Despite all its blood and guts and fatalities, the Mortal Kombat video game series has a certain silliness to it. There’s nothing wrong with that, mind you – the silliness is part of the fun, part of the charm of it all. After all, Mortal Kombat is ultimately the story of characters punching and kicking each other for the fate of the world. Some of these characters are humans; some are robots; some are giant monsters with four arms; some are immortal ninjas; some are full-blown gods; it’s a rich, goofy tapestry. To adapt that into a movie requires the right sort of balance, and perhaps even a certain degree of camp. Which makes the new Mortal Kombat movie all the more frustrating. Here is a film taking itself so dreadfully serious that it forgets to let us have any fun. Worse than that, it’s kind of boring.
In Mortal Kombat, there’s a rule written down somewhere that if fighters of an alternate dimension known as Outworld beat fighters from Earth 10 times in a series of tournaments, Outworld has the right to invade and conquer us. I’m not sure the logistics of this – is it a legal matter that suddenly allows this dimension of monsters and sorcerers to gain access to our world? Can we fight it in court if we lose in battle? In any case, those are the rules, and rules were made to be broken. Rather than sit around waiting for humans to get their shit together, Outworld ruler Shang Tsung (Chin Han) decides to cut to the chase and send an assassin – Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), who has the power to conjure up ice like Elsa from Frozen – to bump off the prospective champions of Earth before the tenth tournament even takes place.
So far, so good, I guess. It’s all a bit rushed – we get a title card to explain what’s going on here, and there are a lot of moments where characters give big speeches spelling out their motivations. That’s to be expected, and as lazy as it may seem, it doesn’t hurt the movie – at first. Nor does it hurt that director Simon McQuoid leans into the horror elements built into the mythology. Mortal Kombat is full of monsters and bodily damage, and the very early moments where Sub-Zero prowls around our world like Michael Myers hunting down Laurie Strode are plenty effective, and even creepy. Taslim’s Sub-Zero gives off real menace, but it’s not enough to keep the film on its feet.
What knocks Mortal Kombat down again and again is its rushed, uninspired, and surprisingly dull script. There’s a lot of talk here about chosen ones, and the Earth fighters who are meant to be the champions against Outworld all bear a mark that looks like the iconic Mortal Kombat dragon symbol. This mark is somehow both a birthmark and something that can be magically transferred to other people. Only true fighters can bear this mark, though. Or something like that.
One such person bearing the mark is former MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a painfully lifeless character who has been invented specifically for the film. Cole is meant to be our avatar bringing us into the world of Mortal Kombat, which means he mostly spends the movie running around asking questions about what’s going on and then occasionally engaging in fight scenes.
Let’s get to those fight scenes, shall we? Mortal Kombat has an R rating, which means it can lean into the gore that made the games so famous. And sure enough, the blood does fly. When people are hit here blood practically explodes from their bodies; more blood than anyone can possibly contain. Limbs are torn off; bodies are frozen; guts are spilled; hearts are ripped out. It’s brutal stuff, so why does it feel so…safe? There should be a gnarly aspect to all this carnage, and it isn’t there. As for the fighting itself, it varies – some fights are staged quite well, where we can see every punch, every kick, every flip. Others are filmed in extreme close-ups that render the action incomprehensible. But the international cast here is clearly adept at fighting, or at least movie fighting.
Cole joins forces with Special Forces soldiers Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and Jax (Mehcad Brooks), who both know all about the ancient rules of Mortal Kombat. Sonya even has a corkboard with newspaper clippings and lines of string tying it all together, like a loony conspiracy theorist chasing after the inexplicable. Little details like that are a nice touch, but we need more. We need characterization, for one thing. Who are any of these characters? Mortal Kombat has no interest in fleshing them out, probably because it thinks it doesn’t have to. The game versions of the Mortal Kombat players didn’t have real character development, so why should the movie? Everyone is just sort of there, standing around, looking admittedly cool while waiting for their individual fight scenes. When they’re not doing that they’re fond of showing up and announcing their names, probably so people in the audience can lean over to someone next to them and say, “That’s that guy from the games!”
While Sonya wants to help save the world, Cole has his doubts about all of this, and he doesn’t know if he’s ready to fight. He’ll have to find some encouragement, be it from the lightning god Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), the fireball throwing Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), or Kung Lao (Max Huang), who wears a hat that can conveniently turn into a buzzsaw. Also along for the ride, reluctantly: criminal Kano (Josh Lawson), the one character the film allows to be “funny.” Unfortunately, Kano’s constant stream of passive-aggressive one-liners fizzle, as do moments where he says groan-worthy quips like, “Put a shirt on, Magic Mike!”
On the baddie side, in addition to Sub-Zero, Shang Tsung has a motley crew including the blood-hungry Mileena (Sisi Stringer), the four-armed monster Goro (a digital creation voiced by Angus Sampson), and the robotically enhanced Kabal, played by Daniel Nelson but voiced by Damon Herriman. Herriman opts to give Kabal a thick New Yawk wiseguy accent, which often makes him look and sound like drunken robot Bender from the animated series Futurama. It’s a choice, to say the least. As for fan-favorite Scorpion, well, don’t expect too much of him. After an eye-catching, head-stabbing prologue, he disappears for most of the movie. Pity, too, because actor Hiroyuki Sanada brings a real dignity to the film that most of his costars fail to capture.
If all of this sounds rather silly, that’s because it is. But Mortal Kombat refuses to admit that. It plays all of this as deadly serious and suffers because of it. Everything feels so mournful, so dour; funereal, even. If a film where a super-powered ninja turns a gush of blood into a frozen blood-knife can’t even be fun, what’s the point? It’s one thing to take this material seriously. It’s another to make the movie itself so damn serious.
And to cap it all off, Mortal Kombat commits the sin that so many recent Hollywood adaptations of existing properties make these days – it’s all set up. Everything that happens here can be written off as exposition laying the groundwork for a sequel, where the real kombat can begin. It’s a ruse; a come-on; a side-show with a very loud barker out front. “We can’t show you that stuff just yet, but come back next time and we might!” The thing is, we’re all suckers enough to probably fall for it.
/Film Rating: 5 out of 10
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