The box office success of last summer’s Mortal Kombat should be a lesson to moviemakers: When kids go to see a movie based on a videogame, they want to see just that. They don’t want to see some vain action hero patronize them by embroidering his latest effort with arcade trappings, as Jean-Claude Van Damme did in Street Fighter. His silly movie only made $33 million during its theatrical release, while Mortal Kombat took in some $70 million.

That’s not to say Mortal Kombat isn’t silly itself. In fact, it’s rarely anything but. Yet it sticks so close to the spirit, the characters, the look, and the plotline of the wildly popular videogame series, it brings the game’s intellectually undemanding exhilaration to an entirely different arena. If you haven’t been in a video arcade or played with a home game system in a while, you’re probably thinking: ”Spirit, characters, look, and plotline? Of a video game?” Yes, indeed. The three editions of the ”Mortal Kombat” game all have multileveled plots and multipowered characters; they also revel in ultraviolence, which has made the game a subject of controversy among parents and media watchdogs. While the movie Mortal Kombat eschews the game’s eviscerations and beheadings (the moviemakers were smart to go for that PG-13), it makes sure to include at least one scene in which a fighter battling an opponent is instructed to ”Finish him!” — which happens to be the rallying cry of Kombat fans everywhere.

The movie’s setup is simplicity itself — a group of warriors, each with his or her own special, superficially presented character flaw (one’s an egomaniac, another’s obsessed with revenge) enlist in a martial arts contest where the stakes are nothing less than the fate of the universe. During the course of the movie, you never get the sense that anything’s really all that dire. But that’s part of Mortal Kombat‘s charm — its relentless one-dimensionality is not only inoffensive, it’s downright enjoyable. In any other movie, the sight of dozens of Chinese men prostrating themselves before a white guy would be appalling. But come on — the guy is Rayden (Christopher Lambert), the ”god of thunder and lightning,” a deity that exists only in the ”Mortal Kombat” universe. Political incorrectness is not an issue in an atmosphere devoted to hyperbolic, no-rules mythmaking and chopsocky pyrotechnics.

The nothing-signifying sound and fury of Mortal Kombat has been served well by its cast of relative no-namers, which includes one professional martial artist (Robin Shou) and a couple of wayward babes (Bridgette Wilson and Talisa Soto). Wilson, who played a parody of a butt-kicking gamine in The Last Action Hero, does the same here, while Soto, looking remarkably spry for someone who’s supposed to be 10,000 years old, dispenses sage wisdom to a vengeful good guy. For all the short shorts and leather corsets worn by the distaff characters, Mortal Kombat is coldly sexless; in this too, it demonstrates a dutiful resemblance to the videogame.

The movie’s cool morphing effects and suitably phantasmagoric art direction actually play well on the video screen. Indeed, for viewers who grew up watching monster-filled adventure movies on TV matinees, Mortal Kombat‘s new creations — a mutant beast with four arms, a guy who can freeze stuff in midair — will induce a peculiar nostalgia. While it doesn’t rank with the classic fantasies overseen by effects wizard Ray Harryhausen (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), Mortal Kombat comes closest to reproducing the joys of those glorious timewasters than any movie in recent years. And it’s a lot easier on the fingers than the game is. B

Mortal Kombat
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