2. When Uncle Walt adapted Alice in Wonderland, he and his writers ended up giving it a bit more of a plot than the book had. Not much, but a little. And if you notice, the plot they gave it was pretty much lifted directly from The Wizard of Oz: an imaginative girl living what seems to be a dull life wishes for something different and is whisked away to a world of magic and strangeness where she incurs the enmity of an authoritative female antagonist and soon comes to wish for nothing more than to return home. In the end she wakes up to find it was all a dream, leaving her with new appreciation for the mundane world she wanted to leave.
But the interesting point is the one big difference between the two: Dorothy doesn’t only have to deal with the Wicked Witch of the West and the general strangeness of Oz. She also gets to enjoy the friendship and help of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion, as well as the protection and guidance of Glinda, and even the avuncular kindness of the wizard.
In contrast, Alice doesn’t get anything of the kind. No one in Wonderland is Alice’s friend. There is precisely one character in the film who is consistently helpful to her, and that’s the doorknob. And all he can do is give her some information. Everyone else is, at best, barely aware of her presence and at worst actively malicious toward her (interestingly enough, the doorknob is the only character in the film that wasn’t in the books).
(Meanwhile in the books, the only character who might count is the White Knight from the second book, who is at least consistently kind and helpful to her, even though he’s pretty hapless himself and she spends most of their time together trying to help him stay on his horse).
For me, this is one of the things that makes the story unique and compelling: that it doesn’t sentimentalize or cheat with Alice’s dreams. They’re weird, chaotic, and ephemeral full of mad people, with all that implies.
3. Again, I haven’t seen the film, but from what I can tell this is one of the things that really bugs me about the Tim Burton version: the Mad Hatter is not Alice’s best friend. The inhabitants of Wonderland are not her childhood playmates happy to have her back. They don’t care about her. This isn’t Narnia or even Oz: this is a world of madness and nonsense.
4. To switch gears (so to speak), I’ve also found myself revisiting Transformers: Beast Wars, at least as far as reading about it and re-watching some clips. Really, as I recall, that was a surprisingly well-written show, where the writers actually thought through the implications and consequences of the events of the story.
For instance, in that incarnation Megatron is played as being a dangerous radical / terrorist with no official standing in the Predicon hierarchy. He had a grand scheme that he’s trying to put into action, but one that is both an extremely long shot and spectacularly dangerous and potentially destructive (to the point where he himself holds off on carrying it through until he gets backed into a corner because it’s that risky).
Now, no one in his right mind would follow someone like that, right? Right. And almost no one in his right mind does. Megatron’s troops are, to a man, either a). intensely stupid, b). looking to betray him for their own ends, c). completely insane, or d). some combination of the above.
He has precisely one competent, rational, and reliable lieutenant – Dinobot – who is later revealed to have joined him for personal reasons…and who almost immediately defects once it seems those reasons no longer apply.
5. This actually achieves a number of things. In the first place, it helps to establish Megatron’s position in this world: for all his arrogance, he isn’t important or high-ranking, he’s a loose cannon following his own agenda. In the second, it allows him to consistently lose his engagements without undermining him as a villain, since however clever and dangerous he is, he has to entrust the execution of his plans to either the idiot, the lunatic, the traitor, or the lunatic-traitor. Finally, it actually makes him a much more imposing villain, since it gives him scope to demonstrate his cunning without pitting him directly against the heroes. So he’ll do things like work the fact that his minions are plotting against him into his own plans, allowing him to turn their treason to his own benefit. Or another episode has Terrorsaur successfully usurp Megatron’s place and throw him in the brig…whereupon Megatron reveals he programmed an override into the cells to let him escape whenever he wants and proceeds to let Terrorsaur lead the Predacons in battle to let them see how incompetent he really is.
The structure of the show also answers the question “why does he keep people around the he knows would betray him the first chance they get?” Because he only has four or five minions and simply can’t afford to lose any of them unless it’s absolutely necessary.
6. Something else I noticed this week: I really like Princess Peach as a character. I mean, she’s just such a delightfully nice character, so pleasant to be around, but also with a bit of an undefinable edge to her (and this isn’t a new thing, either: she was adventuring all the way back in Super Mario Bros. 2 and then again in Super Mario RPG). She’s a perfectly sweet, wonderfully feminine character, but all the while she’s got an underlying pluck and courage that comes out every now and then, all the more amusing for its rareness.
I especially like in the first Paper Mario game where she’ll periodically sneak around Bowser’s castle to try to spy out information that’ll be useful to Mario. That, it seems to me, is exactly what a character like her would do in that situation and gets her involved in a more elegant way than just have her trying to take on Bowser herself (though that can be fun too). I also love how she insists that her closet full of identical pink dresses are ‘all unique and all very fashionable.’
This is something we almost never get these days: a thoroughly and emphatically feminine character who is positively portrayed and allowed to remain so throughout.
The two biggest fighting game franchises of their time (and ours) were adapted into feature films one after another: first Street Fighter in 1994, then Mortal Kombat in 1995.
The question is, why did one work and the other didn’t?
The first and, I think, the most important factor is how the two films are structured, particularly with regard to their characters.
Mortal Kombat has eleven characters drawn from the first two games of the series, plus two cameos (Jax and Shao Khan). Street Fighter has fifteen characters from its game’s roster, plus one who is sort-of based on the sixteenth. On paper, that’s not a huge difference (a matter of two to five, depending on how you want to count), but consider how they are deployed.
In Mortal Kombat you have a structure that looks like this:
We have our three protagonists: hero, secondary hero, heroine. These three join forces pretty early in the film and from then on they spend almost all their non-fighting screentime together. There is a fourth hero in the form of their mentor, Raiden, and a fifth in Kitana, who is kept in the background for most of the film for plot reasons. We see almost the whole story through the eyes of those three characters. If they need to talk with someone, they talk with each other, meaning that when Johnny Cage has some dialogue, Liu and Sonya naturally get some development as well by dint of being the ones who have to react to him. The rest of the cast are aligned with the villain and serve as his henchmen or tools to challenge the heroes.
The structure is thus designed to maximize each character’s role by putting them as close to the center of the story as possible. It’s clear and easy to keep track of. Some of the characters still get marginalized, but everyone has a purpose and often more than one. You couldn’t really cut anyone, even Scorpion and Sub-Zero, without damaging the story.
On the other hand, Street Fighter’s structure looks like this:
Rather than the two camps of the other film, here we have five or six (depending on whether you want to count Dhalsim as separate from Bison). The main heroes are Guille, Chun-Li, and Ryu and Ken, but of those four only Ryu and Ken spend any degree of screen time together. Guille and Chun-Li each have their own duo of supporting characters to talk to, except that said duos are both almost completely extraneous to the story and receive little to no development, meaning that those scenes basically do nothing except to move the plot around and sort of develop the leads, but without the reinforcing feedback of working off of another relevant character. Each of the protagonists, therefore, more or less exists in their own little story independent of the others and has to develop more or less on his own. And since they only rarely interact it creates a disjointed and extremely shallow effect.
This structure is designed simply to shove as many familiar names in as possible, without necessarily providing them an actual role in the story. If Balrog, E. Honda, T. Hawk, Dee Jay, and/or Cammy were cut, nothing whatsoever would change, story-wise. The same could be said of Blanka (though he at least personalizes Guille’s motivation somewhat), Dhalsim, and Zangief.
One partial solution might have been to keep Chun-Li’s game background as an interpol agent rather than a journalist and have her partnered with Guille, allowing them to build off of each other and form a genuine relationship. That would have left no clear role for Cammy, Honda, T. Hawk, or Balrog, but, again, they don’t really have a role in the film to begin with except giving the protagonists someone to talk to, which would have been better served by having one of the other protagonists filling that role.
Another issue is how the characters are deployed in each film. In Mortal Kombat, we have eleven characters, but they’re not all present throughout the story. They are all established by about the half-hour mark, but then Goro and Reptile remain off-screen ‘in reserve’ for most of the second act while Kano, Scorpion, and Sub-Zero are eliminated one-by-one. Only once they’ve been removed from the story does Goro take an active role. Reptile, meanwhile, is established in two scenes: one where Shang gives him his assignment and one where he performs it by ambushing Liu to prevent him from making contact with Kitana. The point made (that the heroes can’t just go up to her and ask for help or vice-versa), he disappears from the film until it’s time for his fight scene. This also serves to keep Kitana largely ‘in reserve’ until close to the end, after Raiden has dropped out.
This makes sense given the nature of the story and characters: it’s a tournament, so characters will be eliminated and other characters will be waiting until they’re ‘called up.’ This keeps the active cast to a manageable level, even when there are actually a fairly large number of characters in the film, because at any given time we only have about five or six whose actions we have to keep track of.
On the other hand, in Street Fighter, every character is active and ‘on the board’ at all times in the story, meaning that the audience has to keep track of what every one of the fifteen characters is doing. They are all established as quickly as possible and then by and large just sit around contributing nothing for the rest of the screen time until it’s time for one of them to punch out a random goon, like freeloaders camped out on the couch. The result is an inescapable impression of empty bloat.
Again, a solution might have been to simply have some of the characters come and go throughout the film: have them fill temporary roles and then drop out of the story once the role is completed to make way for another character. So, you could have T. Hawk play a role in the beginning, get killed off or invalided out and replace him with Balrog (or something).
Mortal Kombat kept to a very simple, straightforward plot based on a venerable movie template that fit closely with what story the game had. In this case, it’s Enter the Dragon with fantasy elements: there’s a martial arts tournament that will decide whether an evil emperor from a dimension of magic will be allowed to invade the Earth. The premise is goofy, but imaginative and makes a certain intuitive sense (evoking the idea of trial by combat). Each character has a clear, simple reason for being there and taking part in the plot. Most importantly, it’s easy to grasp and to follow and it provides for a lot of martial arts duels.
Street Fighter took on a much more convoluted plot featuring a civil war against a power-mad dictator in a fictional country that superficially resembles Vietnam. There’s a hostage plot that doesn’t really affect anything except to provide a ticking clock (except that all the characters are already motivated to go after Bison, so…what was the point?), a plotline of Bison wanting to create an army of super-soldiers, which sort-of personalizes the battle for Guille, but otherwise only exists to create Blanka (and again unnecessary since Guille’s already motivated to go after Bison), a plot of Ryu and Ken going undercover with a local crime lord to try to find Bison’s hideout, and a plot of Chun-Li trying to get revenge on Bison for her father’s death. Of these the only ones that really tie together are the Guille’s and Ryu and Ken’s (since he’s using them to get to Bison), and none of them have much of a payoff. Chun-Li’s quest for revenge is simply forgotten about after she ambushes him and gets re-captured. The hostage plot again, doesn’t actually affect anything one way or another, and Blanka doesn’t do anything except electrocute one guard and look sad before apparently dying (why not have him join the fight against Bison to save Guille from the villain’s sudden-onset superpowers?).
At any point it isn’t really clear just what Bison’s resources and capabilities are: we’re told he has high-tech weapons that he uses to make up for his comparatively few troops, but we never see them. He has a bunch of faceless henchmen, but then so does Sagat. It isn’t clear why Guille needs Ryu and Ken at all, and the plot as a whole has very little weight to it.
Mortal Kombat had eleven characters to adapt: the seven playable characters of the first game, the two boss characters, one hidden character, and one character from the sequel. They solved this by choosing to focus on the three most heroic, relatable characters as their three protagonists, casting another character in a mentor role (which simultaneously serves to temper what should be his overwhelming power), and working the remaining three in as supporting antagonists to allow for the kind of duels one would see in the game. The two boss characters of course play the main antagonist roles, while the remaining two – Kitanna and Reptile – are worked together as a potential ally to the heroes and the monster assigned to guard her, respectively. You also have one more character – Jax – in a cameo role, and another – Shao Khan – as an unseen presence and then as the ‘stinger’ to end the film. This meant that some of the characters – especially Scorpion and Sub-Zero – got far reduced roles, but it gave more time to focus on the three leads and the plot with the villain.
Street Fighter had fifteen characters to adapt, since the studio insisted on including the enitrety of the game’s large cast. Trouble was that, as noted, the film’s framework didn’t intuitively allow for that many characters, so they were squeezed in to whatever roles there were or could be made for them. You have of course Guille as the hero, Bison as the villain, and Chun-Li as the heroine. So far so good. Though this leaves the two protagonists of the game, Ryu and Ken, without a place, so they become supporting characters and comic relief. Sagat as a secondary villain allied with Bison makes sense, as does having Vega as his subordinate. Likewise Zangief as Bison’s enforcer and Cammy as Guille’s second in command. But then we start running off the rails: we need an excuse for Blanka. He’ll be an abortive super-soldier experiment. That means we need a scientist, so Dhalsim becomes Dr. Dhalsim. Chun-Li’s a reporter now, so she can have a film crew. Shove E. Honda and Balrog in as her sidekicks (no, we don’t care that Balrog was a villain in the game). T. Hawk can be another soldier under Guile. And Bison needs a computer guy, so make that Dee Jay because Theo worked in Die Hard.
See, in the latter they’re pretty much just dropping names into whatever roles they have available or that they can force into the story, like they’re casting a play and need everyone to participate, while in the former, the characters all fit the story and serve it.
Ironically enough, though it follows the game much more closely, Mortal Kombat is much less dependent upon it. People can (and do) enjoy it without knowing anything about the game (I know this for a fact since I first saw it with almost no prior knowledge of the game, on the recommendation of a critic who likewise knew nothing about the source material). Street Fighter is almost wholly distinct from the game in every way, but a good chunk of its cast only exists because they were in the game. Someone who had never heard of the game would watch that movie and find himself wondering why half the cast even exists and why it makes such a point of letting us know who they are (not to mention wondering why it’s called ‘Street Fighter’).
This makes sense when you think about it: these characters were originally designed for a certain context. The closer you can stick to that context, the more sense they will make, while the further away you get, the more you have to struggle to justify them.
Raul Julia’s M. Bison is an over-the-top caricature of a mad dictator; truck-loads of fun to watch, but utterly unconvincing as a threat. He lets Guille bait him, gets outwitted or put on the back-foot more than once, and even his own allies and subordinates seem to regard him as little more than a lunatic most of the time. Julia was no martial artist, requiring a lot of strategic camera and editing tricks to allow him to fight Jean-Claude Van Damme, and even then he’s on the ropes for most of the fight, and that’s after he gets thoroughly trounced by the heroine half way through the film.
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s Shang Tsung is played on a more restrained, if still hammy note, conveying an air of sophistication and chess-master-like control of the situation. He rarely loses his cool, covers almost every base he can, and is convincingly dangerous throughout. He’s able to get away with taunting a god and successfully outwits and manipulates the heroes on more than one occasion. His underlings, even the monstrous Goro, treat him with fearful respect. Tagawa is fairly big and well-muscled, and he’s skilled enough to go toe-to-toe with Robin Shou in the climax with some very fast and fluid martial arts. Before that it’s made very clear that none of the others have a chance against him, and he in fact tries to take advantage of this by challenging first Sonya and then Johnny to the final bout.
Their introductions provide an illustrative point of contrast. Both villains are introduced killing minor characters: Bison takes out two random soldiers in a stiff, blatantly staged manner, snapping their necks in two moves (though accompanied by the great line, “You came across the world to fight me, soldier. Now is your chance!”). He then sees Guille on a news broadcast giving him an off-color hand gesture and is infuriated into challenging him directly.
Shang has a nightmare fight with Liu Kang’s brother, delivering smooth blocks and bone-breaking blows to illustrate his legitimate skill and power (as well as being more emotionally effective – seeing a young man being beaten to death while calling for his brother, instead of two randos dying with little fanfare – despite the hammy acting). He then tells Liu “Your brother’s soul is mine! You will be next!” before transforming into a skull and ending the dream.
The Bison scene is fine in concept as a way to establish his ruthlessness and physical prowess as well as to set up the conflict between the hero and villain. Though it falls apart in the execution and again, I don’t like that he lets himself be rattled so easily. And the interaction between Bison and Guille is both unnecessary (Guille’s whole mission is to fight Bison and so he is already motivated to take him down) and ridiculous (that Bison can somehow talk to him through a television camera).
The Shang scene is cheesy, but effective, again establishing the villain as a dangerous and brutal opponent, while also setting the hero’s motivation, as well as suggesting right at the beginning of the film that Liu doesn’t really believe he can defeat Shang, as shown by Shang turning into a skull right after promising to take his soul. So, right there we have “the hero must fight the villain, but he doubts he can triumph.”
Even apart from the execution (for all his acting talent, there was no way Raul Julia would be as convincingly dangerous a fighter as Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the Street Fighter scene makes Guille and Bison equals at best: Guille can rile Bison, and Bison can taunt him right back (I really wanted to find something that rhymed with ‘Bison’ there). Guille clearly isn’t the least bit intimidated by Bison, which means there’s no tension regarding the outcome of their battle. The Mortal Kombat scene portrays Shang Tsung as literally Liu Kang’s worst nightmare, to the point that he sees him as his own death incarnate.
The former tries to establish the credentials of both the hero and the villain at the same time. The problem with this is that it means the villain can’t be allowed to overshadow the hero, so we aren’t really worried about whether the hero can prevail. The latter focuses entirely on establishing the villain as a dangerous threat and setting up the hero’s motivation, trusting that a). they have the whole rest of the film to establish Liu’s badass credentials and b). the audience will naturally assume he’s a badass once they see him (writing short-hand again: “you know you’re watching a martial arts film. Here’s a handsome, muscular young Asian guy. You can do the math”).
Both films are based on fighting games, but as noted, Street Fighter has very little fighting in it: the action is mostly fairly generic, underwhelming gun fights, explosions, and standard war / action movie fare. What fights it does have are mostly filmed in quick close-ups (partially to disguise the lack of training in key cast members – most notably Raul Julia – and partly because the film’s chaotic schedule meant that many of them had to be improvised or choreographed on the fly).
Mortal Kombat has quite a few showpiece fight scenes, including a sequence of four or five in a row mid-way through the film. The fights are mostly filmed in fairly lengthy long-shots interspersed with close-ups, allowing us to clearly see the actors performing extended sets of fast and fluid martial arts. Most of the cast are trained martial artists of one description or another, and it’s clear the fights were a high priority for the filmmakers (the release date was actually pushed back to allow new fight scenes to be filmed when test audiences didn’t think there was enough of it).
(The one exception, as noted, is Bridgette Wilson as Sonya, whose few fight scenes are filmed more in quick individual cuts, where they filmed her doing one or two moves at a time and edited them together. By contrast, almost every fight in Street Fighter, including every fight involving the main villain, is done this way. What is a sparingly-used expedient in one film is the norm in the other).
The result is that Street Fighter’s action is mostly forgettable boilerplate stuff when it isn’t laughable (e.g. trying to pass off the ravaged Raul Julia as a master fighter on par with Van Damme). There are a small handful of decent fights, but all pretty short and not filmed particularly well. Mortal Kombat boasts some really solid and excellently filmed martial arts, as well as having much more of a distinct ‘style’ to its action scenes.
(As a point of contrast: Guile and co spend as much time running around with guns as they do engaging in martial arts. Sonya’s the only one who uses a firearm in her film, and her gun gets almost contemptuously destroyed as soon as the main plot gets going, leaving bare hands and simple weapons the only recourse for the rest of the movie).
There are also some interesting points of similarity and contrast in how their respective studios and filmmakers approached the movies, and how the shoots went. A few of which include:
Both films had fledgling directors, though Stephen de Souza had worked in the industry and built up a stronger track record than Paul Anderson at that point. De Souza had written some of the biggest action hits of the past decade (this is one of the guys who wrote Die Hard, for goodness sakes!). Anderson had only made a low-budget crime film.
De Souza explicitly had no interest in making a martial arts or tournament film, instead opting to base his script off of a storyline he had seen being considered at Capcom for future entries, involving M. Bison as a dictator trying to take over the world. He figured he could re-cast the game’s colorful lineup of characters into an original action-sci-fi film, rather than a straightforward adaptation of the game.
De Souza wanted only seven characters, and initially Capcom agreed (persuaded by his argument that audiences can only really follow seven characters at a time). But then, as pre-production went on, Capcom kept insisting he add more characters to the cast. Then more. Then more. Until by the end he had exactly the problem he had warned them about.
Mortal Kombat had at its helm not just Paul Anderson, but more importantly producer Lawrence Kasanoff. Kasanoff, upon discovering the Mortal Kombat arcade game, immediately saw the potential in the premise. The blend of martial arts and weird fantasy, he thought, was potentially a billion dollar franchise, extending to movies, books, TV, anything you cared to name. Kasanoff fought hard to get the film made and enthusiastically promoted it all the way, keeping in close touch with Ed Boon, the game’s co-creator (and voice of Scorpion in the movie) to make sure they were matching the spirit of the game.
In short, the people behind Mortal Kombat really believed in the potential of the property and meant to translate it to the screen. The people behind Street Fighter saw it more as a jumping-off point for an idea they thought would be more interesting.
Ironically, Universal and Capcom loved Street Fighter and were very enthusiastic about it, while New Line frankly hated Mortal Kombat and had very little faith in it (Kasanoff tells a story of the studio head yelling at him for an hour about how much he hated the script before concluding “go ahead and make it”). This actually might have helped things, as Kombat didn’t have the problem of the studio trying to force changes upon the production (other than the PG-13 rating) or demanding an early release date. Street Fighter was forced into a rushed production to be in theaters by Christmas in order to push the merchandise that had been enthusiastically churned out for it, no doubt exasperating the films myriad other problems. Studio enthusiasm isn’t always a positive.
Much of Street Fighter’s $35 million budget went to hiring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Raul Julie (Van Damme alone cost $8 million: over a fifth of the film’s entire budget!). Van Damme, then at the height of his stardom, addicted to cocaine, and coming off of a very bitter divorce, was by all accounts a nightmare to work with, refusing to rehearse, showing up late to the set (if he showed up at all), and being an absolute diva when he did. This on top of demanding an expensive private hotel room for his own use (Julia on the other hand was a consummate professional respected by everyone on the set and often accompanied by his children).
Mortal Kombat had a budget of $20 million, part of which went to hiring veteran star Christopher Lambert. Money was so tight that they originally thought that they’d only be able to use him for a few days of shooting on an LA soundstage and resort to long-distance body doubles for the Thailand shoot. Lambert, however, liked the role and wanted the film to succeed, so he volunteered to pay his own expenses to come down to Thailand and film more scenes. There he helped keep the production going smoothly with his laid-back, helpful, professional attitude, setting the tone for everyone else (he also proved himself an absolute mensch by buying a wrap party for the cast and crew out of his own pocket when filming concluded with nothing left in the budget).
As noted, Moral Kombat cost $15 million less than Street Fighter. Yet they clearly spent the money much more wisely, focusing on the elaborate sets and any necessary special effects (e.g. Goro) over hiring big name actors. The cast was mostly relative unknowns, with veterans Christopher Lambert and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa filling in the heavy lifting. Some characters were simply played by stuntmen since they wouldn’t have any lines anyway.
Street Fighter spent a good chunk of its budget on its somewhat-bizarrely strong cast: in addition to Van Damme and Julia, we have veteran dramatic actors like Wes Studi, Roshan Seth, and Grand L. Bush, not to mention Australian pop sensation Kylie Minogue (who, incidentally, was very well liked by the rest of the cast for her sweet, professional behavior on set and supportive attitude off it). Since the film also included a lot of extras, numerous locations, and a fair number of special effects and explosions, the remaining budget ended up being noticeably stretched thin, with the result that the film looks considerably cheaper than Mortal Kombat, despite costing almost twice as much.
The short version of all this, it seems to me, is that Mortal Kombat is a much more focused film: the filmmakers knew what they were aiming to achieve, knew what the particular appeal of the film would be, knew the effect they were trying to create. They concentrated all their effort on the things that would contribute to that effect and tailored the story and characters to the film they meant to make.
Street Fighter seems to have been cobbled together from multiple conflicting visions, not only different ideas of what would happen in the film, but even what kind of film they were making. The most basic elements – the fighting and characters – are mostly done half-heartedly in favor of large dollops of shallow plotlines and out-of-place action scenes. Half the crew seems under the impression they’re making a comedy (e.g. the goofy reactions to the impending truck bomb), the other half thinks they’re making a serious action movie (e.g. Guille contemplating the home videos of his friend, Blanka).
Kombat succeeded on a combination of faith in the material, solid writing, a wisely-spent budget, a cooperative cast, and a clear sense of priority. Fighter failed on a blend of doubt in the material, weak, haphazard writing, a poorly spent budget, a chaotic shoot on a hard deadline, and a general failure to prioritize.
Some of these things are just a matter of bad luck (it would have been hard to predict Van Damme’s absurd diva behavior for instance), but there are a lot of things here for those who are writers to try to keep in mind: understand what you are trying to achieve and what i necessary to create that effect (and what isn’t: do you really need a first-class dramatic actor as the generic scientist in an action movie based on a fighting game?). Consider the structure of the story and character interactions and whether it uses them efficiently. Keep an eye on what each scene is doing and what it says about each character (e.g. is a character who is supposed to be intimidating being undermined?). Ask what role each character plays and whether the story really needs them, or needs them to be present at the moment. Ask how many characters the audience has to keep track of at each given moment and whether there is a way to shuffle them around to keep the active cast down to a manageable level.
And above all else: have faith in the material you’re working with and commit to it.
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.”
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.”
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.
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.
For this week’s Saturday entertainment, I offer the 2018 4th of July (sort of) episode of Ross’s Game Dungeon, where he reviews The Crew and takes a cross-country tour of the United States.
I haven’t kept up on the game itself in the intervening years, nor its sequel, so I don’t know what the state of the series is, but I have to say that I agree with Ross that I love just the idea of a giant, continuous map of a miniaturized version of the United States, and that you could really just sell the game on that alone. No story, just the chance to drive around the country, see the sights, learn bits of trivia, and maybe have the option to play some mini-games, like races or stunts or something. I would absolutely buy a game like that, assuming it wasn’t a glorified rental like this game is.
(The size and scope of the map also makes me dream of an ‘Arkham City’-style sandbox game for Godzilla: maybe with a miniaturized version of the Pacific Ocean and Japan, plus some other coastal regions and islands. Better not dwell on that too much, or I’ll get depressed that it doesn’t exist).
In any case, enjoy Ross’s tour of America. Stay to the end for a visit to my hometown of Detroit.
I like video game history, I like urban legends, and I really like seeing people put a tremendous amount of research and effort into their videos.
With that, I present you Retro Ahoy‘s documentary on Polybius, one of the most prominent myths of the video game world.
First a summary: according to the story, Polybius was a mysterious arcade game available for a brief time in Portland in the early 1980s. Descriptions of the gameplay are vague, but was said to be abstract and strange, combination puzzle and shooting, supposedly highly addictive despite its abstract nature. However, those who played it began to experience odd side-effects such as nausea, amnesia, night-terrors, and behavioral changes. Then a few months after its first appearance, mysterious men in black appeared and wheeled the machines away, never to be seen again.
The rumor is that the game was a CIA experiment: testing mind-control or personality-alteration technology on the general population.
The video goes into greater detail of the story, its history, place in video game culture, and (most impressively) seems to track the legend back to its source. Though even then, there’s still a potential mystery left unanswered to tickle the fancy.
It’s a long video (over an hour), but well-worth it.
I recommend you check out the rest of Retro Ahoy’s channel: the guy puts a ton of research into his work, especially for his longer videos. If you have any interest in video games or video game history, he’s well worth the time (his equally-long and in-depth documentary on ‘The First Video Game‘ is also a must-view).
I think I’ve mentioned before my fondness for Ross’s Game Dungeon, one of the more unique game-review pages on YouTube. Rather than striving for ‘relevance’ with reviews of the latest triple-A games, Ross tends to aim at more obscure, odd, or interesting games, old or new.
It’s hugely entertaining for two reasons: one because Ross comes across as very genuine, like he’s just a guy talking about things he likes. He’s open about the fact that he just picks games to review or topics to cover because they seem interesting to him. The other is that his sense of humor is very much to my taste. A lot of it is of the ‘say something utterly outrageous with a straight face’ variety which I adore. He swears sometimes, though not very often and it always feels warranted, not just a cheap way to get laughs.
Like most people, I found Ross through his Freeman’s Mind series: a playthrough of the original Half-Life where Ross narrates his interpretation of the famously silent protagonist’s thoughts on the events. That’s a brilliantly hilarious series as well (“Give peace a chance! Or at least stand still”), but I’d recommend any viewers who haven’t played the game itself and have any interest in doing so should play the game first to get the full experience (I swear I will do a full Half-Life essay at some point).
I also find many of his videos on other topics to be interesting. I don’t like when he gets onto global warming or peak oil (which happens sometimes, though he at least tries to back up what he says with research), but his talks about, say, improving the GUI or VR are great, and I especially appreciate his efforts to sound the alarm on games being destroyed (see his Games as a Service is Fraud video for an excellent summary of the problem).
Here’s an nice, low-key episode to give you an idea of what Ross is all about: Puzzle Agent
But for Saturday, I’m going to present what I think is his magnum opus in terms of game reviews: possibly the weirdest, most surreal, most insane game ever made. And I mean literally insane, as in some viewers might find this hard to watch because the game honestly feels like its internal logic and aesthetic sense is that of someone with legitimate mental illness. Not just ‘quirky’ or imaginative, but genuinely insane. I can’t even think of any other examples of that sort of thing that I could compare it with.
Put it this way: the instruction manual for the game includes a statement from the developer that “This game is not the fruit of a sick man’s mind.”
They actually felt the need to assure people of that in the introduction to the manual.
This on top of a truly surreal, slightly disturbing artistic and musical sense and…well, it’s really hard to convey just what this game is like. Ross describes it as “The Odyssey of Gaming,” an utterly unique epic of weirdness that very few souls have explored, let along conquered. You really have to experience it for yourself, and the best way to do so is with Ross as your guide.
I give you Armed and Delirious. Proceed with caution!
1. So, we had surprisingly massive influx of views this week to my Quick Word on Disconnecting post. If you’re joining us from elsewhere, welcome and I hope you stick around, though don’t expect a whole lot of content like that one. I try to minimize my commentary on current events and politics, though I suppose there might be somewhat more of that in the immediate-ish future.
2. Another thing I would add is that we ought to adjust our habits when it comes to media and…well, how we think of society in general. To keep things simple: we have the habit of thinking that it is important to get a ‘new’ movie or a ‘new’ book or a ‘new’ game. As if there were something special about a piece of content just because it’s recent. The thing is, though (and I’m sort of borrowing this from David Stewart, whose content I recommend you check out), any piece of fiction that you have not yet experienced is new to you. If you want to see a new movie, for instance, you have literally thousands of options available to you. There is nothing special about the films that happen to be being made available for the first time at the moment (unless you are already invested in the story or the world). This is not even considering the fact that many / most films being released at the moment are garbage.
I think this is a leftover societal habit from the days when people actually had little to no control over what films were available to be seen and so they watched out for what was coming to the theaters. After the video and then the DVD market came into being, we kept doing it, mostly because going to the theater was a special event: something out of the ordinary (that plus our natural love of novelty). But it’s long past time to break ourselves of the habit of thinking that it is at all important to seek out the newest films etc. We have about a century’s worth of material, most of it fairly easily available, to go through in preference to the junk that the people who hate us expect us to buy. If we decided to simply ignore current Hollywood, television etc. altogether, we would not lack at all for entertainment options, and most of it of a higher quality (yes, most of that is still owned by the people who hate us, but that’s another issue altogether. In any case, I can’t help thinking it must be galling to them to know that we would rather watch something made fifty years ago by people they despise than whatever they make today)
3. Of course, the big sticking point in the above is video games, which have a serious backwards compatibility problem. Emulators can do something to solve this (though coincidentally I just read how that’s likely to be more difficult in the future. Back up your roms now!), but it’s an issue I’ve long thought the industry needs to address. I would like to be able to feel sure that I’ll be able to play Half-Life and Command and Conquer in the future, as well as games for the SNES and so on. These are a part of our culture, and I want to see them preserved.
I think the console companies should invest in a kind of ‘universal’ system that can play games from all the company’s previous consoles thus far: so, a single console that has ports or at least the opportunity to play games from the NES, SNES, Nintendo 64, GameCube, Wii, and Switch (not sure at all what that would require, but that’s what I would want to see).
In general, I really wish people with more programming knowledge than I have could work up some kind of preservation plan for these works: something akin to a great library or better yet a series of great libraries for games. Maybe some are. I certainly hope so.
Though it seems much of the industry itself is hell-bent on making sure whole generations of games die out entirely, but again: that’s a topic for another time.