e.g. fixing the ‘team Godzilla’ storyline), but its high points are so immensely satisfying that I don’t really mind too much. I think that, for all their flaws, I will be glad to have the entire Legendary trilogy on my DVD shelf as a tribute to my most beloved film franchise of them all.

Quotes that Should Have Been Included

Following on from yesterday, here’s a sample of thirty movie quotes that I would have included in the AFI List (all from films released at the time of the list in 2005, so as to be fair):

1. “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
-Roy Batty, Blade Runner 1982

2. “Get away from her, you bitch!”
-Ripley, Aliens 1986

3. “Shut up and deal.”
-Fran Kubelik, The Apartment 1960

4. “No. I am your father.”
-Darth Vader, The Empire Strikes Back 1980

5. “There is a leopard on your roof and it’s my leopard, and I have to get it and to get it I have to sing.”
-Susan Vance, Bringing Up Baby 1938

6. “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
-Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride 1987

7. “Fill your hands, you son-of-a-bitch!”
-Rooster Cogburn, True Grit 1969

8. “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker!”
-John McClane, Die Hard 1988

9. “Free! Free at last!”
-Edward Hyde, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1931

10. “Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a god, you say ‘Yes’!”
-Winston Zeddemore, Ghostbusters 1984

11. “How am I funny? Funny like I’m a clown? I amuse you?”
-Tommy de Vito, Goodfellas 1990

12. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
-Maxwell Scott, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance 1962

13. “People here are funny. They work so hard at living they forget how to live.”
-Longfellow Deeds, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town 1936

14. “You think I’m licked. You all think I’m licked. Well, I’m not licked. And I’m going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if this room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place. Somebody will listen to me.”
-Jefferson Smith, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 1939

15. “Welcome to Sherwood, my lady!”
-Robin Hood, The Adventures of Robin Hood 1938

16. “Earn this.”
-Capt. John Miller, Saving Private Ryan 1998

17. “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble gum.”
-Nada, They Live 1988

18. “Shut up, Mr. Burton. You are not brought upon this world to ‘get it’.”
-Lo Pan, Big Trouble in Little China 1986

19. “Watch the skies, everywhere! Keep looking! Keep watching the skies!”
-Ned Scott, The Thing from Another World 1951

20. “The fate of billions depends upon you. Heh heh heh!…Sorry.”
-Lord Raiden, Mortal Kombat 1995

21. “You’ll be here too?”
“I guess so, I usually am.”
“Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?”
“I wonder if I know what you mean.”
“I wonder if you wonder.”
-Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson, Double Indemnity 1944

22. “Look down there. Tell me; would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand dollars for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”
-Harry Lime, The Third Man 1949

23. “When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands, like water, and if he opens his fingers then, he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
-Sir Thomas More, A Man For All Seasons 1966

24. “Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
-Eleanor of Acquitaine, The Lion in Winter 1968

25. “Waiter will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts.”
-Nora Charles, The Thin Man 1934

26. “And should we win the day, the 4th of July will no longer be known as an American holiday. But as the day when the wold declared in one voice ‘We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight!’ We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”
-President Whitmore, Independence Day 1996

27. “Broke into the wrong goddamn rec-room didn’t you, you bastard!”
-Burt Gummer, Tremors 1990

28. “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”
-Jessica Rabbit, Who Framed Roger Rabbit 1988

29. “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
-Doc Brown, Back to the Future 1985

30. “Welcome to Jurassic Park.”
-John Hammond, Jurassic Park 1993