If I actually played video games, the number of video game movies I see would make a lot more sense. Despite my complete lack of playing, I have to admit that I saw both Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation in theaters. On opening day. And I bought the soundtracks.
You can stop judging me now. I don’t think they’re good movies. My schedule was a little more free back then, and some people I know wanted to go, so I went.
Okay, that’s only an excuse for the first one.
Rewatching these films made me realize how far I have come in viewing my entertainment with a critical eye. Meaning that I apparently had no critical eye whatsoever back then, despite a bunch of liberal arts schoolin’, or I simply declined to think while watching these films because otherwise it would be too depressing.
In case you have so far escaped exposure to the glorious and complex storytelling that is the Mortal Kombat universe, let me introduce you. Lord Rayden, who is the deity of a group of Asian monks but who is played by uber-white guy Christopher Lambert, lures three possible Chosen Ones to a boat so he can sail off with them and convince them to save the world. It seems that Earth has been getting its backside handed to it in a series of tournaments that will decide the fate of the world, and this is our last chance to win and keep Planet Home from being overrun by nasty evil crawly things.
Our three potential Chosen Ones who can defeat the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, whose mother was Japanese) include Liu Kang (Robin Shou, whose parents were from Shanghai), who is trying to avenge his brother’s death; Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby), a white boy action film star who wants to prove that he’s more than a pretty boy; and Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson, also white), a former police officer who is investigating her partner’s death. As Lord Rayden says, any one of these three could be the one who defeats the bad guy and saves the world.
That’s not really true, because what are the chances that a woman in an ensemble cast is going to be the Chosen One? I appreciate the effort, but it lacks plausibility.
The first film starts off pretty well. Sonya is dressed appropriately for a commando mission, and her second in command, Jax (Gregory McKinney) is an African-American man who is treated like a competent professional and a good friend to boot. Johnny assumes Liu is basically the bellhop, presumably because he’s dressed a little scruffy and he’s Asian, which means he must be part of the crew? Unclear. Anyway, comeuppance follows quickly, and the audience is supposed to think Cage is kind of an arrogant twit for that incident.
Things start to go downhill pretty quickly once the trio arrives on the island where this round of the tournament will take place. Princess Kitana (Talisa Soto, of Puerto Rican descent) is introduced, billed as the “most dangerous adversary” on the Bad Guy team, but then fails to do much of anything to merit such a warning. (But hey, a woman of color in an action role! How many times does that happen?)
Sonya’s big fight is a parody, which lavishes much attention on her pained reactions to being hit and little attention to any useful undergarments which women in athletic situations would generally employ. I believe at one point I yelled “Get some undergarments, lady!” and my husband yelled “Hell, get some overgarments!” I guess her tank top and hot pants did not qualify as overgarments to him, especially for someone about to be in the equivalent of a mixed martial arts smackdown.
Aside from Kitana and Sonya, there aren’t any other women – which might explain why the male characters provide constant commentary on both of their looks. If there were more women, you could spread it out more. Sonya also does the cliched “I don’t need your help, I can take care of myself” thing even though the audience is being telegraphed that this is completely untrue. Especially when the bad guy grabs her by the hair, kidnaps her, and puts her in a studded leather mini-dress and Tawny Kitaen hair.
Like most lower budget action and martial arts films, the casting in this film is more diverse than blockbuster films. That’s not to say they use this resource wisely. For example, Art (Kenneth Edwards), an African-American fighter who is in the tournament, is basically sacrificed to one of the bad guys in a “save the white folks and the Chosen Asian Guy” maneuver.
But in the end, Liu Kang saves the world, and isn’t that what really matters?
“Wait!” you may say, “If the world is saved, then where does the second film come from?”
It turns out that the bad guys cheated. Oh the shock! Yes, the forces of evil have decided to screw the rule book and invade Earth anyway. So once again, the fearless trio of Liu Kang, Johnny Cage, and Sonya Blade must ride to the rescue. Except Princess Kitana is with them because it turned out she was not actually bad and she’s Liu’s girlfriend now.
As the fight begins, Sonja is (unsurprisingly) the first to fall, and poor Johnny Cage gives his life to protect her. She swears she will kill Kahn, the bad guy who took his life, but since Kahn is the star bad guy for this installment, we know that’s an empty promise. At least in this film, she doesn’t get abducted… because it’s Kitana’s turn! Bye bye, Kitana, have fun sitting in an iron birdcage.
To defeat the forces of evil, Liu and Sonya each need reinforcements. Liu is sent by Lord Rayden to… wait for it… a Native American shaman! For wisdom! (The character’s name is Nightwolf, he is played by actor Litefoot, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation.) And this half naked woman named Jade shows up and she’s pretty much a Dragon Lady! (Jade is played by Irina Pantaeva, whose ethnic background is a Siberian minority group called Burkat, related to Mongolians.) And Liu sees visions of Kitana in his dreams, and she looks like she’s been subjected to a Glamour Shots makeover, because everyone knows that women aren’t really fighters, they’re soft and pretty! With lots of eye makeup! Meanwhile, Sonya goes to find her old partner Jax (now played by Lynn “Red” Williams), last seen as a perfectly normal dude who happens to be African-American. Now he has cybernetic arms or some shit, and he’s all about the street slang. (It’s really, really, really bad.)
Then Sonja ends up in a chick fight mud wrestling scene.
No really, I’m serious.
(Do you see why I’m afraid of the next Resident Evil movie? They’re heading this direction, I tell you.)
Throw in some additional commentary on women’s bodies, including Lord Rayden who is supposed to be the younger god of all enlightenment or whatever asking “Can she fight as good as she looks?” Defeat Sheeva (Marjean Holden, a woman of color), the badass female general from the dark side by simply dropping a cage on her (oooh, the symbolism). And this time, it’s Princess Kitana who saves the world.
Huh? A woman is going to save the world?
Okay, let me clarify. Liu Kang defeats the bad guy. However, we are told it would all be for naught if Princess Kitana doesn’t love her mommy enough to make her stop being so damn evil. Yes, the undead Queen Sindel (played by Musetta Vander, who is white) is the key to undoing the partial fusion of the Earth Realm with the Outworld, and it’s up to Kitana to bring mommy back to the side of light.
I don’t think even the writers would claim it makes sense. If you’ve been keeping track of the casting though, you may have noticed that quire a few people of color and women got acting jobs because of these two fine cinematic productions. So I will give the Mortal Kombat film oeuvre one star.
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.