Review by C.J. Bunce
At one level you know exactly what to expect when you select a movie based on a video game. Any film worth its production costs needs to bring general audiences into the world, the director and writers need to then build that world, establish heroes, fight battles, provide over-the-top action and effects, and the hero(es) must achieve some kind of goal. The stakes are high, often the fate of the entire world. And that rarely leaves room for character development. Entries include Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed, Resident Evil, Warcraft, Monster Hunter, Prince of Persia, Rampage, Sonic the Hedgehog, and a slew of Pokémon movies, and they go back decades to the original concept film Tron, which had a video game at its center that players didn’t get to play until after the movie. Lesser rated entries include movies like Hitman, Max Payne, Doom, Street Fighter, and In the Name of the King.
This year’s big-budget release Mortal Kombat, both a remake and a reboot and adaptation of a series of martial arts fantasy games going back to 1992, leans heavily into Asian action movie culture. It arrives in a growing marketplace for API and AAPI films, in a year including Raya and the Last Dragon, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins.
So where does Mortal Kombat land in comparison?
The world of Mortal Kombat is akin to the epic, dense lore behind Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed–it’s layered and near impossible to translate to a two-hour movie. It follows human warriors who carry a special tattoo that identifies them as able to compete at a galactic level with warriors of other realms. The movie sets up the stage for the battle of Mortal Kombat, but ends right before the stage is ready for battle presumably with a sequel at the ready. It embraces its Asian lore, a mix of Japanese and Chinese conventions. Fans of Bruce Lee will find plenty of homages in the story to Enter the Dragon, for example.
Its three stars, the heroes of the tale, are street fighter Cole Young, played by the charismatic Lewis Tan from Wu Assassins, and the underutilized co-star of the action movie The Meg, Jessica McNamee as Sonya Blade, who has worked with “marked” warrior Jax Briggs (Supergirl’s Mehcad Brooks)–a new cyborg–to research how to defend earth from a sorcerer known to cheat at Mortal Kombat called Shang Tsung, played by Chin Han (Skyscraper, Captain America: The Winter Soldier). In a lair called Raiden’s Temple, the marked heroes will learn what their “arcana” is, an exclusive superpower that will help them in battle.
But if there is any authenticity here, any gravity, it’s through the Asian characters: Joe Taslim (Star Trek Beyond, The Night Comes for Us, The Raid) as Bi-Han aka Sub-Zero, the #2 bad guy with the power to freeze anything Medusa-style, Hiroyuki Sanada (Army of the Dead, The Wolverine) as the top good guy from the Outworld, German-Chinese actor Max Huang (Bleeding Steel) as Kung Lao–a warrior with a battle lampshade hat plucked straight out of Big Trouble in Little China, and Ludi Lin (Power Rangers, Aquaman) as a young warrior aiding Cole, Sonya, and Jax.
Unlike Resident Evil and Monster Hunter, the movie doesn’t take itself seriously, and that is highlighted with the casting of Australian actor Josh Lawson as Kano. Ultimately Kano doesn’t fit this movie–you can tell he’s supposed to be like DumDum Dugan, but he’s too annoying, too mouthy, too off-putting–and yet you would have seen this kind of odd duck in the tangle of battle in a movie like Enter the Dragon. Where the film goes off the rails is when it leads toward old Blumhouse-style special effects, splitting humans and revealing all the gory blood and guts. Add that to the pointless R-rated language and the movie cuts out a fair chunk of a potential teenage audience.
Ultimately Mortal Kombat comes in last place against this year’s big Asian character movies, but it finds some good ground for its genre overall. It’s better than Monster Hunter, and the Resident Evil movies, as well as the original 1995 version, and at times it’s as good at adapting its video game fantasy world as Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed, and Warcraft. Cole, Sonya, and Jax have potential if the franchise continues with these actors. Cole’s relationship with his family could be fleshed out more, as well as Sonya and Jax’s backstory. It’s a major plus the story has no room or relevance for sexual tension between its leads and that the women don’t always spar off against other women as in most action movies. In a sequel I’d love to see more of the lore and stranger Outworld characters that play only a small part in this film, like Kabal, Syzoth, Goro, and Scorpion.
First-time director Simon McQuoid does a decent job getting the franchise restarted. Mortal Kombat is helped having better production values than recent video game adaptations, thanks to Naaman Marshall (The Dark Knight, The Prestige, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), and a great, blood-pumping score from composer Benjamin Wallfisch (Blade Runner 2049, Shazam!). The special effects are mostly innovative and interesting, on par with that of last year’s Love and Monsters.
Mortal Kombat is now available at sell-through prices on Vudu and several streaming platforms.