Feb 28, 2020
Movie Duel: Street Fighter vs. Mortal Kombat
Welcome back to Movie Duels, in which we watch two dueling movies and offer our eminently qualified opinion of which film, if any, has a reason for existing, and which one should have been left back at the pitch meeting.
Back in 1994, the idea that you could successfully make a movie out of a video game must have made about as much sense as crafting furniture out Cheez-Its. Even today, with video games fully established as a mainstream cultural medium, the release of a movie based on a video game is met with no small amount of well-founded trepidation. As of 2018, dozens of video game adaptations have gotten major-studio releases, and of those, nine out of ten (easily) are total ass. Which makes them not a great investment choice for today’s risk-averse studios. The prospect was even hairier in 1994: only two video game movies had ever been made (1993’s Super Mario Bros. and 1994’s Double Dragon), for a combined success rate of 0%.
But both Street Fighter (1994) and Mortal Kombat (1995) bucked the trend and made bank at the box office, with the latter even getting a sequel. In retrospect, this is not so surprising. I feel like I have to set the tone here for some of our younger readers: when these movies came out, video games were still very much for kids. Adults looked at them as a frivolous pursuit. And gaming was still a very social culture. Where I grew up in rural Nebraska, most households didn’t even have a console yet, and even if they did, a lot of times the kids wouldn’t be allowed to have games like Mortal Kombat because there was a moral panic going on about how violent it was. So if you wanted to play, you had no other choice than to crowd the house of whichever kid had a Nintendo or Sega (Atari Jaguar owners were shunned, and not spoken of in polite company), or gather at whichever convenience store or bowling alley had an arcade console, and step on each other’s necks to get the chance to grab second controller and lose in a few minutes to that one kid who played all the time.
That sort of culture bred insularity. It bred obsession. It made kids trade a month’s desserts for a page torn from a gaming magazine that had all their favorite player’s combos in it. And it created a conduit through which word-of-mouth marketing could very effectively flow. When the first ads for films based on Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat started to appear in those magazines, every boy I knew between 6 and 13 knew about them within days.
Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat came out less than a year apart, but they nonetheless belong to two different eras of action filmmaking. Street Fighter represents the last gasp of the ‘80s action idiom: bright, broadly directed scenes of cartoon-y characters trading cheesy one-liners and beef-slap punches. Mortal Kombat, however, is more ‘90s than Monica Lewinsky’s ass crammed into a pair of Zubaz. It’s got a dark, cult-y, vaguely Oriental aesthetic, Hong Kong-inspired fight choreography, rudimentary CGI, and a pulse-pounding soundtrack filled with the latest techno and industrial music, including the famous theme song that would be a constant at the local skate rink for years to come.
Let’s get my biggest beef with Street Fighter out of the way right now: it has no street fighting. Literally, not one God-damned second of street fighting. That’s worse than the time I went to see There Will Be Blood and there was no blood. In fact, there’s remarkably little hand-to-hand combat of any kind, which, not to belabor the point, is kind of weird for a movie based on a game that’s nothing but hand-to-hand combat (excepting the bonus level, where you beat up a car).
I don’t even remember if the Street Fighter game had a plot, and I don’t feel inclined to check, because it’s obvious what we got onscreen is nothing like it. The movie’s plot deals with a war being fought in the fictional Southeast Asian nation of Shadaloo between the “Allied Nations” led by Colonel William Guile (Jean-Claude Van Damme, looking prematurely washed-up), and the forces of indeterminately ethnic warlord M. Bison (Raul Julia), who’s successfully holding the combined military might of the industrialized world at bay. All the characters from the game are here, with backstories obviously modified in various tortured ways to fit the movie’s premise. Dhalsim, the awesome yogi who could float and stretch his limbs, is reimagined as a boring scientist, and Dee Jay the kickboxer is some kind of all-purpose computer douche; neither throw a single punch during the whole movie.
Right off the bat, Street Fighter suffers for its unwillingness to perform the fanservice that is the only reason a movie like Street Fighter would possibly exist. Even when this movie does things like putting Chun-Li in the same dress she wears in the game, or letting Ryu (sort of) do a Hadouken, it feels like an afterthought, as if this movie was one afternoon in the editing room away from having nothing to do with Street Fighter.
Mortal Kombat doesn’t suffer for any lack of actual Mortal Kombat. It sticks as close to its source material as Street Fighter strays from it. I remember the Mortal Kombat games having a pretty elaborate mythology, doled out in bits on the interstitial screens that were displayed before you put a quarter in, and from what I remember, Mortal Kombat the movie plays out pretty faithfully to this story. Three human martial artists are chosen by thunder god Raiden (Christopher Lambert) to represent Earth in a tournament called Mortal Kombat, which they must win in order to prevent an invasion of Earth by extra-dimensional forces led by the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa).
That’s a pretty solid lattice upon which to hang a movie that’s mostly a bunch of fight sequences, which makes it all the more frustrating when the plot fails to do any of its allotted portion of the heavy lifting. Story elements are forgotten. Rules are contradicted. Characters will decide to wander around someplace for no reason, only to encounter an enemy and fight to the death then and there with no one watching, notwithstanding the fact that these fights are supposed to be part of a tournament. Nonetheless, at least the movie doesn’t wipe its ass with its own premise with the vigor that Street Fighter does.
The characters in Mortal Kombat stay pretty true to those of the game’s backstory, and they all have their own reasons for competing in the tournament. Liu Kang is an exiled Shaolin monk whose brother was killed by Shang Tsung. Sonya is a cop of some kind who joins the tournament to find some criminal she’s after. Johnny Cage is a vain action movie star/expert martial artist battling tabloid rumors that he’s a fake. Their fidelity to their game’s backstories only matters if you’re the kind of person to whom that matters. What matters to me is that they’re given a lot more to do as their characters than Street Fighter’s characters, and the movie attempts to give them each an emotional arc. Would that the writing and acting talent were up to the challenge, but this movie deserves credit for trying to take an unlikely story in such a mature direction. And for doing it while, unlike Street Fighter, keeping the physically painful cheeseball dialogue to a minimum (Johnny Cage has most of the groaners, and he’s supposed to be a dipshit).
One thing that distinguishes Street Fighter from Mortal Kombat is how cheap the former looks compared to the latter. Most of Street Fighter’s budget was eaten up by the cost of securing Jean-Claude Van Damme and Raul Julia to star, and as a consequence, you can’t poke the movie too hard anywhere without some scenery falling down. Bison’s fearsome fortress is obviously a dirty warehouse; his gauntlets are plastic; the control console to his sea defense system is a joystick from a Street Fighter console, which I think was supposed to be a cute joke, but isn’t. Budgetary restrictions can be overcome with a little creativity, but that’s asking too much of this obvious cash-in.
Mortal Kombat, having no one famous in it (Highlander’s Christopher Lambert is the biggest star), could afford higher production values than Street Fighter pulled off. The sets are atmospheric and cool. The CGI is… fine (this was 1995, so adjust your expectations accordingly), but they managed to pull off a couple of neat practical effects, including a convincing animatronic version of the twelve-foot-tall, four-armed Prince Goro, and a delightfully trashy gore effect where Scorpion’s flaming head gets cleaved in two and explodes. But most of all, Mortal Kombat could afford to hire fight choreographers who knew their asses from their elbows, and editors who could turn the footage into something that looked like people fighting.
Most anyone who knows anything about Street Fighter is well apprised of the movie’s high point: Raul Julia’s thundering performance as the villainous M. Bison, his last film role before his tragic death from complications of stomach cancer. I hesitate to write too much about Mr. Julia’s work on this movie, because nothing I say will do it justice. It’s glorious. It’s sublime. It’s one of the things I’ll look back on during my last few moments alive.
What’s surprising is that I enjoyed Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s performance in Mortal Kombat almost as much. As Shang Tsung, an immortal sorcerer who draws his power from the enslaved souls of defeated warriors, Tagawa delivers a more measured but still crowd-pleasing performance marked by his vocal register—modulated somewhere between cool deep velvet and defiant snarl—and his masterful use of the arched villainous eyebrow. His continued repetition of some of the Mortal Kombat catchphrases (“Finish him!”, etc.) takes much longer to get old than you might expect.
The Winner, and forever the gold standard for video game adaptations, is Mortal Kombat.