I’ve never played the Mortal Kombat video game (from Midway Games), nor have I revisited the 1995 film version since its original theatrical release. But I also didn’t live in a bubble in the 1990s, so I was aware to varying degrees of the game and its many sequels, and I’d been shown by friends who were players the many insane, hilariously violent ways in which fighting competitors could deliver punishing kills—an element I know many fans were disappointed was not included in the original film or its even worse sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation from 1997.
This ground-up reboot certainly doesn’t skimp on attempting to make things more like the video games (specifically) and more exciting (in general) by presenting more ferocious fighting, blood and guts for days (James Wan is one of the producers), a ridiculous amount of swearing (not a criticism; just an observation), and, as far as I could tell, no Asian characters played by white people this time around. But being an improvement doesn’t necessarily mean this version of Mortal Kombat is actually decent filmmaking. The acting is pretty bad, but that’s sometimes difficult to assess since the writing is probably the worst aspect of the movie, and not even the greatest actor can improve lifeless dialogue.
The film begins with an ancient battle centuries ago between the villainous Bi-Han (Joe Taslim), who can control cold and ice, as well as fight mercilessly using his frozen creations as weapons, and Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), who fails to protect his family and is eventually killed by Bi-Han, who doesn’t realize Sanada’s infant son was left alive in hiding. Skipping ahead to present day and some of the most real-world problems this film deals with, MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan) occupies one of the lowest levels in fighting, being brought in during the last minutes of the match, only to become someone else’s punching bag. But in order to take care of his wife Allison (Laura Brent) and daughter Emily (Matilda Kimber), he has to continue this lifestyle, until he is approached by a man named Jax (Mehcad Brooks) who sees Cole’s dragon-shaped birthmark and saves the Cole family from an attack by the former Bi-Han (now renamed Sub-Zero), who is seeking out potential Earth Realm fighters who might challenge the warriors of Outworld, commanded by Emperor Shang Tsung (Chin Han).
They make it seem so much more complicated than it is, but it basically boils down to good guys from Earthrealm against bad guys from Outworld. Jax loses his arms in the battle against Sub-Zero, but escapes with his life and takes Cole to meet Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), the only Earthrealm fighter without the dragon birthmark, which one can achieve if you kill another fighter on either side. They also team up with the foul-mouthed Australian fighter Kano (Josh Lawson). Eventually, this team makes their way to the temple of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), an Elder God and the protector of Earthrealm, who grants sanctuary to those who bear the mark. Here, Cole trains with experienced warriors Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang) in the hopes of being pushed hard enough to unlock his arcana—the immense power from within his soul that makes anyone with the dragon mark something more than human and gives them a fighting chance against those from Outworld.
Got it? Now explain it to me….
With the exception of a couple of decent fight sequences where we get a sense of how the world of Mortal Kombat mixes martial arts with mythological beings and abilities, most of the best action moments are saved for the back half of the film, which more than makes up for the lack of gory kills in the 1990s films. Seriously, there are deaths that I’m surprised were able to make it into an R-rated movie. Although there is talk of tournament-style fighting, the film basically just throws a bunch of people together to see who lives, and there is more than one promise of more to come if a sequel is made.
Directed by first-time filmmaker Simon McQuoid, Mortal Kombat is in no way elegantly made or visually impressive. Still, there is something raw and primal about just going for it as far as the energy and fighting goes. While the acting is pretty bad, you never get a sense that anyone is holding back or phoning anything in when it comes to the physicality and brutality of their performances. Although I could take or leave this modernization, I am a tiny bit curious to see where things go from here in this murky, under-lit, blood-soaked world. No, I was not expecting this to be a character study, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wish there hadn’t been a little more to care about in these fighting machines. It’s a closer call than I’d expected it to be, so if you’re into over-the-top, mostly unrealistic violence, lay down your quarters for Mortal Kombat, I suppose.
The film is now playing theatrically, as well as streaming on HBO Max.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!