On August 18, 1995, my life was changed forever. Mortal Kombat, a feature film based on a wildly popular and wildly controversial ultra-violent fighting video game, was released in theaters. And I saw it approximately 9,000 times. It’s embedded into my brain, my heart, my soul. When I see the New Line Cinema logo, I immediately scream “MORTAL KOMBAT!” as a Pavlovian response. It’s a special, personal film. And in celebration of its 25th anniversary, I thought I’d explain why it works so well, starting with the basics: Its tight, simple, effective, thrilling, and surprising screenplay (And for those who have yet to see the film, firstly, what are you waiting for?!, and secondly, spoilers ahead as I analyze the work).
Mortal Kombat‘s script was written by Kevin Droney, whose previous credits include action television mainstays like The Equalizer, Jake and the Fatman, and the Highlander TV adaptation (additionally in Mortal Kombat‘s release year 1995, he wrote a somber TV movie drama called Down Came a Blackbird starring Laura Dern, Raul Julia, and Vanessa Redgrave). When producer Larry Kasanoff first optioned the rights from Midway Games and Mortal Kombat creators Ed Boon and John Tobias, he offhandedly pitched (via an excellent Hollywood Reporter oral history) the film take of it as “Star Wars meets Enter the Dragon.” It seems flippant on paper, but frankly, this is exactly what Droney achieved in his screenplay by deftly combining (and expanding on, satisfyingly, to the point where many elements of his work are now canon in subsequent games) the mythological components of the game with a palatable, Dragon-esque martial arts tournament narrative framework — all while cannily playing into and subverting the Joseph Campbell monomyth hero’s journey structure, just like Star Wars! And in a chat with podcast Talking Pictures, Droney reveals this is intentional, speaking on his love of and tribute to Bruce Lee films.
Now, apparently, the credit for this script doesn’t just go to Droney. Director Paul W.S. Anderson said that “the script was kind of being written while we were in preproduction, which is a challenging thing, but it was a good thing, because it gave me the opportunity to help steer the direction. When it came to actually shooting the movie, I really encouraged the actors to ad lib quite a lot.” This statement speaks a lot toward the film’s ultimate success, in both Droney’s base work providing a strong structure, Anderson’s voice guiding it toward consistency and evolution, and the on-set spontaneity giving it that extra spark. And while Droney himself may have somewhat disavowed the resulting film, referring particularly to Johnny Cage performer Linden Ashby as “the asshole that ruined my script,” I find this conflict-laden push-and-pull to result in a delightfully entertaining final product.
Okay, let’s get into the nitty-gritty on why this film works so well on a fundamentally satisfying screenplay structure level. Right from the jump, Mortal Kombat is focused on character. It’s what I might call a “focused ensemble” piece, with Liu Kang (Robin Shou) as our obvious main protagonist, and Johnny Cage (Ashby) and Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson) as our dual supporting protagonists. From beginning to end, Kang’s journey is rife with indications of theme, conflict, and multifaceted development. The very first scene sets up Kang’s motivation simply and harrowingly — in a surreal dream sequence, we see villainous, shapeshifting sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) kill Kang’s brother Chan (Steven Ho) and steal his soul, before promising Kang, “You will be next.” Wham — Kang wakes up in a start, and we know now his desire is revenge spurred by a sense of responsibility. Or, perhaps more accurately, guilt.
I also love how Kang’s introductory moments cannily subvert the “Save the Cat” moment in so many formula-driven action pictures. If you’re unfamiliar, “Save the Cat” comes from Blake Snyder‘s renowned screenwriting structure workshops, and refers to the act one moment where our protagonist goes above and beyond to perform a “nice” task (i.e. saving a cat from a burning building). But in this film’s act one, when Kang returns home to announce his desires to compete in Mortal Kombat, he’s painted as a figure of impetuous pettiness who left and betrayed the temple of Shaolin monks he came from, acting now only on selfish impulses of vengeance. It gives him relatable, interesting flaws, and sets up the arc we can’t wait to see him go through. And it places him squarely in the pocket of that monomyth hero’s journey — this is about as “chosen one reluctantly answering the call of adventure” as we can get!
From this point on, just about every interaction involving or generated by Kang is in service of exploring the fundamental conflict between his baseline “what he thinks needs to do” (fight for vengeance) versus “what he needs to learn to do” (fight for spiritual harmony). Even his fight scenes, while sumptuously and thrillingly lensed by Anderson and DP John R. Leonetti, move story and theme forward as well. Take his sexual tension-filled battle with Princess Kitana (Talisa Soto). Ostensibly an heir to the evil kingdom of Outworld, Kitana instead uses their fight to give Kang guidance not just on how to defeat his next foe from a plot perspective, but reminds him of the spiritual awakening he must go on. Yes, Kitana is mechanically telling Kang to chuck a bucket of water at Sub-Zero (François Petit) when he tries to create a giant freeze ball. But the way she says it is telling: “Use the element which brings life.” Kitana is reminding Kang that he needs to fight for life, for enlightenment, for natural equanimity, all in a single line of a martial arts fight sequence.
By the time Kang reaches his final battle against Tsung, the murderer of his brother, we’ve learned from Kitana that the fight will actually be three fights. In her words, Kang must “face your enemy. Face yourself. Face your worst fear.” And I believe that these three things, my friends, are the three things that every screenplay protagonist must face in their final conflicts. A physicalized foe, an inner conflict, and a spiritual anxiety — all rich sources of stakes and obstacles for our main character, all presented here simply and effectively. Kang faces his enemy, in the form of literally fighting Tsung and his soul-stolen warriors. Kang faces himself, in the form of Tsung being able to see Kang’s soul and weaponize it against him. And Kang faces his worst fear, in the form of Tsung taking the physical appearance of his brother Chan and tacitly admitting his death was Kang’s fault after all. Because these fundamental conflict generators for a protagonist are so compelling, and communicated so clearly, it is immensely satisfying to see Kang defeat them all — and uppercutting Tsung into a pit of spikes ain’t a bad way to do it, either. Kang’s resolution — an actual, spiritual reconciliation with Chan — plays so authentically, earnedly, and emotionally. All because it came organically from things we’ve seen him fight against, need, and learn to accept.
But Kang isn’t the only character granted an engrossing journey. Sonya, Cage, and of course the god of thunder Raiden (Christopher Lambert) are also gifted such clean and captivating screenwriting gifts, telling us so much about them with so little. I’m absolutely in love with the way Sonya introduces herself. While relentlessly tracking down Kano (Trevor Goddard), the crime boss who killed her former Special Forces partner, her current ally Jax (Gregory McKinney) asks her to trust him. Sonya’s response? “I trust one person on this planet, Jax. You’re talking to her.” This line, in addition to being a perfect slice of ’90s action movie badassery, tells us everything we need to know about her moving forward. Plus, like any good reflection character, it all sets up an arc, desire, and set of flaws in direct dialogue with main protagonist Kang (like him, she’s also seeking revenge and is too worried about herself instead of her spiritual camaraderie).
For Cage’s journey, I want to focus on the script’s usage of ironic echoing and planting/paying off as a clean and utterly righteous way of communicating his arc. His introduction is framed by delightful misdirect — we see him pummel the hell out of some baddies with earnest authenticity. Until he gets to one guy, who just won’t fall. And then Cage, dropping character, says, “This is where you fall down.” Suddenly, it’s all revealed to be fake — Cage is not some hero or villain, but a movie star shooting a scene. And the film deftly sets up his inner conflict and arc: The world is telling Cage he’s a phony, and he needs to prove he’s real (once again, a conflict initially founded on revenge and ego, and in need of spiritual reckoning). When Cage makes it to his final battle, against the fearsomely four-armed Prince Goro (Tom Woodruff, Jr./Kevin Michael Richardson/Frank Welker), he takes everything he’s learned and fights not to prove himself, but for life. His final words to Goro? “This is where you fall down.” Spoken, now, with pureness and intent. An arc from start to finish, with the exact same words. It’s a good script!
Finally, the electric majesty of Raiden. He is straight up funny in this movie, cutting the film’s tension and fantastical tropes with zingers designed to bring us all back to earth. And while game creators Boon and Tobias didn’t initially agree with this treatment when they first read the script (“Raiden was cracking jokes like a prankster, and I remember saying, ‘He’s not a clown, he’s a very serious character'”), I humbly disagree. Raiden’s humor, combined with his ability to disarm a situation without needless martial arts flexing, gives him not only power on a scene-by-scene micro basis, but speaks to the film’s macro thematic statement. At one point, Raiden summarizes everything going on pretty neatly: “The essence of Mortal Kombat is not death, but life.” Because this character is rendered with such humor, with such little interest in his video game-created attacks, and with such ability to read the hell out of his mentee characters (“Your ego, your enemy, or your quest for revenge,” says Raiden at one point, roasting the hell out of Cage, Sonya, and Kang’s simple-minded initial desires), he pops as a wholly unique symbol of enlightened, alive, crackling wisdom.
Any stray, non-character-embedded thoughts left to overturn? Why, certainly. I think Mortal Kombat has some of the best “act break” lines in any feature film screenplay. Act one ends with Tsung shouting, “IT HAS BEGUN!”, and act two ends with Raiden telling his “dark night of the soul” characters, with worry, “Good luck… they’ll need it” — both about as clean communications of what needs to happen at the ends of those acts as we’ll ever see. I think Mortal Kombat, more than any other film based on a beloved fan culture property, renders its fan service with a sense of surprise rather than inevitability. The script holds back on well-known character powers — Sub-Zero’s freezing, Scorpion’s hand-spear, Kang’s bicycle kick — teasing them inch by inch before letting them loose in one single assault. It gives these images, which video game fans must be so used to, a renewed sense of power and surprise. And, thanks to their renderings’ patience, gives newcomers to the franchise the first thrill of experience without overstaying their welcome. And speaking of patience — act one features pretty much zero full martial arts battles, only snatches of hand-to-hand combat, all cut out. Thus, when act two pivots into a “battle after battle after battle” structure, it doesn’t wear us out. Instead, it satiates our appetite, giving us exactly what we want because it knows we had to wait for it. They don’t make ’em like this anymore — but they should.
Now, listen. I know I’ve written 2000 words about the screenplay to a video game film adaptation with fireballs and spears out of hands and a character leaving a signed headshot after making another character explode. If you find Mortal Kombat to be a mere “cheesy good time” or “curious artifact of the ’90s,” then may Raiden be with you. I would simply posit that any fundamental pleasures from the film come, inherently, from the fundamentally excellent work in its screenplay. A script both bound to classical storytelling, yet eager to futz with all materials. A script that knows what action fans need, and how to render it smartly. A script that is, dare I say, a flawless victory. Now, if you excuse me, I’m gonna watch it for the 9,001th time.