Mortal Kombat (1995)

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Films based on martial arts computer games have three things in common – cheesiness; starring a teamed-up white guy and an Asian; and (to date, anyway), being surprisingly good. “Street Fighter”, “Double Dragon” and both “Mortal Kombat” movies all pitch themselves at that OTT, self-referential market and while none of them got stellar reviews, they’re all loads of fun.

“Mortal Kombat” also has the added benefit of the TMAMP – the Typical Martial Arts Movie Plot (star’s brother is killed by a villain in a different country, star has to move back in order to get revenge on villain in a tournament, taking in a bit of ancient wisdom along the way). There are “Realms” and the Emperor of Outworld has sent Chang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, ISCFC favourite) to Earthworld (our planet, I guess) to get him to open a portal to allow an invasion. For reasons which presumably made sense to the people who closed the portals, Chang Tsung and his Outworld cronies need to win ten fighting tournaments to open it up, and at the beginning of the movie they’ve won nine. EXCITEMENT!

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Lord Rayden, a sort of deity, is protecting Earth, and he’s assembled the world’s best fighters to take on the Outworld crew. We’ve got Liu Kang (the guy whose brother died), Johnny Cage (the world’s greatest martial arts movie star, seeking to regain his honour after some gossip mags say he’s not for real, although why movie fans insist on martial arts stars being real fighters in this world is never mentioned), and Sonya Blade, a cop. On Chang’s side are Kano (with a metal plate sort of welded on to his face, who Sonya is tracking down), a whole army of goons and Goro. Goro is a good 9 feet tall with two sets of arms, and is presumably one of the less nice things in Outworld, but his origin is never brought up. In one of the many similarities between this and “Enter The Dragon”, they’re taken to a mysterious island where the tournament takes place on a battered old boat.

Although I’m a gamer of 30 years standing, I never played any of the Mortal Kombats (apart from a few very occasional goes at a party) so presumably there’s references that went over my head, although I did notice them crowbar in the three most famous catchphrases from the game – “Flawless victory”, “Finish Him” and “Fatality”. So while I recognise the characters, I don’t have any love or deep knowledge of the franchise and have to treat it like any other martial arts movie.

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First thing to notice, this wasn’t cheap. The sets, weirdly gothic and slightly alien, are large and elaborate and aside from some rotten CGI on the part of “Scorpion”, the effects are decent too. The fights are all done well, easily the equal of any of the “proper” martial arts movies of the time, with the fun addition of not having to obey the laws of physics due to nearly everyone having magic powers of some sort. The plot, while being a smidgeon odd, is perfectly understandable and there’s a decent sense of humour running through things as everyone with the exception of Chang Tsung camps it up. Bridgette Wilson, as Sonya Blade, insisted on doing all her own stunts including the fights, which shows a sense of dedication this movie perhaps didn’t deserve.

I haven’t even mentioned Christopher Lambert yet! He’s Lord Rayden, basically playing him as a smirking superpowered version of MacLeod from “Highlander”, and he never takes himself or the movie seriously for one second. His “you have learned all I can teach you” line, when you realise what caused him to say it, is the funniest joke in the entire movie. Lambert was almost joined by Cameron Diaz as Sonya (broke her wrist before filming began) and Brandon Lee (died before filming began). That would have been fascinating.

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This made a ton of money when it first came out, and that got us this movie, a sequel and a TV series (but more on those later). While I guess you’re unlikely to pop on a 20 year old computer game adaptation accidentally, if you see it on TV I’d definitely recommend watching it. It’s fun, fast, and full of good performances.

Rating: thumbs up

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Kickboxer 2: The Road Back (1991)

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How do you know when Jean-Claude Van Damme has really annoyed the producers of a franchise? When they hire an unconvincing lookalike so they can have his character shot and killed by the guy he beat in the first movie (his brother and girlfriend don’t even get an onscreen death). A previously unmentioned brother gets called up from the bench, and on we go.

There are a number of signs this isn’t your average martial arts movie. A bad sign is the director, Albert Pyun; but good signs come thick and fast. We’ve got writer David S Goyer, waiting around for that big break that would take him to the very top of the A-list of screenwriters; plus some strong acting – Peter Boyle must have owed someone a favour, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa does “evil” like few other actors; Matthias Hues pops up for a rather odd little cameo too. Plus there’s the star, Sasha Mitchell.

We last saw Mitchell in “Slammed!”, the sadly not great wrestling comedy – he’s great at playing those “goofy jock” types, but it’s interesting to see him take on a completely dramatic role. He’s David Sloan, brother of Kurt and Eric from the first movie (his parental status is never mentioned, as those two were brothers from other mothers, perhaps Papa Sloan was married again), and he teaches at a tiny run-down gym where he not only trains top-level fighters, but gives the kids from the very poor neighbourhood something worthwhile to do. Basically, he’s a saint. When the UKA, a hot new kickboxing league, starts buying up gyms and booking all the good fighters, their boss (Boyle) and his moneyman (Tagawa) come into conflict with David.

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The plot is really predictable, like, more so than even your average straight-to-video kung fu film. You’ll be able to predict every success, roadblock and twist in the story from a mile away – the trainee who’s going to turn to the dark side; the “surprise” entrance of part 1 villain Tong Po; the tragedy that’s going to strike; and so on. It doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable, but if a dummy like me can call every major bit of your movie from the first ten minutes, then you might be in a bit of trouble.

So yes, Tong Po (Michel Qissi) is back, and the rather convoluted way they bring him and David together is all about honour, and restoring it. Reference is made to the national honour of Thailand, after Kurt took it away by winning at the end of part 1, so to defend their national honour they’ve sent a Japanese guy (Tagawa) and a Moroccan (Qissi), neither of whom look remotely Thai. Ah well! Tong Po is still invulnerable to everyone but the guy he fights at the end, which looks sillier and sillier the further martial arts cinema moves away from the “mystic powers” era and grounds itself, at least a little, in reality. Also, he’s really not that scary-looking. He’s not ripped, not particularly big or tall or fast, so it’s on the tough side to buy him as the monster he’s supposed to be.

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There’s fun stuff in this movie, though. Zhin from part 1 comes over from Thailand to train David and help him recover from being shot, and he has fun adapting to American life (the training scenes are a clever spin on the same sequences from part 1); there are some magnificent sadness montages with the most hideous 80s soft rock imaginable over the top; and “Judo” Gene LeBell, the man “famous” for beating Steven Seagal (a good 25 years younger than him) so badly in a real fight he ended up shitting himself, pops up too. If you can accept that a large, commission-regulated, TV-broadcasting martial arts league could replace one side of their main event with an unlicenced Thai lunatic who murdered a bunch of people, then you’ll probably have a good time with this one.

There’s precious little evidence that this was written by the man who’d go on to pen the Christopher Nolan “Batman” movies, but quite a bit of evidence it’s directed by trash-master Pyun. Mitchell is fine, but he’s wasted doing a straight role when he’s so good at comedy…it’s an okay film, I guess?

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Ninja Apocalypse (2014)

Not really sure any of those words are true, apart from "ninja"

Not really sure any of those words are true, apart from “ninja”

Some movies are so good, and have such an interesting hook to them, that they inspire many many imitators. “Enter The Dragon”, “Halloween”, and “The Blair Witch Project” are three big examples, but the new kid on the block is “The Raid”. It’s a brilliantly simple idea – our protagonists need to fight their way out of a large building, filled with people who want to kill them. Because you can get away with setting pretty much the entire thing indoors, budgets can be stretched too.

“Ninja Apocalypse” isn’t just a clever name, because we’re in a post-apocalyptic situation. Ninjas are everywhere, just because, and they’ve got some pretty badass powers – one clan can shoot fire, another has super-speed (and weird teeth, not sure if they’re related), but our heroes, the Lost Clan, have electricity-based powers. Main guy Cage (Christian Oliver, who you may remember from being the Zack Morris replacement in “Saved By The Bell: The New Class”) is asked to take a group of Lost Clan ninja to a big meeting, where Fumitaka (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, a great “That Guy” actor) is trying to engineer some peace between the clans.

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The rest of the Lost Clan are very simply sketched out at the beginning – Cage is told to take the strongest, the smartest, the fiercest and “the most talented” (not really sure what that meant, it appears the filmmakers couldn’t think of another way than “hottest” to describe any abilities a woman might have). So, the five of them go, and while they’re at the big pow-wow, Fumitaka is killed and the crime is pinned on the Lost Clan.

Now, I said “The Raid” but if you’re any sort of a fan of genre movies, right about now you’ll be saying “this is more The Warriors, surely?”. And you’d be right – I’d lay good money on someone describing it as one crossed with the other in order to secure funding. There’s a scene later on where they’re stopped by the Sirens, the hot women gang, and I said out loud “have they not seen The Warriors?”

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Although the promotional material says they fight their way out of a hundred-storey deep bunker, it’s not strictly true – they fight their way off the level they start on, then drop to the very bottom and take on some zombies (why zombies? Why not zombies, is the question you should be asking) then go right back up to the top. It’s not the only time you’re left feeling a trifle cheated – for a film which should be non-stop bad-ass-dom and excitement, there’s not a ton of any of those things. The big reveal makes no sense, revealing Fumitaka to have been a sucker for decades, too.

Director Lloyd Lee Barnett is better known as a visual effects guy, and it definitely shows – well done on that front, although the CGI blood is a bit too fake-looking. It looks like a fair amount of money was spent on it, but perhaps they ought to have spent a little more on acting and a little less on special effects. No-one needed what amounted to a lightsaber battle at the end, you guys! So, a film which certainly looks good, with mostly interesting set design, but with too few actors of any ability and a script which borrowed so heavily from “The Warriors” I’m surprised they didn’t sue.

Rating: thumbs down

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