Mortal Kombat

(Written for a 2002 “Reviewer Rumble” tournament among contributors.)

If the movie “Mortal Kombat” were a character in a “Mortal Kombat” video game, its special maneuver would be to take off its pants, climb onto its opponent’s shoulders, and defecate on its opponent’s head. Figuratively, this is what the movie does to the audience. I think it would be satisfying, somehow, to see it happen literally (to someone else).

The film is based on a series of video games that I recall playing once or twice as a teen-ager. I now have a job and a house and therefore don’t play video games, but I recall enough about “Mortal Kombat” to know that I don’t know why it’s spelled with a “K.” Perhaps the Russians are involved? No, that’s not it; these are Asians, normally known for their spelling agility.

At any rate, the film begins with techno music greeting the viewer. Except I think “assaulted” would be a better verb, as it seems the only one appropriate when describing techno music in any context. “Badgered” or “harassed” might also work. I picture the techno music running up to you and screaming at the top of its lungs while it slaps you in the face, repeatedly and rhythmically. Are the people who play video games the same people who listen to techno music? I think they are quite opposite groups of people, in fact, and I don’t think they ought to be mixed.

But we have gotten off track, and we have barely started. After the barrage of techno music, the movie shows us a man who looks like the host of “Iron Chef” whose name is Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). He has just slain young Chan Kang (Steven Ho) and now points to the viewer and says, “Your brother’s soul is mine. You will be next.”

Before you even have time to puzzle over the fact that the deceased clearly is not your brother, the movie reveals that Iron Chef was actually talking to Liu Kang (Robin Shou), and he was doing it via a dream. The very hairful Liu is all sweaty and awake now, and damned if he’s not going to avenge his brother’s death.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, a cop (or something) named Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson) is hot on the trail of Kano (Trevor Goddard), who only has one eye and who killed her partner. Perhaps this is why Sonya is always making a face as if she has smelled something horrid — but no, actually, that can be ascribed to Sonya being played by Bridgette Wilson, who is always making that face and who is by far the least-attractive, least-competent actress ever to be described as “lovely and talented.” Kano is in league with Iron Chef and plans to lure her into Iron Chef’s clutches, Iron Chef apparently having a thing for shrill, talentless harpies.

Meanwhile, in Hollywood, an action star named Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) is miffed because the tabloids are saying he’s not actually any good at martial arts. (The tabloids are mum on his minimal acting ability.) He gets a chance to prove himself, though, when he’s invited to a mysterious competition that will take place in the Far East which he must attend by getting on a leaky boat which leaves from a pier immediately. What’s to think about? He’s there!

Turns out the competition is hosted by none other than Iron Chef, and he has assembled his dream team of opponents: Johnny has arrived from Hollywood, Sonya has chased Kano there, and Liu is looking for revenge and a good conditioner. Why he wants these three in particular is something the movie probably explained when my mind had wandered elsewhere, which means it could have happened during about 87 of the film’s 90 minutes.

This trio of hotheads, of whom only Liu has any actual martial arts skill, remind me of the people I know in real life who are always fighting, i.e., they are belligerent and stupid. Seems like if you go around looking for fights, you’re bound to find them. If you go around being easy-going and peaceful, you will probably never have to fight anyone. It serves them right that everyone is always beating the crap out of them, is my point, with their attitude like it is.

Since the video games have supernatural characters like Sub-Zero and Scorpion, the movie has them, too. There’s also a big monsterish fellow with four arms, and a 10,000-year-old princess named Kitana whose function in the film is to be both hot and uninteresting (but hot).

Also, there’s a mystical Lord Rayden (Christopher Lambert) who never speaks, only hisses. He’s a good guy, but for some reason he doesn’t have the power to stop Iron Chef, whose mission, we learn, is to take over the earth with his army of martial arts soldiers. The arbitrary rules of the universe say Iron Chef only has to win 10 matches, and he’s won nine so far. The competition he invited everybody to — which he calls Mortal Combat, though I’m assuming he’s pronouncing it with a “K” — will be the 10th. Long story short, good guys have to win the match, or else Earth is invaded. But no pressure! Just relax and do your best, guys.

It’s pretty oddly organized, as tournaments go. Some of the matches occur in plain sight on a nice beach, while Johnny Cage inexplicably finds himself in the woods, fighting against Scorpion, who has a snake coming out of his hand, as befitting a man called Sna– No, wait, Scorpion. Huh. I don’t know, then. Then, mysteriously, there are some battles that occur indoors, perhaps due to inclement weather on the beach.

I like the part where the trio are looking for Kitana, I forget why, and Johnny insists she went a particular way. But as they’re “following” her, they’re cutting through massive spider webs, which means she obviously didn’t go that way, unless she has the power to pass through spider webs without breaking them.

Which she very well may. Unusual superpowers are the norm here, and it’s part of what makes the film so ridiculous. Martial-arts fighting is one thing, but superheroes pounding the crap out of each other gets old. There’s a scene early on where a suitcase gets dropped into the water, and then it sinks. This is the only cause-and-effect incident in the film that is at all realistic. (If you dropped a heavy suitcase in the water, it really WOULD sink.) The rest of the time, you have people who fly across the room after being punched, rather than just falling down. You have people who can leap several feet straight up, instead of only a couple. Human anatomy, physics, probability — all these laws are abused in “Mortal Kombat.” Gravity especially takes a savage beating.

I also like the part where Iron Chef morphs (’cause he can do that) into Liu’s dead brother RIGHT IN FRONT OF LIU, and then expects him to be fooled into thinking it’s really his brother. How stupid does he think Liu is? As stupid as the people who made this film? Impossible. Now get off my shoulders, please, I’d like to go wash up.

F (1 hr., 41 min.; PG-13, some profanity, a ton of violence.)