How did they ever make a movie of a video game? The impulse is easy to understand: Hollywood reaching down for material with a built-in audience, the video game industry reaching up for legitimacy. One hand would wash the other. But how could it be worked out, practically? The source material offered colorful characters in need of some kind of narrative to support them, and the adaptations took on the risk of snatching the characters out of their two-dimensional surroundings to see if they retained any credibility in the “real” world. It wasn’t so much about video game people trying to understand movies as it was movie people trying to understand video games, which immediately raises the specter of squareness. Could such a project ever be executed with real passion for the material, let alone the desire to make great cinema?
Now that the first generation to grow up with arcade games is exerting creative control in the movie business, the answer to that last question has begun to change. (Wreck-It-Ralph might be the best example, while Adam Sandler’s ode to joysticks, Pixels, is the worst.) For the first crop of films from the 90s, however, there is an unmistakable air of embarrassment, or at least the kind of self-deprecation that is an embarrassment of its own. The movie versions of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, almost identical in length and released eight months apart, are illuminating examples. They might be characterized, generously, as interesting failures, films that work neither as full-blooded action spectacles nor as representations of the aesthetics of the games, but that hit both goals sporadically. Put another way, there’s plenty of mortal combat in each film, but street fighting is curiously absent.
The games had identical premises, gameplay-wise: one-on-one mixed martial arts matches, best of three. Monsters and fireballs were thrown in to add spice, and the Mortal Kombat series infamously made the fighting bloodier. These games were both popular and influential, but they could also be run through in twenty minutes or so. Extending that same format to feature length ran the very real risk of becoming dreadfully repetitive. The Mortal Kombat film tried to tell the story of a fighting tournament anyway, while Street Fighter abandoned the concept in favor of a war film with a few individual fights on the side.
On one level, the geopolitical elements of Street Fighter are perfectly fitting, drawing on the game’s international cast of characters. Steven de Souza’s script makes an admirable attempt to put those characters into a complex web of relationships, not simply one side against the other. But by painting with a broader palette, the film asks for respect it can’t hope to earn. Street Fighter is effectively a post-hoc pro-Vietnam War film, indulging in a fantasy of that conflict playing out with the more straightforward good-versus-evil structure of World War II. If that weren’t enough, the movie then imagines Patton kicking Hitler in the face. If the movie didn’t want us to make these connections, it shouldn’t have opened with scenes of news broadcasts in multiple languages. One of the establishing scenes in Mortal Kombat, by contrast, takes place on a movie set.
Paul W.S. Anderson, future Vulgar Auteurism hero, had only directed one film when he took on the Mortal Kombat adaptation, but he already shows much more confidence than first-timer de Souza. The early scenes in particular are filled with beautiful shots, saturated colors, and palpable movement. Later, the production design settles into more of a Temple of Doom knockoff, a development that’s symptomatic of a film that never quite delivers on its setups. Still, the focus on only three protagonists with very simple goals (expressed with charmless bluntness by Anderson’s script) allows the film to luxuriate in its style rather than try to connect all the dots. The odd mix of hard rock and electronic dance music on the soundtrack is a thousand times more memorable than the traditional score and klutzy use of rap in Street Fighter. The fights themselves, while avoiding repetition, leave much to be desired in both conception and execution. The only really satisfying bout, I’ve always felt, is the one between Johnny Cage and Scorpion, and even that one takes away Scorpion’s signature move before the two even hit each other. Sub-Zero’s freezing power, Goro’s extra arms, Shang Tsung’s shapeshifting — whether the cause was a failure of special effects or of imagination, none of these elements are put to more than perfunctory use.
While one film deals with warlords and crime bosses and the other with sorcerers and alternate dimensions, the two have some commonalities. Like Goro, Blanka is a figure who simply buckles under the technological constraints of the time. He’s a silly-looking Incredible Hulk clone, not the mutated super-soldier he’s supposed to be. The films’ approaches to female characters are sometimes interesting but mostly pitiful. Both Chun-Li and Sonya are on quests of revenge and assert their equality to their male counterparts. For all the “girl power” stuff, though, the men are often condescending to them, and both women get captured by villains who appear to have every intention of raping them. The women are ultimately pushed to the background, Sonya especially. After she dispatches her nemesis, she does absolutely nothing else in the film, abstaining from the final match in the tournament in favor of being rescued. The main villains, Bison and Shang Tsung, are the most vivid characters. Raul Julia and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, respectively, give large but committed performances that hold up much better than the sneering heroism of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Linden Ashby. As the final images in both films attest, these directors knew that the ensemble casts were what everyone had paid to see. If only the emphasis on character had been in any way consistent.
Primarily relics of their time, Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat have been overshadowed by their more sophisticated descendants — in the realms of video games and movies alike. Marvel’s first Avengers movie serves as the definitive take on exceptional fighters teaming up to save the world. The interpersonal conflicts in that film are much more nuanced, whereas in these films the turning point comes when the good guys simply choose to act rather than react. The only thing Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat have on The Avengers (and the Oscars, ahem) is diversity. There’s no substance in these stories, and not nearly enough entertainment value to make up for that. The films aren’t lacking in camp value, however. A villain bellows “Game over!” at one point. Despite that pronouncement, both films end (one of them via a post-credits scene) with the promise of further adventures — new battles — infinite replays.