Director Paul W.S. Anderson on how Mortal Kombat broke the video-game movie curse
The martial-arts fantasy film marks its 25th anniversary.
Before landing the gig as director of the 1995 movie, the filmmaker played the game it's based on in London arcades. After his first film, Shopping, was released in '94, he went to Los Angeles for meetings about potential projects, including Mortal Kombat. "I was very, very excited about it because I was a big fan of the game," Anderson tells EW. That love turned into a movie that marks its 25th anniversary Wednesday, while boasting a notable legacy and passionate fans.
When Anderson's journey began, many didn't see an enthusiastic fan base in a Mortal Kombat movie's future. Producer Larry Kasanoff believed in the game's potential across media, but at the time, movies based on video games weren't exactly well-regarded within the industry. "There was almost a stigma attached to them because there'd been several that hadn't worked, like Double Dragon and Super Mario Brothers," Anderson says. As a result of such films being creatively and commercially unsuccessful, people had doubts about game adaptations working.
Armed with his knowledge of and passion for the game, Anderson was ready for his Mortal Kombat meeting nonetheless. "I was a big fan and knew intimately," he recalls. "This was a really intriguing intellectual property to adapt." He loved the visceral experience of playing the game and was fascinated by its mythology, which was doled out in pieces between fights. "If you played the game enough, there was good mythology behind it," Anderson says, "which reminded me of classic movies like Jason and the Argonauts and Enter the Dragon."
Filming the fights
Mortal Kombat had humor, lush scenery (shot on location in Thailand), and naturally, lots of incredible fights. "We delivered something fresh and exciting that hadn't been seen before in American cinema, and I think that stuff still holds up," Anderson says. A lot of progress has been made in what's possible with CGI since the mid-'90s, but a great fight is still a great fight. "Two actors who really know how to fight going at it, that's a thing of beauty that holds up whether it was done 30 years ago or three weeks ago," the director says. "That's something Mortal Kombat has in spades, which is why I think it's cool."
Helping the actors deliver those epic scenes were fight choreographer Pat E. Johnson and star Robin Shou (who played Liu Kang). Johnson, whose other credits include the Karate Kid and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, trained the cast to be combat-ready. "He took people who were not martial artists, like Linden Ashby [Johnny Cage], and with a lot of focus from Pat and a lot of determination from the actors, they became people who could deliver these fight scenes for us," Anderson says. As a stunt performer and martial artist, Shou brought knowledge of the fighting styles Anderson was inspired by, and experience as a stuntman. "Working together was a marriage made in heaven," Anderson says.
Shooting in Thailand provided a striking backdrop for the fights. Some were shot in places the team found and loved, like the beach where Kitana (Talisa Soto) and Liu Kang have a sparring match; others were constructed, like the nod to the Mortal Kombat game stage the Pit where Liu Kang fights, or Scorpion's lair, where he battles Johnny Cage. The matches were choreographed around story lines from the game and featured characters' signature moves.
Training prepared the actors for the action sequences, but they were still grueling. Anderson recalls Ashby taking a lot of Advil during his fights and says Shou rated fights on a scale of how many ribs he bruised. "He was always pushing himself and willing to do whatever he thought was best for the scene," Anderson says of Shou.
Two of the film's most memorable fights were also the most ambitious: Johnny Cage's duel with Scorpion (Chris Casamassa) and Liu Kang's showdown with Reptile (Keith Cooke). "They were both long fights that involved a combination of aerial wire work and close-quarter combat," Anderson says. "They were the hardest in terms of the amount of effort that went into planning them and the difficulty in terms of their execution."
Meeting the audience
Those two scenes were also expanded via additional photography after a test screening audience wanted more. (As a result of cost-cutting, some scenes were initially trimmed.) Anderson remembers Ashby coming to him while filming the Johnny Cage-Scorpion scene to say the fight needed more, and he was correct in the end.
"We expanded the fight scenes, retested the movie, and it tested like gangbusters," Anderson adds.
During one test screening, a fan noticed the nod to the Pit in the film and was thrilled. "He was so delighted that we brought that bit of the game to life," Anderson says. "That goes a long way to really assure fans that even if you're making creative choices and deviating from the game, that you're tweaking the game with respect."
Mortal Kombat was a commercial success, topping the box office for three weeks and going on to earn $122 million worldwide (on a budget of about $20 million), though critics' reviews were mixed. "The day after [opening], all I could remember was the negative stuff," Anderson recalls. But the experience taught him a lesson: "I make movies for audiences, and if the audience's reaction is great, then I've done my job. That's how I gauge success or failure as a filmmaker."
An immortal legacy
A quarter-century later, Anderson is proud of the enduring love for the film. "It's one of my movies that has engendered the most love," he says. "Now it's like a diary. I don't keep a diary, but I watch my old movies and remember the day when we were shooting the scene, what the problems were, or what the challenges were or the fun we had."
Part of the film's legacy is being a video-game movie success story, something Anderson replicated with the Resident Evil film series. For any game adaptation he's made — including the upcoming Monster Hunter — he approaches the project as a fan first and foremost. "I didn't see it as an opportunity to make a successful movie; I saw it as a chance to bring something I truly loved to the screen, and I think you have if you want to adapt it successfully," he says.
As for the idea of a "video-game movie curse," Anderson doesn't buy it. "Lots of books get adapted and the adaptations don't work, but no one is saying book adaptations are cursed," he says. To be fair, he can see how video games can be challenging to adapt. Fans can expect characters, locations, and specific scenes to show up on the big screen in particular ways that don't jibe with a filmmaker's vision.
And of course, now a new Mortal Kombat movie is on the way, sure to face comparisons not only to its gaming namesake, but to Anderson's original film. (Slated for release Jan. 15, the new film marks the directorial debut of Simon McQuoid.) Anderson, for his part, is excited to see the reboot. "I'm a fan of Mortal Kombat, so I wish them well, and I'm excited to see what they come up with," he says. "I'm going to show up as a fanboy."