Written by: Greg Russo & Dave Callaham (screenplay), Oren Uziel (story), Ed Boon & John Tobias (video game)
Directed by: Simon McQuoid
Starring: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, and Josh Lawson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Get over here!"
Full disclosure: Mortal Kombat is the first movie I’ve seen in theaters since last March. When I left the theater after seeing The Hunt on that fateful Friday the 13th, I knew it would likely be a while before I’d be back. Never in my life did I imagine it would be thirteen damn months. Nor did I ever imagine actually missing the mostly unremarkable multiplex experience. Writers more eloquent than me have lamented the increasingly sterile, impersonal routine of going to theaters that largely treat moviegoing as a business, so it doesn’t have the magic it once did, when the movie houses were smaller and more intimate affairs. But if the last year has revealed anything, it’s that we still may have even been taking this for granted because there’s still nothing quite like seeing a movie projected onto a huge screen and having that communal experience. You can install reasonably large projector screens in your home, but it still won’t harness that feeling that you’re about to experience an event. Now that moviegoing is back, I hope to always appreciate the transformative power of seeing movies the way they’re meant to be seen.
This is a roundabout way of letting you know that my enthusiasm for Mortal Kombat itself can’t be separated from the event of watching Mortal Kombat in a theater. I’m not about to sit here and wax poetic about roaming into a Regal lobby or anything, but the smell of popcorn and the sounds of arcade games lingering in the air stirred a strange sensation. I couldn’t decide if it felt like coming back home after a long time or if it didn’t feel like I’d been gone for so long after all. I just knew that I was glad to be back, and it seemed all too fitting that the New Line Cinema logo was there to greet me once the trailers ended and the lights completely dimmed.
Anyway, to the business at hand. Mortal Kombat is the long-awaited reboot of the popular video game that feels like it’s been in the works for twenty years now since Annihilation came along and squandered whatever shot the original film had at creating an actual franchise to keep up with the ever-sprawling mythology from the games. So this one hits the reset button altogether, with long-time commercial director Simon McQuoid helming a completely fresh take that honors the franchise’s roots without being completely beholden to the first film—which is to say they’ve made a Mortal Kombat movie where the characters don’t officially engage in tournament-sanctioned mortal combat.
Let me explain: a prologue introduces us to Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) and Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), the two men destined to become Sub-Zero and Scorpion. But in the 17th century, they’re a couple of warriors from feuding clans, and the former shows up to wipe out the entire bloodline of the latter. Following a bloody duel, Bi-Han seemingly completes his task but is unaware that Hashashi’s infant daughter has survived and comes into the custody of Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), the Thunder God and protector of Earthrealm. A flash-forward to the present day reveals that Earth is on the verge of losing its tenth straight round of Mortal Kombat, an ancient tournament where the fate of the universe and its various realms hangs in the balance. Its nemesis, Outworld, is poised to finally seize control, only a prophecy insists that one of Hashashi’s descendents will one day rise to lead Earthrealm to victory.
Sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) wants no part of that, so he’s decided he’s going to wipe out Earthrealm’s chosen fighters before the tournament can even happen He dispatches minions (including Bi-Han, now in Sub-Zero flavor) to the planet, which is apparently totally within the rules. It doesn’t look like the job is going to be that hard, either, because Earth’s protectors are a ragtag group, with Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and Jax (Mehcad Brooks) recruiting the chosen few, like their nemesis Kano (Josh Lawson) and MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan). Cole’s best days are behind him, but he’s also the fabled descendant of Hashashi, so it’s imperative that he gets his shit together before the tournament—er, the invasion in lieu of the tournament.
This movie will ask you to part ways with any preconceived notions of what Mortal Kombat should be since it’s not bound by a tournament. In many ways, it feels like they’ve used Mortal Kombat III—which saw Outworld invading Earth in a last-ditch effort—as a launching point, only the whole thing comes off feeling like an extended prologue to the movie you might have expected to see. But here’s the thing: tournament-sanctioned or not, there’s a lot of ass-whipping to be found here, and that’s all I really ask for from Mortal Kombat. Besides, it’s not like the 1995 movie had hard and fast rules or anything, what with Sub-Zero dispatching some nameless jabroni before the tournament and Johnny Cage randomly challenging Goro before dovetailing into a chaotic climax. I don’t even think they had a damn bracket, so the tournament was nothing but a pretense there, much like the story here is.
The endgame is the same, and this one goes the extra mile of indulging the property’s ultra-violent roots in a way the original couldn’t. Heads roll, arms explode, guts spill, and Kung Lao surfs his opponent into his razor blade hat, leaving their body splattered in half. These feel like actual fatalities that have been brought to the screen, complete with the ridiculous, demented theatricality of it all. Despite the grim-and-gritty posturing, this taps into the silliness of Mortal Kombat, even if some of the quips and one-liners don’t always land. The most outrageous part of the moral panic that Mortal Kombat inspired among parents and legislators back in the 90s is that nobody in their right mind should have been taking this seriously, and the filmmakers here have struck a nice balance of being reverent to the source material without making it too self-serious.
But that latter inclination does occasionally reveal itself in the somewhat overwrought story, which spends a long stretch gathering the characters in Raiden’s hidden shaolin temple trying to tap into their special abilities. Cole—who I guess is the protagonist, given the ensemble nature of the movie—begins to doubt himself, leading to the hackneyed refusal of the call before the climactic ass-kicking can really begin. It’s the only stretch of the movie that really drags, though I admit it would drag longer if not for the pretty solid cast that keeps this world-building interesting enough. Lawson is rightfully going to steal this discussion as the irreverent, unrepentant Kano, who cusses up a storm and dishes out sadistic violence. For the most part, he’s more of a tweener in this movie, vacillating between being an ally and a pain-in-the-ass to the heroes. Taslim and Sanada are also inspired choices for Scorpion and Sub-Zero, and you could easily imagine them headlining an entire movie about this blood feud.
Everyone else ranges from functional to forgettable, mostly because the large ensemble is spread across a pretty brisk movie. Asano’s Raiden is a more culturally accurate casting, but he’s not having as much fun as Christopher Lambert did, and the rest of the heroes are similarly good enough to carry this movie (and hopefully beyond, which is clearly the plan). Cole is sort of the elephant in the room as a completely new character taking no direct inspiration from the games, but I don’t have too many qualms about it since his storyline allows Scorpion and Sub-Zero to be actual characters instead of glorified henchmen. Maybe they could have grafted a similar arc onto an existing character. I don’t know—I’m not too precious about the sanctity of characters I once selected solely on how cool they looked.
I do have some other qualms, some legitimate, some more of the fanboy nitpicking variety. The biggest gripe is an inevitable one when it comes to mainstream American action cinema, which so often forgets that its audience primarily wants to marvel at incredible stunt-work and dazzling fight choreography. Like so many of its contemporaries, Mortal Kombat features this stuff, and it has an all-star cast in front of and behind the camera yet insists on obscuring a lot of its action with frenetic camerawork, poor blocking, and choppy editing. Action sequences in major blockbuster have essentially become white noise, and, while Mortal Kombat isn’t the most egregious offender in recent memory, it suffers from the way it often creates the impression of action without actually delivering it in a satisfying manner. I will never understand how most American action movies (note: John Wick is innocent of all charges) haven't taken the success of international martial arts movies as a blueprint. Could you imagine something as thrilling and unhinged as The Raid with a Mortal Kombat skin? Maybe next time.
Nitpicks are inevitable whenever you’re dealing with a long-standing attachment to something, and I’ve been playing Mortal Kombat since the cabinet showed up in my local arcade in 1992. Not that I’m some dogmatic MK fundamentalist or anything, but reducing Liu Kang (the long-time franchise hero) to a supporting role takes some getting used to and I hope he has a bigger role going forward. Reptile appears as he does in the more recent games, as a full-on monster when I’d prefer to see him as a ninja. When in doubt, make your lizard fighter a ninja. Just good life advice in general, in my opinion. Kabal—who is probably the ultimate example of me gravitating towards a character because he looks cool—makes his live-action debut but is just one of Tsung’s lackeys. Likewise, Goro is less a penultimate boss and more like just another henchman who fights Cole in the latter’s backyard. On the whole, this Mortal Kombat is less exotic than the original, with the Shaolin complex providing the only otherworldly texture outside of a few glimpses of Outworld. Otherwise, the most prominent “stages” are abandoned warehouses and an empty MMA arena. Let’s hope for some more elaborate and imaginative backdrops next time out.
I keep saying that because that’s the mantra of Mortal Kombat itself, a movie that’s preoccupied with setting the table and assuring the audiences that the next one will likely fulfill the usual expectations. Never is this more clear than when Tsung—ostensibly the film’s final boss—just sort of peaces out and promises to exact revenge next time, like he’s Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget or some shit. Likewise, the film ends on a gratuitous teaser for the sequel, which is hard to criticize considering the ‘95 film ended on the same note. This is just where IP filmmaking is right now—it’s not enough to start a series because now you have to imagine a perpetual motion machine of sequels and spinoffs. If that’s your sort of thing—and if you’re a fan of a video game franchise that’s spawned over a dozen games, I’m guessing it is—then the good news is this film provides a solid foundation. My reaction to the tease at the end of this film is the same as it was when that iconic techno theme blared over the credits 26 years ago: bring it on. The only difference is this time I didn’t have to explain to my mom who Shao Khan is to my mom on the ride home. This time, I was happy just to be riding home from a theater at all because I don't think this one would have hit the same on HBO Max.
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