‘Mortal Kombat’ Review: Fatalities and Fists Aplenty in MK Adaptation
By Daniel Rester
While Mortal Kombat has been a successful ongoing property in the video game world, it has been over two decades since an MK film adaptation has been made. Perhaps that time was justified though as we needed to recover from the blunder called Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997). Thankfully film technology has improved since then and the new filmmakers seemed to have taken a few notes of what not to do. This new version from debuting director Simon McQuoid is no flawless victory, but it is an entertaining enough ride for fans of the game series and action movie junkies.
Instead of choosing from the many Mortal Kombat characters, the filmmakers invented a new protagonist for the lead for the film. Enter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), an MMA fighter who has seen better fighting days but is still happy alongside his family. Young’s world flips upside down when he is told his unique dragon-like birthmark is actually a symbol representing his worthiness for a tournament involving warriors from Earthrealm and Outworld. If Outworld wins one more of the tournaments, the sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) can conquer Earthrealm.
Young joins two soldiers, Jax (Mehcad Brooks) and Sonya (Jessica McName), and a loudmouthed mercenary, Kano (Josh Lawson), in a journey to discover more fighters representing Earthrealm. Hunting them are evil members from Outworld, led by the ruthless ice-shooter Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim). The four heroes must train alongside other fighters in order to unlock their “arcanas” (special powers) and fight back against the Outworlders who are trying to prevent the tournament from taking place.
Mortal Kombat begins on a high note that the rest of the movie can never quite match. The prologue involves a warrior named Hanzo (Hiroyuki Sanada, giving the film’s best performance) going up against Sub-Zero and his henchmen in a 17th-century Japan setting. The fighting here is expertly choreographed and the scene has emotional stakes. All of the scenes involving Hanzo and Sub-Zero are pretty much the best scenes in the film, but this opening in particular had me pumped.
After that beginning, Mortal Kombat becomes more hit and miss as it introduces and plays out its various elements. Our main characters come together well, but once they meet up with thunder god Raiden (Tabanobu Asano) and others it feels like the film enters a second act that it never really leaves. There are endless training sessions and then some eventual fighting with the Outworlders, but it never feels like a proper third act comes into play as (spoiler) the tournament never arrives and is instead teased for a sequel.
The acting is serviceable, with everyone doing well with the physicality but not delivering Shakespeare-worthy performances of course. Aside from Sanada, Taslim is a standout as Sub-Zero, who is the only villain who actually comes across as intimidating. Lawson chews the scenery as Kano, obnoxiously delivering quip after quip. The actor is clearly having fun and brings a lot of energy to his performance — even if only about half of his jokes land.
The big flaw here, besides some awful villain dialogue, is Young in the lead. Tan does a fine enough job playing the new protagonist, but the character feels like a run-of-the-mill hero from beginning to end. The filmmakers took a risk introducing a fresh lead, but unfortunately the risk didn’t pay off as Young is pretty dull. It feels especially weird having him in the lead given that the expected lead Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) is in the film and is far more interesting (gotta love that bicycle kick).
Issues aside, Mortal Kombat delivers on its promise of what most viewers are coming to it to see. That’s the kickass action scenes. The 1995 Mortal Kombat movie had some exciting scenes, but it was also restricted by its PG-13 rating and early CGI. Here, McQuoid and team go hard R and deliver the graphicness displayed in the games. The fighting is full of sweat and energy and the fatality moments are often very bloody and brutal, especially with one involving a razor hat. The effects are slick too, with Sub-Zero’s ice abilities especially cool (pun intended). McQuoid does a fine job with the staging and in letting the many characters all have their shining moments with their arcana powers.
I like this Mortal Kombat about the same as the 1995 Paul W.S. Anderson one, which I also reviewed recently. It lacks that one’s goofy charm and exotic locations (and amazing theme song, which is remixed here to little effect), but this one has polished visuals and action and some wild fatality scenes. Both films are miles ahead of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, that’s for sure.
I hope it isn’t another two decades before we get another Mortal Kombat film. In fact, I hope McQuoid is able to deliver on this one’s cliffhanger ending and craft a sequel within the next few years. There’s room for improvement when it comes to the dialogue and Cole Young.
My Grade: 6.5/10 (letter grade equivalent: B-)
Running Time: 1h 50min