Mortal Kombat is such a high-fidelity, absurdly choreographed murder ballet stuffed with ridiculous lore that I cannot help but love everything about it. It is a mountain of contradictions — graphic and beautiful, social and antisocial, dumb and cinematic. It is also inextricable from many people’s childhoods.
So rather than try to unknot this messy pile of contradictions like last year’s Christmas lights, I’m just going to plug them in and marvel at the illuminated pile from all angles. Let’s rank the new movie’s fatalities from least to most over-the-top (because that’s what we’re all here for anyway) and look back at the seemingly quainter times when Mortal Kombat was shocking enough to spur congressional hearings and rile parents groups.
Bi-Han vs. Hanzo Hasashi
The movie’s first big K.O. is also its most restrained. Probably because it’s part of a tragic origin story and the inciting incident for most of the movie’s drama.
Before becoming elemental ninjas Sub-Zero and Scorpion, Bi-Han and Hasashi face off in Mortal Kombat’s opening battle to the death. Bi-Han notably has his ice powers, which would go on to be a major part of his personal brand as Sub-Zero. Despite the fact that an icicle is the perfect murder weapon, Bi-Han opts to stab Hasashi with his newly deceased wife’s trowel.
While this goes on to become significant thematically, it’s pretty garden variety in the realms of Mortal Kombat.
A Look Back to the Early ’90s
Sprinkled throughout this article will be various quotations taken from actual people in the early 1990s when the controversy surrounding Mortal Kombat was at its highest. It was the best-selling game in the world, but also the target of a national debate over what was suitable for children to see in their video games.
Reporters looking for a local angle on a national story rushed to their nearest arcade to question anyone shoving quarters into a Mortal Kombat cabinet. It’s interesting to see how far we’ve come — in both good ways and bad.
Wes Dodd, 15-year-old, Akron, Ohio
“I like the way it plays, more realistic. I like how the guys look; the blood makes it more realistic and a lot more fun.”
Carol Dodd, Wes’s mother
“I felt we were communicating, and he has a level head on his shoulders. … He has a moral compass, and that will carry him through all this.”
Kung Lao vs. Shang Tsung
As a master sorcerer residing in Outworld, I would have expected a bit more animus and creativity from Shang Tsung. But instead of getting his hands dirty, Tsung performs an oldy, but a goody — sucking Kung Lao’s soul from his body with minimal effort.
Anyone vaguely familiar with Mortal Kombat will recognize the classic imagery of the glowing green energy flowing from the withering body of a combatant (kombatant?). This scene does little to innovate on the formula.
Inside the Video Games — 1994
Michael Harris of Westminster, California wrote in to this syndicated video game column to draw a compelling link between Mortal Kombat and the often-forgotten Grape Escape.
“It’s violent, but you can’t rip out people’s spinal cords in real life. If this game is too violent, then they should take the cartoon “Roadrunner” off the air. It might sound stupid, but they should complain about the (board) game Grape Escape, where players cut (characters) in half and step on them.”
Cole Young vs. Goro
I’m not crazy about a fully CGI Goro. I know the golden days of practical effects are behind us, but the animatronic Goro from the 1995 Mortal Kombat feels and looks so much better. He was also more of a threat in the original film.
Gaining little screen time for Mortal Kombat’s big bad, Goro is dispatched by a newly empowered Cole Young, the movie’s new MMA protagonist. Cole manages to manifest body armor and a couple of batons with speared ends. With literal plot armor preventing his demise, our main character manages to impale the Prince of the Shokan through the head. It’s an unsuitably banal demise for Outworld royalty.
The AP Weighs In
The Associated Press review of Mortal Kombat’s home console release in 1993 is surprisingly relevant these days. In hindsight, it seems much of the country was focused on the wrong sort of violence.
“Graphics are worth seeing; the backgrounds are solid, and fighters excellent. Sound, including effects and the voice announcing each fight are great. So forget the hype about blood and gore. You’ll see more on any TV cop show.”
Sonya Blade vs. Kano
After recreating the trailer fight from Kill Bill Vol. 2, Sonya stabs Kano in the eye with a garden gnome. Although Kano’s dislike of gnomes is established earlier in the film, it’s an odd payoff.
Like the 1995 movie, the rivalry between Sonya and Kano is one of Mortal Kombat’s most entertaining aspects. This film gives Sonya a real Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 vibe, and it really fits her character.
Kano serves as the film’s comic relief and Superstore alum Josh Lawson balances humor and intensity masterfully. Also the Queensland native turns the Australian dial to 11 with his performance as Kano. He’s a bloody drongo that furthers the trope that all Australians carry a large knife. He’s gonna glass somebody like it’s nothing, punch a dart, and then head to the dunny to take a grogan. Lawson as Kano is remarkable.
Reiko vs Jax
Compared to Kano, the character of Reiko is practically nonexistent. He merely exists to carry a large mallet and let Jax clap his head into oblivion with a pair of metal arms.
Liu Kang vs. Kabal
When Ludi Lin first appeared on screen as Liu Kang, I realized everyone in this movie is beautiful. I don’t mean the entire cast is glamorous or attractive in the way that you see in most major movies that renders physical beauty unremarkable. I mean I feel compelled to study these actors’ faces every time they appear on screen.
Juxtaposing that is Kabal, who hides behind his steampunk mask that doubles as a respirator. As people typically do, Kabal meets his demise at the maw of a dragon made of fire. We have our first and only Animality of the film.
Speaking of Juxtaposition
Robert Schrag, media critic and professor at N.C. State University
“I would be stunned to learn that kids who spend a lot of time with this game didn’t end up both behaving more aggressively and believing the world in which they live is more dangerous. There probably is absolutely nothing good about the game other than it’s making a lot of money for somebody.”
Allyne Mills of Mortal Kombat publisher Acclaim Entertainment Inc.
“We have heard and read many studies that say martial arts games are good for kids.”
Sonya Blade vs. Mileena
Sonya earns a power-up after dispatching Kano. This comes in the form of energy rings that fly from her arms. This moment receives such a high spot on the list thanks to the shot of Sonya that is framed through the gaping hole in her foe’s torso — complete with a bit of spine. The language of cinema really is profound.
Scorpion vs. Sub-Zero
Scorpion gains revenge against the man who murdered him and his family by immolating the ice ninja. While breathing fire on your enemy as your own face transforms into a skull is pretty metal, Scorpion explains that although he hoped to burn in the fires of hell, he learned to control them. That is some awesome shit to say.
Kano vs. Reptile
Someone gets double flawless victories on the pit stage without using block and performs a fatality, which as we all know summons Reptile. Kano performs his classic heart rip on the lizard humanoid with such enthusiasm that you can’t help but get wrapped up in the moment.
Kung Lao vs. Nitara
Here we go. This is it. Mortal Kombat at its most absurd and artistic. Kung Lao launches his razor-edged hat into the ground and it begins to spin like a buzzsaw. I know, that’s awesome, right?!
Kung Lao then mounts the winged Nitara and rides his opponent like a surfboard into the waiting razor hat that splits her in twain. It’s dazzling and ridiculous and graphic. It also feels cathartic in the way that people often overlook when it comes to Mortal Kombat.
As a kid, you see everything that goes on around you. You may not understand it, but you’re aware of it all. The only thing that changes when you become an adult is you finally have some amount of control.
So while Mortal Kombat may have added a bit of violent stimulation to kids’ lives, it was always under their control.
Patrick Ferell, publisher of GamePro magazine
“Right now, the violence is still pretty cartoonish. But as we move into CD-ROMs, we’re gonna see a range of products from porno to Sesame Street. And we need to have some type of standard advisory. They’ve been ambivalent [about ratings] in the past, but it’s getting to the point where the industry will have to do a gut-check on this.”
Rep. Alma Stallworth, Detroit Democrat
“Spending a couple of hours cutting the heads and hearts out of bodies is a subtle influence on how (youngsters) feel about life and death. We’re programming them to be insensitive.”
Jeff Young, 18, Raleigh, N.C.
“I’d rather see it on TV than real life.”