When the original Mortal Kombat film came out in 1995, it was among the first wave of movies based on video games, coming just three years after the game itself debuted in arcades in 1992. Like virtually every other video game adaptation since, it was much derided for its laughable plot, dialogue, and, most importantly, action.
Twenty-six years later, not much has changed in the reboot of the franchise except one key thing that lines it up much better with the aesthetic of the video game series. In this Mortal Kombat, the central figure is MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), who is initially unaware that he shares a heritage with the great Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), an 1800s era Japanese warrior whose family is slaughtered in a brutal opening sequence.
As always in the series, the plot pits fighters from Earthrealm versus those from the Outworld, which is ruled by Emperor Shang Tsung (Chin Hun). As we learn – but don’t see – Outworld has defeated Earthrealm in nine straight tournaments, and one more win means they will rule for good. It’s up to Cole and the other fighters he meets along the way to prevent the worst from happening.
Directed by Simon McQuoid and written by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham, the filmmakers earn points by at least attempting to have a comprehensible plot. That’s not to say that they’re successful; after a decent start, the film quickly does away with any story nonsense to make it all about the fighting, all the time. But the bare minimum of giving Cole a family and laying out some background of other characters lends some light emotion to the proceedings.
Of course, the fighting is what most viewers will want to see, and the blood-spattered opening to the film makes it immediately clear that this is no PG-13 affair. The two ’90s films were full of cheesy action scenes, so the intensity and graphic nature of the sequences in this film are a step up. And fans of the games will be happy to see that the finishing moves employed by the various characters are extremely gory, which at least gives a visceral sheen to the mostly inane combat.
The film features many of the video game series’ favorite characters, including Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Kano (Josh Lawson), Jax (Mehcad Brooks), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), and Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano). All of them are showcased to some degree, although given the nature of the story, there are very few surprises and no real stakes for any of them.
As the lead, Tan doesn’t do much to earn viewers’ attention. The character is not all that compelling, and Tan lacks the charm necessary to get people on his side. The two most successful actors are McNamee and Lawson, the former because she actually does possess some charisma, and the latter because his character is given free rein to be loud and profane. Everyone else relies on their fighting skills, CGI, or both to speak for their characters.
This Mortal Kombat will not win any awards and has very little to hang on to if you care about plot. However, with the type of violence that fans of the series will love to see, it can at least claim that it’s no longer watering down the most famous aspect of the game on which it’s based.
Mortal Kombat is now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.