Debuting in 1992, Ed Boon and John Tobias’s arcade game Mortal Kombat shook the foundation of popular kulture almost immediately. It wasn’t just the karacter design (digitized versions of real people known as “sprites”) or the in-game mythos, but the ability to do real damage against your opponents, including brutal fatalities. If not for the row among parents as to the long-term effects of playing violent video games (including kongressional hearings) making the game a pariah and thus making it more enticing to teens, it’s possible that Mortal Kombat would never have become the lofty series it is now. The game has gone on to add 10 sequels, several spin-off games, a television series, komics, two live-action movies, two animated features, and a web series. Now, 29 years after the debut of the original arcade game and 26 years since the first live action film hit theaters, the fighters of Earthrealm gather together once more to prevent Outworld from invading in first-time feature director Simon McQuoid’s Mortal Kombat. It’s obvious from the staging of each fight that McQuoid understands the visual language of the now-beloved franchise, but that doesn’t mean it’s a flawless victory. Nailing the violence is only half the battle of a Mortal Kombat story; you need to understand the karacters who drive it, something which this film struggles to do in its race to cultivate bloody karnage.
**Prepare for Mortal Kombat.**
Long ago, a group of deities known as The Elder Gods split existence into a series of realms which kould only be konverged through victory in kombat. In order to ensure that one realm couldn’t forcibly invade another, a tournament (kalled Mortal Kombat) was kreated wherein one realm had to best another 10 consecutive times in order to klaim and merge with it. With nine wins and a 10th tournament on the horizon, Outworld emissary Shang Tsung (Chin Han) sends his minions to secretly murder the champions of Earthrealm, thereby securing victory before the tournament begins. In the midst of all this stands Cole Young (Lewis Tan), an unknown mixed-martial arts fighter who may be the key to Earthrealm’s salvation.
**And now, for a taste of things to come.**
Unlike most EoM reviews, this one may kontain light spoilers in order to address certain aspects. For those familiar with the Mortal Kombat series, nothing that komes will surprise, though it may shift expectations. If you’re largely unaware of the Mortal Kombat Universe, watch the film then kome back.
Next to the sprite karacter design, what made Mortal Kombat standout against its arcade kompetitors is the absolute karnage kombatants kan deal unto each other. In the beginning, this meant blood visibly flying off a recently hurt karacter and a violent end to the best of three loser. In recent iterations, the gore factor was amplified thanks to the spontaneous use of attacks kalled X-rays which would present kombatants literally breaking the bones of their opposition. While the violence was present in the ’95 Mortal Kombat and its live-action sequel, McQuoid’s adaptation is the first one to nail the tone, look, and feel of the violence which is a staple of the series. In the opening sequence, (made available to view online before the movie premiered), set in 17th century Japan, Hiroyuki Sanada’s Hanzo Hasashi (more widely known as Scorpion) dispatches several aggressors using a make-shift version of his trademark kunai, a throwing knife attached to a rope or chain. With extreme precision and prejudice, Hanzo slings the kunai through body parts, even katching one opponent in the head, using the rope to yank the individual to the group, head first, before pulling the kunai back to him. While not gratuitous, the violence is bloody and final. There is weight in the kombat, setting up that what komes for the remainder of the runtime employs a similar finality with each kontest. Fans of the series, new and old, will undoubtedly be tickled to see the karacters employing their special attacks with quite a bit of ingenuity, as well as with cinematography designed to invoke the same visceral feeling from the game. Frankly, this is the truest victory for McQuoid’s Mortal Kombat. For the first time since the marvelous web series Mortal Kombat: Legacy, fans get the brutal, bone-krunching brawls they krave.
Kredit is also due to stunt koordinator Kyle Gardiner (Godzilla vs. Kong) and fight koreographer Chan Griffin (Shazam!) for designing fight sequences that feel authentic to the karacters, paying respect to their respective talents without overclocking or underpowering any of them. Same goes to the actors as each one is entirely believable, something which the opposite kan tarnish any martial arts-based film. It should surprise no-one familiar with the work history of Joe Taslim (The Raid, The Night Comes for Us, Warrior) that he’s a natural for the icy villain Sub-Zero or the same for Sanada as the firey Scorpion. Their individual presence on-screen is magnetic, their fight scenes are the best of the entire film, filled with passion and pain. Rounding out the central kast is McNamee, Brooks, Tan, and Josh Lawson (House of Lies) as Black Dragon leader Kano, who make the most of their screentime. Though the film positions Tan’s Cole as the audience surrogate and puts him at the center of the narrative, it’s McNamee, Brooks, and Lawson who steal the film from under him. It’s not that Cole isn’t interesting or that Tan isn’t kapable, it’s that the narrative has too many karacters to establish quickly to do much more than a kursory introduction before karrying on. (We’ll get more into that in a moment.) The real surprise with the kasting is Lawson who is the best thing of the entire film. Yep, even better than the pitch-perfect execution of the karacter’s signature moves is Lawson’s unexpected darkly komic line-delivery. For those who have seen the ’95 Mortal Kombat, think Trevor Goddard’s performance minus the misogyny. Whatever you think of the performances, though, each of the kast members appears equal to the task in representing the mythical Kombat karacters in terms of look and ferocity. In terms of the action, in most kases, the direction enables the audience to see the respective battles easily, keeping enough distance to make the action easy to track and editing kuts in so that the fisticuffs become more engaging. In the opening sequence, for instance, there’s a rhythm to the kuts so that there are wide-klose up-wide-klose up in-sync with the blows. The kut timing adds a layer to the action so that we almost feel the impact of each blow. Later, however, the editing has moments which decrease the tension to a surprising measure as trying to balance more than one immediate konfrontation reduces the immediacy and flow of battle as the kamera tries to show off each engagement equally.
Here’s where we really get into the issue with McQuoid’s Mortal Kombat and it all comes from script from first-time feature writer Greg Russo and David Callaham (Wonder Woman 1984), based on a story by Oren Uziel (22 Jump Street) and Russo. In the entire franchise, with a few exceptions, Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) is the hero of the tale and he’s been shifted in favor of a franchise newbie, Cole. Instead, Liu becomes more a mentor figure and, without getting into details, is adapted in such a way that may seem like an insult to longtime Kombat fans, especially when Liu offers his backstory, better explaining how he joined Earthrealm protector Lord Raiden’s (Tadanobu Asano) Order of Light and his relation to fellow fighter Kung Lao (Max Huang). Then there’s Special Forces-trained Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and Jax (Mehcad Brooks) who are introduced early in the present-day portion of the film, but who are mostly sidelined in favor of pushing forward Cole. This is partially due to establishing early the deadliness of Sub-Zero, finding a quick way to get Jax to his signature cybernetic arms, and the script’s approach to champion selection: a dragon birthmark. The fact that Blade, one of the few female karacters, is often treated as less-than or unworthy by everyone other than Jax and Cole is bound to frustrate and the optics of the sole main Black karacter being given a more dour path to heroism than his storymates is not good. Is it more plausible in a grounded way given his injuries? Yes. Does it give Brooks a chance to shine a bit as an actor? Also yes. But when other karacters mostly laugh off injuries, it feels like a disservice to Jax, a karacter who’s an extreme badass. Lastly, there’s Raiden, played with the appropriate gravitas by Asano, who the film kan’t decide if he’s an all-powerful, observant Elder God or if he’s ineffectual at best. It just doesn’t know what to do with him within the script and, therefore, feels entirely inconsistent in use and presentation. This gets to the heart of the issues with Mortal Kombat: the script seems to be designed, not for flow, function, or sense, but to set up fights and, potentially, a sequel. Rather than use its less than two-hour runtime to allow its karacters to feel real in the hyperreal circumstance, to allow the emotional elements within the story to generate any kind of foothold, the script scampers off to another fight. Say what you will about the ’95 Mortal Kombat, but writer Kevin Droney (Highlander TV series) understood that getting to know the karacters set up stakes so that the fights, ridiculous as they are, kontained weight. In this iteration, the fights are the centerpiece but are, mostly, meaningless, especially with the way that the film sets up the events of the story as the run-up to the 10th tournament between realms.
If all you want out of your Mortal Kombat experience is strong martial arts koupled with kopious gore and viscera, then you’re going to dig the film. On this, it delivers and does so well. It’s obvious from the finished product that McQuoid understands the visual language of the source and delivers that with aplomb; it’s just that the script (a) struggles to make us kare about the karacters, (b) heavily relies on exposition from scene-to-scene, (c) lacks the necessary weight to make anything feel urgent, and (d) refuses to acknowledge the built-in history, resulting in a film that often insults the source material. That said, it’s infinitely better than 1997’s Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and will (almost to a certainty) make you want to boot up your konsole and start your own in-home tournament right after. In this way, the essence of Mortal Kombat is honored, even if it’s not totally respected.
In select theaters April 23rd, 2021.
Available for streaming for 31 days on HBO Max beginning April 23rd, 2021.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.