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Mortal Kombat

New Line // PG-13 // April 19, 2011
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted April 20, 2011 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

"The fate of billions depends upon you. Hahaha ... sorry."

Imagine a dark room filled with neon colors and antsy people with eyes glued to a screen, their laughter and moans-'n-groans only trumped by the brazen sounds of punches and frost-'n-fire attacks. That fittingly describes Mortal Kombat -- both playing the game in a mid-'90s arcade and watching the film inspired by it -- a flamboyant milieu of hand-to-hand combat with no shortage of stakes or bombast. Garnering a PG-13 rating upon its release to open the floodgates for its varied-aged fans, Resident Evil director Paul W.S. Anderson concocts an inane but energetic ode to Outworld in his take on the series, opting to spread cheesy bravado, cliché-riddled dialogue, and glitzy effects atop a strained story that charismatically drags itself between enthusiastic fight scenes. And it has a great time doing so.

A group of warriors from all walks of life have been selected to compete in a generational tournament between humans and the denizens of Outworld, a violent place lorded over by powerful humanoid creatures. Though other fighters set sail to battle for the fate of mankind, three have been specifically chosen for their virtuous appeal: Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby), an aging actor with a snarky mouth; Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson), a military girl with legs of (metaphorical) steel and an eye for revenge; and Liu Kang (brilliantly-cast Robin Shou), a "retired" monk with a fated purpose. After the lightning god Raiden (Christopher Lambert) explains the details and importance of the tournament -- win, or humanity's ka-put -- they then meet the being pulling the strings, the powerful shape-shifter Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). Each one has their own reasons for jumping into the tournament, yet none of them realize what they're really up against when they sign on.

Eager fans know what's coming, though, from element-wielding ninjas to four-armed beasts, and "Highlander" TV writer Kevin Droney makes quick work in steeping Mortal Kombat in taglines, character references, and other crowd-pleaser ingredients. As one might expect, changes find their way into this videogame adaptation -- it condenses the notable rivalry between assassins Scorpion and Sub-Zero into one pithy line, Raiden doesn't do any actual fighting (no flying torpedoes in sight), and Liu Kang enters the tournament out of grief over his brother's death -- which water down the already-thin story into something with quicker save-the-world flow and a blunter, black-and-white outlook on good versus evil. But it's also paired with forced eye-roll-worthy dialogue, which only veers away from aggravating clichés long enough to spice up the flow with goofy humor, all delivered in a tolerably over-the-top fashion that'll feel familiar to Anderson vets.

But, much to the annoyance of critics to its follies, Mortal Kombat still has a lot of ridiculous, exaggerated fun riding its hokey yarn of world domination from fisticuffs to fisticuffs, orchestrating (mostly) well-choreographed fights either in lush nature locales or candlelit neo-apocalyptic dilapidation. Tons of different unique gargoyles adorning Shang Tsung's castle are perched behind wax-dripping candles and other moody lighting elements, rustling up a menacing aesthetic tone that pumps the film full of atmosphere. The computer-generated effects produce the same result in their design aims, even if the aging effects are certainly starting to show some rust; the slithery spear peeking out from Scorpion's palm adds awkwardness to those close-up sequences, while Shang Tsung's reptilian spy just looks strange. Anderson's style smooths out their creaking vintage against the vigorous action, which stitches up most of the unsightly seams into the picture's overall visual flare.

These little details enhance the tone of the battles in Mortal Kombat, which ultimately become the only real drivers to its momentum -- aside from the pulsing techno music. One vigorous throwdown starts in a beautiful wooded area with kitschy percussion music fueling the rhythm, then quickly toggles to a fiery pit with platforms and ladders scattered among the remains of fallen enemies, bringing production design and energetic flare together into a battle that almost justifies the film's time alone. The choreography stays vigorous and pulse-pounding against the fantastical locations, most of the time, while peppered with flecks of fan-service, some goofy and others satisfying. Since Anderson opted to go for something that capitalizes on the popularity of a gritty, violent franchise within a PG-13-friendly framework, he makes sure there's enough energetic action and nudge-nudge, wink-wink liveliness in his joyride to make the faults not matter as much as they probably should.

The Blu-ray:

With the presence of a subpar Alliance Blu-ray out there and an upcoming entry in the Mortal Kombat videogame series, an installment that returns to the furiously violent roots of the original games, WB/New Line have dug up Paul W.S. Anderson's lively adaptation for a high-definition release to tie into the reinvigorated interest with the property. Included inside the standard eco-friendly case, an exclusive downloadable Jade Classic Costume can be used in said game -- though only available for the PS3.

Video and Audio:

Mortal Kombat received nothing more than a cruddy release in the early stages of DVD, so revisiting the flick through WB/New Line's Blu-ray proves to be a pleasant sprucing-up that's quietly in-tun with the theatrical look -- though not really a quality high-definition experience. Framed at 1.78:1 within a 1080p AVC encode, numerous issues with the source pop up intermittently, from heavy noise in backgrounds (check out the blue light shining in during the dining-room brawl scene) to either thick or unstable black levels and dust/debris scattered throughout. With those things fresh in mind, it's possible to acknowledge that the positive merits of the transfer do counterbalance the negatives. The sheen against skin and the depth/texture of fabric picks up fine elements and slight contrast differences to an acceptable level, while the vivid color palette -- heavy in cobalt blues at some times,

The disc also drops the ball a bit with the DTS HD Master Audio track, an arena where Mortal Kombat could really shine. Full-throated sound effects and the pulsing techno music instead come off as either marginally stable or suffocating under the design's limitations, only offering middling bass during music-heavy moments and straight visceral sound effects. Some passable separation in channels occurs during battle sequences, but there's a shrug-worthy thinness -- and some coarse strain -- about the effects paired with the thuds and kicks edited into the brawls that feels flimsy and flat, while others sound as if they should leap out more (the "lion roar" during Liu Kang's fight, for one). The music does balance against the overall sound design rather well, though, especially with the moody percussion-heavy bursts once the gang steps onto Shang Tsung's island, and the mediocre verbal clarity mostly stays away from ungainly strain. It's no great shakes and certainly could benefit from a bit of refinement, but it'll do. English, French, and Spanish subs can be paired with the English DTS HD Master Audio track, while French and Spanish language options are also available.

Special Features:

Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins (39:07, SD MPEG-2):
This entertainingly-bad animated hodgepodge quickly catches people up to speed with the some of the minor points of the Mortal Kombat universe, compiled through a strange mix of visual styles that blends hand-drawn body models that remind me a bit of "Highlander: The Animated Series" and some very early computer-generated backgrounds that trigger thoughts of the PC game Magic Carpet. The stilted rhythm and jarring jumps between animation styles don't do the non-engaging action any favors, while the forced humor grows tiresome -- and fast. It does have one saving grace that'll be a treat for many: fans of animation and videogames will get a charge at hearing Sonya Blade being voiced in a very early and highly-recognizable performance from voiceover veteran Jennifer Hale, who plays the (vastly superior) female iteration of Shepard in BioWare's shooter-RPG hybrid Mass Effect, among many other things. It really made me wish that Sonya Blade had a conversation wheel, though.

Aside from that, all that's here is a familiar standard-definition Theatrical Trailer (1:55, SD AVC) for the film, as well as a gameplay-packed Mortal Kombat Videogame Trailer (1:15, HD AVC) for the game released on the same day. The disc also includes connectivity to Warner Bros. BD-LIVE framework.

Final Thoughts:

If you're in the wrong mood, then the many flaws burrowed within Paul W.S. Anderson's take on Mortal Kombat -- the dialogue, aged computer-generated work, and a flimsy adaptation of an already bare-boned story -- will hamper what's ultimately a fun, invigorated, effects-heavy martial-arts fantasy romp. In the right mood, both fans of the series and newcomers alike will find several well-choreographed fights set in a dark, moody environment filled with some really cool production design, with nuggets of service to the series' fans scattered throughout to either laughable or grin-inducing effects. While those who know what they're getting into will find a mildly recommended disc with this WB/New Line Blu-ray, one that justifies the meager boosts in audiovisual merits with a low price tage, most will be satisfied enough with a Rental of this mid-'90s relic.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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