Hear Us Out

Hear Us Out: Paul W.S. Anderson Has Been Crushing It for 25 Years

The frequently dismissed writer-director broke out with Mortal Kombat in 1995, and he's been crafting box office hits for a global audience ever since.

by | August 18, 2020 | Comments

In 1995, Paul W.S. Anderson introduced himself to the world with Mortal Kombat, an action flick about three fighters preventing the apocalypse by entering a magical martial arts tournament. The film came on the heels of the 30-year-old director/movie lover’s debut film Shopping (also the feature debut of Jude Law), and his fresh style, his ability to stretch a budget, and his love for the Mortal Kombat video game helped secure his spot in the director’s chair. It was a high-profile gig that many directors had turned down, as the stench of Super Mario Bros. and Double Dragon still filled the air in Hollywood.

Instead of being scared away, Anderson plugged his nose and jumped headlong into the $20 million-budgeted production, adapting a video game beloved for its bloody, graphic violence into a PG-13 family-friendly movie. Guided by longtime producer Larry Kassanoff and fueled by geeky enthusiasm, Anderson hired a diverse cast and crew of excellent martial artists who understood the film’s cheeky tone and focused on giving Mortal Kombat fans what they wanted — lots of fights.

When it was released during the waning days of summer on August 18th, it pulled off a nearly flawless victory, overcoming the 1990s video game adaptation curse — commercially, at least — and claiming the number one spot at the U.S. box office with an impressive $22 million opening weekend. Critics were split at 47% on the Tomatometer, but audiences loved the electronic soundtrack, creative fight scenes, and diverse cast of committed actors who sacrificed multiple bruised ribs to bless us with some excellent brawls. The film remained number one at the box office for three weekends and finished with a stellar $122 million worldwide haul.

To celebrate Mortal Kombat’s 25th anniversary, we look back and break down five reasons why it serves as the perfect exemplar of Paul W.S. Anderson’s career.


HE WORKS WITH DIVERSE, INCLUSIVE CASTS

Robin Shou in Mortal Kombat

(Photo by R.E. Aaron/©New Line Cinema)

Assessments of Anderson’s career are full of backhanded compliments and hyperbolic criticisms, and they never bother to discuss his 25-year history of casting diverse groups of actors and his willingness to think outside the box. It feels strange to compliment someone for doing what’s right, but in 2020, it’s still rare to see such inclusive casts. It took the beloved Marvel Cinematic Universe a full decade to unleash Black Panther and Captain Marvel while they built their brand with Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange. Compare that to Anderson, who, in 1995, dared to cast Robin Shou as the savior of the world in Mortal Kombat and, in 1997’s Event Horizon, gave Laurence Fishburne some all-timer dialogue (“We’re leaving”) as the captain who fights back against a spaceship from hell.

In 2005, AVP Alien vs. Predator saw Sanaa Lathan become an honorary Yautja hunter, or Predator, after she kills a Xenomorph and helps rid the world of a justifiably pissed off Alien Queen. In fact, before Jordan Peele’s Us opened with $70 million dollars, it was AVP that held the record for the highest opening weekend for a movie led by a black woman. That’s an impressive accomplishment, and when talking about her character Alexa Woods, Lathan said, “In 1979, Alien came out and Sigourney (Weaver) was in it with a bunch of guys, and nobody at that time expected the woman to be the hero, so that was a tradition that Alien started. When Paul did this, I think he had it in mind, and he auditioned all races, to set this apart and yet still carry on that tradition, which is great, because it’s a woman and you would never expect a black woman to be the hero.”

Milla Jovovich, Laurence Fishburne, Sanaa Lathan

(Photo by Coco Van Oppens/©Screen Gems, Paramount Pictures, ©New Line Cinema)

Of course, Anderson is most famous for his collaborations with Milla Jovovich, who he helped solidify into an action icon. The two first teamed up for the 2002 sleeper hit Resident Evil, which led to an 18-year collaboration (and an ongoing 11-year marriage) that saw the six Resident Evil movies collectively grossing over $1 billion worldwide. If you’ve listened to the Blu-ray commentaries and read various interviews, it’s clear Jovovich and Anderson have worked closely during their collaborations, and their teamwork has created some all-time movie moments (yeah, we said it). In an interview with Thrillist, Anderson said he had to fight to cast Jovovich over a male star because she was “a strong female lead back in the day when that was absolutely not acceptable in mainstream Hollywood movies.” Within the Resident Evil franchise, Alice has saved the world, wiped out gigantic creatures, and joined forces with Ali Larter, Oded Fehr, Li Bingbing, Colin Salmon, Michelle Rodriguez, and Boris Kodjoe.

Anderson’s adherence to female-fronted action franchises and diverse casting are evident again in his upcoming 2021 film Monster Hunter, another video game adaptation that features Jovovich and international action superstar Tony Jaa. As a fan of Ong-Bak and Triple Threat, it’s thrilling to see Jaa on the poster of a major international release.

Listen, it’s a shame that a director hiring a diverse cast is rare enough that we applaud it when it happens, but one look at the history of Hollywood reveals why Paul W.S. Anderson stands out in that respect.


HE KNOWS HOW TO STAGE UNIQUE FIGHT SCENES

Do yourself a favor and rewatch the nearly 10-minute final fight between Liu Kang (Robin Shou) and Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). It showcases the actor’s martial arts skills, and the scene isn’t edited into oblivion as they trade up to 12 strikes before a cut. Shou helped choreograph the fight, and he worked with stunt icons Pat E. Johnson (The Karate Kid, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), J.J. Perry (Warrior, Captain America: Civil War, Haywire), and Jeff Imada (They Live, The Bourne Ultimatum) to create some iconic battles throughout the film.

It’s clear that Anderson learned a lot on the set of Mortal Kombat, as he and his various production designers over the years have built sets around the fight choreography to make them unique. In AVP, Soldier, Resident Evil: Afterlife, and The Three Musketeers, the fight scenes blend seamlessly into the surrounding environments in fantastic action set-pieces. Watch this corridor fight in Resident Evil: Retribution and you’ll see Anderson, Jovovich, and the stunt crew in perfect sync as they execute an expertly staged brawl that looks beautiful in 3D.

Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil: Retribution

(Photo by Rafy/©Screen Gems courtesy Everett Collection)

Another highlight occurs in Resident Evil: Afterlife. The bathroom fight between Alice (Jovovich), Claire Redfield (Larter), and the executioner, a hulking monstrosity who loves body piercings and wields a massive axe, is an ambitious spectacle. Shot with a Phantom Camera and James Cameron’s Avatar 3D rig, the battle makes the most of its setting, as it erupts into a shower of exploding porcelain, tile, and broken pipes. Does it rely a little heavily on the slow-mo? Sure, but setup is simple, the action is economical, the result is satisfying, and we even get a wall flip and a superhero landing. Part of what makes it work is that Larter and Jovovich did most of their stunts, which only adds an extra layer of badassery.

When Anderson doesn’t have the luxury of a Robin Shou, Jason Statham, or Milla Jovovich to bust heads, he has no problem getting creative. While filming Mortal Kombat, Anderson was fully aware that Goro, the four-armed behemoth from the video games, could barely move, as the beautiful looking 10-foot tall animatronic created by the legendary Tom Woodruff Jr. (who worked with Anderson again in AVP) was basically a glorified lawn ornament. Knowing the fight scene would be cumbersome and ineffective if played seriously, he had Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby) hit Goro with a low blow (the close-up of his bulging eyes is admittedly cheesy), kick him into a pit, and throw in an Easter Egg for fun. When life hands you a beautiful animatronic lemon, have some fun with it and make some fan-service lemonade.


HE MAKES EFFICIENT USE OF SMART PRODUCTION DESIGN AND PRACTICAL EFFECTS

Mortal Kombat

(Photo by ©New Line Cinema courtesy Everett Collection)

In 1995, Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote that, “as impressive as the special effects are at every turn, even more crucial is Jonathan Carlson’s superb, imaginative production design, which combines Thailand exteriors with vast sets that recall the barbaric grandeur of exotic old movie palaces and campy Maria Montez epics.” Very early on in Anderson’s career, he realized that inspired production design and practical effects could make movies look much more expensive than their budgets. In his relatively lower-budget films like Mortal Kombat ($20 million), Resident Evil ($32 million), and Death Race ($45 million), it helped to utilize exotic exterior shots and settings to help limit the number of extras, locations, and set builds.

There’s a moment in the 2008 film Death Race when a massive big rig called The Dreadnought smashes into a spiked barricade and explodes. In an interview with Grantland, Anderson explained, “We crashed that truck for real, and it was an awesome thing to shoot, because it’s 10 tons of steel flying, traveling really fast, hitting a dead stop, and flying through the air.” It’s one of the best examples of Anderson making the most of his budget. He and producer Jeremy Bolt realized early on that their $45 million budget wouldn’t allow them to shoot around the world, so they settled on industrial areas in Montreal to stand in for the film’s island, where the prison races take place. With the money they saved, production designer Paul Austerberry (who also worked with Anderson on The Three Musketeers and Pompeii and would go on to win an Oscar for his work on Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water) and stunt coordinator Andy Gill (Bad Boys IIPearl Harbor) focused on procuring real cars, generating real explosions and, of course, obliterating an 18-wheel Dreadnought. Anderson was also able to bring in some A-list talent, like Tyrese Gibson, Ian McShane, and three-time Academy Award nominee Joan Allen, who classed up the production.

Anderson’s most beautiful creation comes in the 1997 horror spectacle Event Horizon. The “haunted house in space”-themed film focuses on a search and rescue team who fall prey to a ship that has returned from a Hell-like dimension with a malevolent spirit on board. The massive gravity drive at the ship’s core was built by production designer Joseph Bennett on the cavernous James Bond stage in England’s Pinewood Studios, and it actually worked (the part that spun on cue, that is; not the part that opened a wormhole to Hell). Emboldened by a gigantic $60 million budget, Anderson cherry-picked elements from the best of the genre, peppering in visual references to films like Solaris, Alien, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The film is arguably most famous for its images of torture and depravity, which Anderson conceived after researching the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch and Pieter Bruegal. But he understood the importance of showing only just enough, and the few frames of mayhem we do get in the film have inspired a sort of cult fascination among horror hounds. These scenes feature grotesque, Clive Barker-inspired practical makeup; hit pause at the right moment, and you’ll see the gnarly, bloody gags the special effects department clearly spent a lot of time to create. The film’s practical effects and massive sets still hold up to this day, and it’s one of the reasons we agree when Laurence Fishburne’s Captain Miller says, “I will take the Lewis and Clark to a safe distance, and then I will launch TAC missiles at the Event Horizon until I’m satisfied she’s vaporized. F— this ship!”


HIS FILMS ARE LARGELY “CRITIC-PROOF”

Christopher Lambert in Mortal Kombat

(Photo by R.E. Aaron/©New Line Cinema courtesy Everett Collection)

The 47% Tomatometer score for Mortal Kombat is the highest of Anderson’s 11 theatrically released films since 1995; none of his movies even comes close to Fresh. Writers frequently offer only the faintest of praise for his body of work, and begrudgingly at that, as they use terms like “unusual genius” or say that “there are a few, ahem, gems lying around his filmography.” Nobody seems willing to admit that the laser scene in Resident Evil is meant to be funny, or that “Grid” the Xenomorph from Alien vs. Predator might be the deadliest alien in the franchise. The narrative has been set since 1995, and the reviews now write themselves, despite the fact the critics might have failed Anderson, at least according to some.

But even though the average Tomatometer score for his 11 theatrically released movies is a super Rotten 27%, there are still plenty of Fresh moments in his filmography. Even his lowest-rated film, the curious Blade Runner-sidequel Soldier (12% on the Tomatometer), features a jacked-up Kurt Russell battling Jason Scott Lee in a thrilling final fight that’s so intense you almost feel the exhaustion by the end of it. Anderson also isn’t without his defenders; James Cameron loves Resident Evil, Quentin Tarantino included The Three Musketeers on his Best of 2011 list, and prolific film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky considers Anderson to be the “world’s least pretentious auteur who makes lively, unpretentious mid-budget genre movies fixated on video-gamey ‘cool’ and distinguished by their leanness and their inventive — and sometimes even poetic — use of space.”

The success of Mortal Kombat wasn’t a fluke because Anderson and his talented crew knew what they were making, and they made it earnestly. Ashby, who contributed to the script in addition to playing Johnny Cage, said, “We didn’t write Hamlet or anything, but we had fun with it.” That playfulness is all over the movie, and it’s still refreshing today.


INTERNATIONAL AUDIENCES LOVE HIS MOVIES

Talisa Soto, Robin Shou, Bridgette Wilson, Trevor Goddard in Mortal Kombat

(Photo by R.E. Aaron/©New Line Cinema courtesy Everett Collection)

In 1995, Mortal Kombat brought in $122 million at the worldwide box office. Most importantly, it made $51 million (42%) of that sum overseas. The $71 million domestic haul was impressive for the scrappy video game adaptation, but the 100+ million distinction is what gave it major credibility. This trend of solid global returns has become a staple for Anderson, who has realized for a long time that focusing on worldwide returns and thinking globally will keep him working well into the future.

In 2017, Resident Evil: The Final Chapterrocked” China with a $93.4 million debut, which is remarkable considering China doesn’t allow “ghosts and the supernatural” to be shown on screen (with some exceptions). After its worldwide theatrical run had ended, box office receipts showed that it made 91% of its money overseas, with $285 million of its $312 million worldwide haul made outside the United States. This topped the 82% of Resident Evil: Retribution and the 80% of Resident Evil: Afterlife, which also set records internationally. In other words, the Resident Evil movies were global event films; in Japan, The Final Chapter made almost as much money as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which was released just a week earlier. Closer to home, 2014’s Pompeii managed to become the highest-grossing Canadian production of the year, despite less than explosive box office returns here in the U.S., and it became the fourth film directed by Anderson to win the Golden Screen Award.


Paul W.S. Anderson on the set of Mortal Kombat

Paul W.S. Anderson on the set of Mortal Kombat (Photo by ©New Line Cinema courtesy Everett Collection)

Paul W.S. Anderson has been thrilling audiences around the world for 25 years, and it all began with a silly, action-packed video game adaptation that blossomed into a nostalgic fan favorite. Since then, Anderson has consistently worked with diverse casts and talented craftsmen on limited budgets to produce eye-popping, undemanding entertainment, and his filmography is littered with sleeper cult classics like Event HorizonAlien vs. Predator, the Resident Evil franchise, and yes, Mortal Kombat. In most interviews, he seems comfortable with his career, and he should be; he knows what his fans want, and he delivers, even if he’s not a critical darling. It may not be a flawless victory, but for a lot of folks, it’s good enough.


Mortal Kombat was released on August 18, 1995.

#1

Mortal Kombat (1995)
44%

#1
Adjusted Score: 46.257%
Critics Consensus: Despite an effective otherwordly atmosphere and appropriately cheesy visuals, Mortal Kombat suffers from its poorly constructed plot, laughable dialogue, and subpar acting.
Synopsis: Three reluctant fighters are drafted for an intergalactic martial-arts tournament that will determine the fate of the human race in... [More]
Directed By: Paul W.S. Anderson

Thumbnail image by R.E. Aaron/©New Line Cinema courtesy Everett Collection

Tag Cloud

screenings Paramount Travel Channel Marvel Studios james bond casting 20th Century Fox space best Exclusive Video zombie sequel parents live action YA Photos serial killer Britbox Infographic theme song free movies Columbia Pictures 24 frames richard e. Grant japan jamie lee curtis legend Quiz facebook TV renewals Nominations robots See It Skip It AMC award winner historical drama FX on Hulu crossover DC Comics The Walt Disney Company TCA Awards adventure Classic Film Countdown ghosts cars Awards Tour Awards BBC America Binge Guide Trivia American Society of Cinematographers PlayStation green book Logo Netflix Christmas movies Shondaland scorecard disaster dramedy deadpool basketball dceu Disney Plus Marvel Television IFC christmas movies comedies Nickelodeon Adult Swim Ghostbusters Legendary Spring TV Trailer Ellie Kemper Character Guide know your critic Anna Paquin LGBT strong female leads chucky witnail National Geographic MCU BAFTA Sneak Peek Country scary movies unscripted cats The Purge Martial Arts Year in Review Fall TV Freeform DGA SDCC Spectrum Originals Mindy Kaling Spike teaser TV movies Ovation festival mission: impossible latino NBC Extras Pixar TV political drama YouTube Warner Bros. Tokyo Olympics spanish Shudder spider-man renewed TV shows harry potter psycho biography TCA Winter 2020 NYCC E3 Thanksgiving crime drama films Television Critics Association australia spinoff nbcuniversal Schedule stand-up comedy Holidays Acorn TV documentary USA Certified Fresh criterion tv talk hispanic Grammys directors jurassic park Funimation aliens travel worst remakes revenge Summer dogs Chilling Adventures of Sabrina child's play news Western docuseries Pop TV Syfy Teen CW Seed nature breaking bad blockbuster die hard Fox News universal monsters Masterpiece true crime Biopics comic books what to watch Oscars toy story 2020 Comic Book Chernobyl all-time Comedy Central halloween tv saw nfl Cosplay 93rd Oscars Pet Sematary Alien Cannes VICE 007 Song of Ice and Fire Sundance Now children's TV joker Red Carpet Comics on TV Walt Disney Pictures name the review venice Black History Month mutant Musicals Christmas king kong Nat Geo The Witch discovery WGN Mudbound Cartoon Network Amazon spanish language telelvision twilight romantic comedy Crunchyroll Mary Poppins Returns hidden camera New York Comic Con Paramount Network Calendar thriller binge prank streaming Valentine's Day Broadway Best and Worst medical drama Reality YouTube Red Lifetime Christmas movies cartoon Vudu Music LGBTQ TIFF movie period drama cancelled TV series italian Heroines FXX Winter TV Rocky El Rey Winners documentaries Sony Pictures comiccon Pop Film Festival finale The Walking Dead Lionsgate politics Reality Competition sag awards rotten movies we love crime thriller cancelled television new zealand Bravo Amazon Studios rt archives 21st Century Fox Hallmark Christmas movies Premiere Dates Holiday Box Office target suspense heist movie olympics History Food Network TLC versus zero dark thirty canceled TV shows justice league blaxploitation critics MTV 4/20 new star wars movies sequels transformers spy thriller monster movies Kids & Family sports spain vampires hollywood GoT Disney+ Disney Plus Disney BET Animation docudrama 99% quibi dc USA Network boxing NBA diversity Polls and Games boxoffice 71st Emmy Awards Paramount Plus Disney Channel Tomatazos Star Wars President razzies VH1 CBS HBO Max Epix Showtime ABC Family The CW Family Tumblr social media worst movies 2015 mockumentary Stephen King TNT emmy awards Esquire APB miniseries canceled lord of the rings The Academy sitcom Disney streaming service CBS All Access TruTV romance comics 72 Emmy Awards Superheroe Podcast Interview werewolf OWN TCA golden globe awards A&E adenture TV One Elton John fresh Hear Us Out Brie Larson RT21 San Diego Comic-Con Opinion Sundance TV concert 90s rotten 2018 laika aapi 2019 screen actors guild archives book PBS Apple TV+ rom-coms VOD composers television Academy Awards Dark Horse Comics natural history DirecTV toronto Peacock Emmy Nominations satire indiana jones 2016 pirates of the caribbean FOX Hallmark franchise HBO Netflix 2021 E! GLAAD Toys anthology Trophy Talk stoner ID game of thrones ITV Captain marvel BBC movies Superheroes Amazon Prime psychological thriller First Look football cancelled cops X-Men independent TCA 2017 Election Mary Tyler Moore streaming movies stop motion Turner war ESPN ABC Signature Writers Guild of America Universal Star Trek superman cults DC Universe ViacomCBS Women's History Month comic IFC Films Baby Yoda Rom-Com Musical crime anime Rocketman TCM cooking Wes Anderson Emmys south america 1990s ratings book adaptation reboot fast and furious marvel cinematic universe MSNBC Super Bowl french RT History kaiju Set visit TBS women cancelled TV shows Horror game show popular Pride Month WarnerMedia obituary The Arrangement Image Comics BBC One Watching Series series BET Awards technology Avengers indie slashers superhero blockbusters Lucasfilm Amazon Prime Video Mary poppins science fiction Fantasy First Reviews Drama Tarantino Discovery Channel Pirates golden globes Television Academy TV Land Crackle based on movie classics high school Apple TV Plus new york SXSW FX zombies animated GIFs Sundance Apple kids video on demand Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Starz Arrowverse video Sci-Fi singing competition Hulu PaleyFest kong police drama OneApp CMT Endgame a nightmare on elm street reviews ABC Mystery 2017 talk show halloween Video Games doctor who godzilla Lifetime Black Mirror trailers Rock festivals Creative Arts Emmys Marathons asian-american SundanceTV Marvel Action adaptation HBO Go foreign 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards scene in color DC streaming service Comic-Con@Home 2021 elevated horror cinemax dark black YouTube Premium A24 Film dragons international 45 Comedy japanese Tubi Pacific Islander Fox Searchlight Turner Classic Movies batman hist CNN supernatural