“Mortal Kombat,” which thrives as an arcade game, an animated video and even a touring stage show, arrives on the big screen with terrific, high-energy panache. A martial arts action-adventure with wondrous special effects and witty production design, it effectively combines supernatural terror, a mythical slay-the-dragon, save-the-princess odyssey and even a spiritual quest for self-knowledge.
Through its frequent scenes of combat it manages to remind youthful audiences to confront their fears and to take responsibility for their own destiny. Director Paul Anderson and writer Kevin Droney and their many colleagues clearly thought through all they have managed to accomplish.
These various layers of meaning reveal themselves through the unfolding of a plot that is simplicity itself. A sleek, leather-jacketed evil sorcerer, Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), who rules from his sinister, supernatural Outerworld, has led a powerful prince to victory against mortal contenders for nine generations. Should he win a 10th round, he will be able to control the world forever.
To accomplish this, Shang Tsung has announced a Mortal Kombat to be held in a Southeast Asian island kingdom, which is in actuality the Outerworld. Drawn to this remote place are Liu Kang (Robin Shou), a young martial arts whiz who comes to realize that he cannot escape his destiny as a descendant of a Kombatant of 500 years ago; Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby), a martial arts movie star who sees the tournament as a once-and-for-all chance to prove to the world that he really does perform all his own stunts; and Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson), a humorless Special Forces Team agent in pursuit of a hated enemy who bravely confronts more than she bargained for. In Shang Tsung’s thrall is the beautiful Princess Kitana (Talisa Soto), eager to aid his defeat. Meanwhile, the Kombatants have a crucial mentor in Lord Rayden, the Thunder God (Christopher Lambert), a priestly figure possessed of much wisdom as well as his own supernatural powers.
The film is a constant test of these Kombatants’ skills in defending themselves against all manner of monsters, supernatural terrors and temptations that Shang Tsung unleashes as the tournament draws near. As impressive as the special effects are at every turn, even more crucial is Jonathan Carlson’s superb, imaginative production design, which combines Thailand exteriors with vast sets that recall the barbaric grandeur of exotic old movie palaces and campy Maria Montez epics. John R. Leonetti’s glorious, shadowy camera work and George S. Clinton’s driving, hard-edged score complete the task of bringing alive the perilous Outerworld.
Robin Shou emerges as a reflective, courageous hero, and Linden Ashby nicely spoofs his movie star role, but the key acting honors go to Lambert and Tagawa, who bring a light, humorous touch to their embodiments of Good and Evil.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for nonstop martial arts action and some violence. Times guidelines: The martial arts action does not exceed what is usual for the genre but is too brutal for small children.
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Christopher Lambert: Lord Rayden
Robin Shou: Liu Kang
Linden Ashby: Johnny Cage
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa: Shang Tsung
A New Line Cinema release of a Threshold Entertainment production. Director Paul Anderson. Producer Lawrence Kasanoff. Executive producer Bob Engelman. Screenplay by Kevin Droney. Cinematographer John R. Leonetti. Editor Martin Hunter. Costumes Ha Nguyen. Music George S. Clinton. Production designer Jonathan Carlson. Art director Jeremy A. Cassells. Set designers Brian Jewell, Galia Nitzen. Set decorator Susan L. Degus. Visual effects and computer graphics imagery by R/Greenberg Associates West Inc. Visual effects by Buena Vista. Special effects and animatronics designed by Scott Coulter & John Criswell. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.