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It’s hard to have massive expectations for a Mortal Kombat movie. For starters there is the fact that we have already seen two bad adaptations, but more importantly what is being discussed here is a video game where the core concept is having two characters with magical abilities fight and try to be as inhumanly brutal and shed as much blood as possible. There is mythology that is layered on top, but at its most basic all that a blockbuster version needs is extreme gore, and a tournament that provides a vehicle for the violence.
On that first score, director Simon McQuoid’s Mortal Kombat is a satisfying enough experience. The screen is frequently squirted with viscera, and there are more than enough recreations of memorable mutilating moments from the game to let fans feel seen and heard. It’s really just in the latter department where the movie manages to fall on its face, as instead of featuring something as structurally simple as a competition where combatants brawl to the death, it instead opts for a chaotic narrative that is half origin story and half total mess.
Introducing a brand new hero to the canon to serve as an audience surrogate, Mortal Kombat primarily focuses on Cole Young (Lewis Tan), an MMA fighter living in Chicago who, following a defeat in a cage match, has a literal whole new world opened to him. He's approached by a stranger named Jax Briggs (Mehcad Brooks), and is informed that the birthmark on his chest is no random shape, but instead a dragon marking that indicates he is destined to be a champion in an otherworldly tournament against the monstrous Outworld – which is prepared to take over Earthrealm with one more victory in the epic contest.
Things definitely look bleak, but there is a prophecy that says that the heroes of Earthrealm will claim victory after being united by the decedent of a great warrior named Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada). Attempting to stop this from happening, the villainous Outworld leader Shang Tsung (Chin Han) decides to cheat and send out assassins before the deathmatch contest – primarily the icy killer Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) – but an attack on Cole winds up having the opposite effect, as it leads him on a path to meeting others who bear the same mark, including Jax’s partner, Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), the fire-throwing Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), the razor-brimmed hat-wearing Kung Lao (Max Huang), the brash mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson), and their leader, Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano).
Brace yourselves now: Mortal Kombat doesn’t actually feature a Mortal Kombat tournament.
I emphasize the fact that Mortal Kombat doesn’t actually feature the titular tournament, because I spent much of the movie waiting for it to start, and it’s best to save you the same kind of disappointment. As the Earthrealm team comes together at Raiden’s temple, you’re consistently getting the impression that the action is going to lead to a video game-like series of showdowns, and without it the third act culminates as a bunch of random fights that possess zero depth and limited stakes (beyond, you know, one of the two characters no longer being in the movie). It’s a baffling direction for the story, as it upends and confuses the pacing. In short, the vast majority of the film is spent watching characters prepare for an event that never happens.
The ensemble cast has some highlights, but the movie also feels misfocused.
The attempt to wrap the narrative around the introduction of a brand new protagonist is also a swing-and-a-miss. Cole functions as an easy shortcut for the script, as all of his fellow fighters can just explain everything to him as a means of delivering exposition, and Lewis Tan delivers a fine performance with fantastic physicality – but speaking as a fan, he is far less interesting than every other character, who all have the inherent excitement of seeing a character cross mediums going for them. You’re anticipating Kano shooting a laser beam out of his eye, Liu Kang doing his flying bicycle kick, and Jax dealing destruction with his metal arms… and Cole winds up becoming an afterthought (and it doesn’t help that the power he develops, a.k.a. his “arcana,” is pretty dull).
Expanding from that, the cast is overall a mixed bag, mostly because of scattershot character development. Kano is a scene-stealer, with Josh Lawson injecting more than a few laughs into the action with his flippant attitude, and Sonya Blade has the clearest arc of the supporting players because she doesn’t actually have the dragon marking – but pretty much everyone else is subsisting on the coolness of their powers. Hopefully you’re not going into Mortal Kombat excited to see in-depth explorations of Liu Kang and Kung Lao, because they basically just show up in independent scenes and then are just there. And as lacking as things are on the hero side of things, villains like Kabal (Damon Herriman), Goro (Angus Sampson), and Mileena (Sisi Stringer) aren't given any personalities at all.
Mortal Kombat’s action is brutal and fun, and it does fan-service right.
The real truth of the matter, though, is that fans really aren’t going to see this video game adaptation for in-depth explorations of the franchise’s iconic characters; they’re going to see it to watch those iconic characters face off and try to rip each other apart. This is a basic thing the film understands, and it is the big thing that it gets right. I can’t qualify a movie as “good” if it’s unable to tell a compelling story and get me invested in the characters, but Mortal Kombat knows that I want to see Sub-Zero generate an ice clone in combat, and to see Kung Lao use his hat into a table saw, and it satisfies that demand. The cast demonstrates awesome martial arts skills (Joe Taslim and Hiroyuki Sanada being the biggest standouts), which allows for exciting choreography during fight sequences, and the various scenes know not only how to orchestrate heavy gore, but also a fair bit of fun. Gamers everywhere will laugh and appreciate a scene where Liu Kang repeatedly knocks Kano off his feet by sweeping at his legs over and over, reminiscent of terrifically annoying button-smasher opponents.
Mortal Kombat very clearly wants to be a franchise-starter, featuring an ending that teases even bigger things to come – but in setting up that future it feels like the movie skips a step: creating a compelling and exciting first film that gets people invested and hungry for more. There are plenty of things that it gets right, as it’s a rare case where fan-service is well-utilized, but there are more elements that leave you scratching your head, and it’s those things that stand out most in reflection on the experience.