REVIEW – ‘Mortal Kombat’ will surely delight those who love the game

For several decades now, Hollywood has been obsessively attempting to create a great film adaptation of a popular video game title. They’ve mostly failed spectacularly in both a critical and commercial sense, but it’s a genre of film that simply will not die. After the campy 1995 adaptation and its god-awful 1997 sequel, the inevitable reboot of Mortal Kombat has finally arrived. And it’s everything you’d expect and very little else.

What began as a simple arcade fighting game in 1992 has led to a dozen video game sequels and spin-offs, an animated series, a comic book series, and the aforementioned film adaptations. It’s one of the most successful media franchises of all time, so it’s hardly surprising Warner Bros. are attempting to revive the brand as a film franchise. With huge buzz surrounding the trailer and box office numbers beginning to sputter back to life, they just might get their wish.

While the bar is low on video game adaptations, Mortal Kombat is one of the better examples of the genre for one simple fact – it knows precisely what fans want. With all the bloody, brutal violence seen in the latest chapters of the video game (the 2019 sequel was banned in several countries including China and Japan), it’s an unmerciful battle royale that will surely delight those who love the game. It’s a film light on character development and bogged down by an unnecessarily complicated plot, but such foibles are to be anticipated in a film featuring exploding heads, detached limbs, and an eight-foot-tall beast with four arms.

This adaptation of the beloved video game follows MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), who sports a mysterious dragon-shaped birthmark and begins experiencing visions of a mysterious figure engulfed in flames. When the ruthless assassin known as Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) arrives on the Earthrealm from the Outworld to target the young fighter, Cole is saved by former Special Forces officer Jackson “Jax” Briggs (Mehcad Brooks), who informs him the birthmark is actually the mark of an invitation to fight in the ancient titular tournament for control of the realms.

Sent by nefarious sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han), Sub-Zero has been tasked with eliminating all of Earthrealm’s fighters in a bid to break the rules of the tournament and allow his master to finally take control of Earth. After seeking out Jax’s military partner Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Cole joins forces with the other marked warriors Kano (Josh Lawson, in all his foul-mouthed glory), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), and Kung Lao (Max Huang) to train at the temple of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano).

As protector of Earthrealm, Raiden offers the newly-enlisted warriors the training ground to unlock their respective arcanas aka the hidden magical powers that will allow each fighter the abilities to battle Shang Tsung’s roster of dangerous opponents. Ready for combat are sai-wielding assassin Mileena (Sisi Stringer), Kano’s former pal Kabal (Daniel Nelson and voiced by Damon Herriman), winged beast Nitara (Mel Jarnson), brutal enforcer Reiko (Nathan Jones), and the infamous four-armed colossus Goro (voiced by Angus Sampson).

Retconning all memory of the two previous incarnations of the game, Mortal Kombat is the necessary reboot this franchise required. And make no mistake about it. This is clearly planned as a new franchise for Warner Bros. with numerous easter egg references and sequel-bait to set up a follow-up film should this entry perform well at the box office. Director Simon McQuoid has made this film for fans of the video game and serves up lashings of gore, violence, and blood to echo everything that’s a staple of the enduring legacy of this brutal game series.

It’s a wise move to refuse to downplay the bloodshed to attain a lower classification rating to cater to broader audiences, which was one of the biggest issues with the PG-13-rated previous two films. Here in Australia, the film has been hit with our strictest classification of R18+, but a movie of this nature is rightly crafted for adults and McQuoid delivers everything fans will be clamouring for. On that level alone, Mortal Kombat is a huge success.

With bone-crunching fight choreography and physical stunts that defy logic and gravity, McQuoid knows how to stage an impressive action sequence brimming with energy and excitement. There’s nothing particularly original or groundbreaking here, but the particular moves chosen by the stunt team pays deft homage to those found in the video game (like Liu Kang’s iconic bicycle kick) and the Chinese and Japanese heritage of the film’s cast. And when the infamous fatalities arrive, McQuoid pulls no punches in displaying them in all their bloody splendour by virtue of some genuinely stunning visual effects wizardry.

The screenplay from Greg Russo and Dave Callaham includes numerous dialogue references to the game from Scorpion’s famous “Get over here!” line to a character muttering “flawless victory” after annihilating their opponent. But the bloated script is also loaded with endless exposition to explain the convoluted plot to those uninitiated with the world created in the video games, which is regurgitated by the cast through stilted dialogue that even the best actors couldn’t save.

The characters spend far too much time explaining the intricacies of the tournament and its mythological origins, causing the film to lag considerably around the middle before a rushed third act that crams as much in as possible. With a running time of 110 minutes, the messy pacing suggests tighter editing may have made for a more lively affair. It’s clear McQuoid wants to expand the audience beyond just gamers, meaning he needs to spend time laying the foundations for a sequel that can hopefully hit the ground running.

With all the cornerstones of a schlocky B-movie, it’s a shame this film often takes itself so damn seriously and McQuoid takes a more grounded approach that’s far from necessary for this style of ridiculous material. The tone fluctuates between gritty realism and outlandish absurdity, creating a film without a true identity. The screenplay reaches for dramatic beats that mostly fall flat on their face and there’s a decidedly dour mood hovering over much of the material that consistently gets in the way of something that could have been truly fun.

Thankfully, there’s still a bevy of gloriously silly set pieces that deliver riotous joy, especially when the melee of the final act truly takes flight. McQuoid’s secret weapon is Lawson, who completely steals this film with the only performance that appears to have understood the assignment. With zippy one-liners and a foul mouth that would make a sailor blush, Lawson has endless fun with Kano and injects some much-needed levity into the film at every turn. Sure, it’s a performance that often feels like it’s from another film entirely, but Lawson rightfully chews every piece of scenery with a character you genuinely miss when he’s not on screen.

The rest of the cast do the best they can with their one-dimensional characters, particularly those with literally no backstories. Of course, it’s hardly a film where you expect deep character development, but even those given some personality depth fall victim to terribly unoriginal traits and motivations. It was admirable to create a new character to lead this reboot, but Cole is a fairly dull protagonist who gets lost amongst the eccentric company of bombastic heroes and villains. The most interesting and emotionally resonant character is tragic ninja Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), yet he’s strangely only used to bookend the beginning and climax of the film.

Mortal Kombat is a film crafted almost exclusively for diehard fans, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It will delight fanboys and fangirls who’ve longed for a violent, gory film adaptation of a video game franchise that has lasted the test of time. If you consider yourself in that category, there’s little doubt you will have a blast with this film and walk away desperate for Warner Bros. to greenlight a sequel as soon as possible. There’s certainly enough fodder left in the can for another round.

For those outside the fandom, it’s hard to know if there’s anything more here than just a serviceable action film with the added shock factor of bloody death scenes and the pure, unadulterated joy of Lawson’s turbulent performance. It’s satisfying enough for the average viewer, but maybe just a touch unforgettable to truly leave any deep impact. At this point in the year, we’re still starved for turn-off-your-brain popcorn cinema nonsense, so Mortal Kombat fills that particular void until the summer blockbuster season arrives.

Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin, Chin Han, Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada, Sisi Stringer, Daniel Nelson, Mel Jarnson, Damon Herriman, Angus Sampson
Director: Simon McQuoid
Producers: James Wan, Todd Garner, Simon McQuoid, E. Bennett Walsh
Screenplay: Greg Russo, Dave Callaham
Cinematography: Germain McMicking
Production Design: Naaman Marshall
Costume Design: Cappi Ireland
Editors: Dan Lebental, Scott Gray
Music: Benjamin Wallfisch

Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Date: 22nd April 2021 (Australia)