The Battle for Casting! Street Fighter vs. Mortal Kombat
by: Matthew J.R. Kohler
Mortal Kombat was one of the hottest properties of the 90s. Its hard-hitting, spine-ripping gameplay brought new life to fighting games. The game series introduced unique and unforgettable characters such as Scorpion, Sub Zero, and Goro. The monumental success of Mortal Kombat and the downline of Street Fighter’s popularity pointed to one important sign—it was time to make a movie. So, let’s start with actors that the filmmakers wanted.
For Liu Kang, the filmmakers wanted Brandon Lee. His casting would have been amazing, seeing as how the character is based on his father, Bruce Lee. But, he turned it down to make The Crow (smart choice). Then, the biggest slap in the face happened. Johnny Cage, one of the original fighters, was based on Jean Claude Van Damme. Around this time, both the director of Street Fighter and the director of Mortal Kombat were trying to grab a hold of him. Keep in mind that no one in Street Fighter resembles Van Damme. Nevertheless, Van Damme was apparently more intrigued with the concept of Street Fighter, so he signed on to play Guile, making for his most face-palming career move. Meanwhile, MK director Paul W.S. Anderson picked up Linden Ashby (who?). And, the man to headline the film would be none other than Christopher Lambert (of Highlander fame) as Raiden. At this point, things were not looking good for MK.
Throughout that year, the two franchise titans struggled to assemble the best possible casts. In the process, however, they destroyed each other’s chances. This was the problem with both films—they did not have the cast to back up the title. Sure, Street Fighter had Van Damme, but he was in no shape to do anything special. (Despite what the label may tell you, cocaine is NOT a reliable physical enhancer). Robin Shao, as Liu Kang, was a C-grade Jet Li; and Ashby could hardly do a low spin kick. Both were supposed to be martial arts films, yet it was a “Where’s Waldo?” of capable martial artists. There are two requirements for a martial arts film: a character who can carry the film on his shoulders; and people who look believable as fighters. That is why Bruce Lee holds up today; he exceeded both requirements.
Here is Ashby attempting to fight!
Look at these edits!
Unfortunately, neither of these requirements were even close to met in Mortal Kombat. The cast’s abilities to fight are a joke. Sonya Blade was played by Bridgette Wilson (the love interest in Billy Madison). She was slow, her form was incorrect, and she didn’t look like a fighter. On top of that, her acting was atrocious. She did not act like Sonya Blade, which is why she is known as “the girl from Billy Madison.” In all honesty, the perfect person to pick would have been Michelle Yeoh. She just came off of Supercop (starring Jackie Chan), in which she proved that she can indeed fight. Sure, Sonya Blade is white in the video game, but I would rather have someone who is both recognizable AND qualified for the role. Sorry Linden Ashby fans, but I feel the same way about him. Not only do his lines fall flat every time, but also he is not a great fighter. If only we could have had someone like Yuen Biao, or at least someone who looks like a martial artist.
The first ten seconds explains it all.
Both movies suffer from poor choices in casting, mainly because they were both rush jobs and, as I mentioned, canceled out each other’s power. Most of the time, competition creates the best products because everyone is trying to one-up each other. Instead, SF and MK were attacking each other’s resources, causing weaker films. Both movies were trying to do what The Matrix did—combine great martial arts with great storytelling. Because of these two franchises’ aggressive competition, both failed miserably at achieving such a combination. Both films did, however, succeed in the casting of their villains. Bison (played by Raúl Juliá) and Shang Tsung (played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) did excellent jobs, as they both delivered memorable lines with unique, over-the-top performances. What mainly made their performances so great was the emotion, unlike the actors who played the protagonists. I don’t understand the logic behind an emotionless protagonist, the character that is supposed to be the most relatable. The best characters are ones who play personas of themselves and amp them up. Who is more iconic: Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry or Andrew Garfield in Amazing Spiderman? Well, hopefully everyone knows the answer to that. Good casting gives personas to the main characters. Arnold Schwarzenegger does an amazing job at playing a character. Sure, his persona is ridiculous, but think of all of his one-liners that are regularly quoted by people doing their best impression of his iconic voice. For me, it would have been interesting to see Arnold play Kano, and be slightly more prominent in the movie. Arnold can naturally play cocky, and the size difference between him and Michelle Yeoh would make the audience believe that she has no chance. (But we all know what would happen). If both of these movies went the Joel Schumacher route and built a cast that spurred people to start talking, more people outside of the fanboys would have went to go see this film. Let Mortal Kombat be a lesson in filmmaking—no matter how cool the music, set designs, and costumes are, the wrong casting can rob a movie of its full potential.
This is what both of these movies needed.