They Said What?! is a biweekly column in which we explore the highs and lows of film criticism through history. How did critics feel about a certain movie at the time, and do we see it differently now? In this entry, Chris Coffel explores the original critical reception of the 1995 video game movie Mortal Kombat.
In 1995, the video game adaptation landscape was a barren wasteland. In the two years prior, Hollywood managed to get its grubby hands on three beloved video game franchises — Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon, and Street Fighter — and the results were disastrous. These failed attempts left the door open for any halfway decent video game movie to be a smash hit. Director Paul W. S. Anderson kicked that door down with Mortal Kombat.
The film follows the game about as close as one could reasonably expect. Lord Raiden (Christopher Lambert), the god of thunder and protector of the Earthrealm, guides three mortals as they compete in a fighting tournament to protect Earth from being invaded by the Emperor of the Outworld. The film became a worldwide sensation, earning $122 million at the box office against a modest budget of $18 million.
Critics of the day were mixed, praising the film’s fight sequences and special effects while noting the paper-thin plot and wooden characters. The movie also earned extra goodwill by being the first respectable film based on a video game. More than twenty-five years later, the 1995 Mortal Kombat is considered a positive step forward for video game movies and one of the most faithful adaptations to date.
What Critics Said About Mortal Kombat in 1995
In his review for the Desert News, Chris Hicks compared Mortal Kombat unfavorably to other video game movies, summing it up as “all action and no story.” Hicks was most impressed by the film’s special effects, but even those he felt were nothing new and an equal mix of good and cheesy. Ultimately, Hicks concluded, “the characters are cardboard, the humor is lame and the heroes are all so unlikeable most of the way that the audience won’t be able — or want — to identify with them.”
Laura Evenson of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote more positively about the film’s “glittery special effects” and “wacky humor,” saying they could be the makings of a cult classic. Evenson noted the film has everything teenage boys could want with “snakes that jut out of a villain’s palms, acrobatic kung- fu fighting, and a couple of battling babes,” but fails to deliver “an interesting plot, decent dialogue, and compelling acting.” Evenson was particularly harsh towards Lambert, calling him an “unconvincing god” that is “a cross between a white-bread Jesus and Steve Martin on a bad hair day.”
“The movie is at its best when it doesn’t take itself seriously,” Zachary Woodruff wrote in his review for Tucson Weekly. Woodruff highlighted a specific scene in which Lambert, described as a “violent male version of the Good Witch of the North,” jokes about the fate of humanity resting on the shoulders of our three heroes. Unfortunately for Woodruff, the film takes itself too seriously and never fully commits to its goofier side. “The superb special effects and art direction have little impact beyond being eye candy,” thanks to an overused, lifeless plot about the battle between good and evil.
Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas took deeper meaning from the film than most others, claiming that it “manages to remind youthful audiences to confront their fears and to take responsibility for their own destiny.” Thomas was impressed by the work of production designer Jonathan Carlson and his set designs for the Outworld, writing that they “recall the barbaric grandeur of exotic old movie palaces and campy Maria Montez epics.” The Outworld was further brought to life by “John R. Leonetti‘s glorious, shadowy camera work” and George S. Clinton‘s thumping score.
Variety‘s Leonard Klady similarly praised Mortal Kombat for its “lush, crisp production values and exotic Thailand locales.” For Klady, the simple plot of good vs. evil contains enough “novel twists” and “superb technical and visual effects” to create a must-see late-summer blockbuster. With nods to Ray Harryhausen and pulling from Hong Kong cinema, Mortal Kombat delivers “dazzling, fun eye-poppers” and proves that video games can work on the big screen.
Perhaps the most surprising positive take came from Gene Siskel. On an episode of At the Movies, he gave the film the “minor prize of being the best video game turned into a movie” and described the special effects as “often sensational.” Oddly, Siskel felt the fighting did get in the way a bit but still appreciated that “a lot of effort went into this production.”
Siskel’s longtime co-host, Roger Ebert, wouldn’t go so far as to recommend the film, but he did admit that it was better than he expected, adding another minor victory to Mortal Kombat‘s resume.
What Critics Say About Mortal Kombat Today
Modern reappraisal of the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie has firmly established the film as a bonafide cult classic. The film constantly appears on “best of” lists for video game adaptations. Game Radar placed Mortal Kombat seventh on its list of the ten best video game movies of all time, claiming that “you won’t find a much better way to kill ninety minutes.”
Collider handed Mortal Kombat the video game crown, declaring it the best video game movie of all time and dubbing it “the Casablanca of video game movies.” Not to be outdone, Esquire also gave Mortal Kombat the top video game adaptation spot, saying the film “perfectly captured the essence of a game franchise.”
Mortal Kombat has also been the subject of countless retro reviews discussing the film’s quirky charm. Dan Seitz revisited the film for its twentieth anniversary for Uproxx, calling it “an honest to goodness pleasure.” For Seitz, the movie works because of its “utter lack of pretension.” As he puts it, “Mortal Kombat is a movie about dudes hitting other dudes,” and it never pretends to be anything more than that.
For Bloody Disgusting, Michael Pementel called Mortal Kombat a “brilliant blend of ’90s action cheese” and the sort of high-octane, straight-forward action movie that we rarely get anymore. Much like Seitz, Pementel praised the film for not taking things too seriously and proudly leaning into the “schlocky action flick” that it is. He credits Anderson for adequately translating the “intense, dopamine-fueling action experience” of the game to the silver screen.
Mortal Kombat is the rare film in which nearly every review, both positive and negative, is an accurate one. Fans of Mortal Kombat would happily describe it as a charming, campy popcorn flick with one-note characters and a reliance on action sequences and impressive but cheesy special effects. And those that dislike Mortal Kombat would describe it in the same way. It’s the ultimate “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” movie. And it’s trash that I will forever treasure.