The planets are out of alignment and only three people of noble heart can set them spinning right. While that may be a gross simplification of “Mortal Kombat’s” plot, it does get its story essence across.
This is, plain and simple, a tale of good vs. evil. The novel twists in this martial arts action-adventure are superb technical and visual effects, a tongue-in-cheek script and performers who can convey its mocking tone without stooping to the obvious. The package adds up to potent, late summer box office and a must-have cassette or laserdisc for avid genre fans.
The action revolves around a rather unusual tournament of champions. One side consists of the human league and the other is repped by the dark, unworldly forces of evil sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). On the surface, the contest seems heavily weighted toward the latter group, which includes characters who can turn into serpents, throw spitballs of lethal ice or simply tower two stories high with four arms each with the strength to crush iron.
But the best of the flesh-and-blood crew are better than their seemingly impossible adversaries, thanks to superior intellect, an ability to adapt and the watchful tutelage of good sorcerer Rayden (Christopher Lambert) — a robed, silver-maned master with a husky, whiskey voice reminiscent of Colleen Dewhurst.
Still, in nine prior competitions, the denizens of Outworld have prevailed. Unlike baseball, it’s 10 strikes and you’re out in this game; if the nonhuman team prevails again, the populace of Earth becomes enslaved to the evil empire.
With an emphasis on elaborate fights, “Kombat” owes a tremendous debt to the cinema of Hong Kong. Its mystic pizza of a plot and Kung foolish prattle also hark to the East’s sword-and-sorcery fare. Toss in a bit of updated Ray Harryhausen stop-motion f/x and one can pretty much see the full ancestry of the piece.
But where others have sunk in the mire of imitation, director Paul Anderson and writer Kevin Droney effect a viable balance between exquisitely choreographed action and ironic visual and verbal counterpoint. After all, the fate of 5 billion-plus rests on the shoulders of three well-toned, muscular misfits.
The very composition of the trio should be a tipoff that the filmmakers are mindful of the situation’s innate absurdities. There’s a vain martial arts actor (Linden Ashby) burdened by press reports that he’s a fraud; a tough drug task-force leader (Bridgette Wilson) who winds up chained to a pillar in a hopelessly silly dress; and a hero (Robin Shou) who’s reluctant despite having been “chosen” to fight in Final Kombat.
Slickly stylish, pic tops its sources of inspiration with lush, crisp production values and exotic Thailand locales. An arsenal of special-effects teams unleash some dazzling, fun eye-poppers, while the best of the fights have a visceral tension one can almost taste.
Unlike other video-arcade screen translations, including “Street Fighter” and “Double Dragon,””Mortal Kombat” establishes itself as a bigscreen entity. It appears to have the pluck and wit that franchises are made of.