Mortal Kombat, you may know, happens to be a video game adaptation – and that should immediately have you adjusting your expectations. Where the original Mortal Kombat – released in 1995 and directed by Paul W. S. Anderson – took the brutal source material and converted it into a brainless but fun-fighting movie, the reboot walks a more serious path, amping up the gratuitous violence and turning down any sense of character. The new adaptation may be action-packed, but the heroes are dull-as-ditchwater and Earth’s invaders are villains ripped from a screenwriters’ textbook.
Created specifically for the movie, protagonist Cole Young (Lewis Tan) is a former MMA champion who fights for chump change to support his family. Enter Jax (Mehcad Brooks), formerly of the special forces, who sends Cole to Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee). Cole has a dragon tattoo – with him since birth – which signals that he’s actually a champion of Earthrealm, chosen to battle the enemies of Netherrealm in a competition known as Mortal Kombat. "Look, they spelled it wrong," Cole quips during an exposition dump. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much his only memorable line, with the lead blending into the background of his own story.
Sonya presents us with a few helpful documents and introduces another fighter, Kano (Josh Lawson), a wise-cracking, beer-loving Aussie. Director Simon McQuoid speedily hurries our characters to another location, where we are subject to further exposition and introduced to more protagonists – Raiden, Liu Kang, and Kung Lao. From there, our heroes can quickly get to some training before the actual tournament begins.
Mortal Kombat’s not particularly interested in developing these characters beyond mere cliches. Take, for instance, the Terminator-like Sub Zero (Joe Taslim), a malevolent force who could have had an interesting backstory, yet we’re offered very little. Instead, Sub’s simply a pawn belonging to the soul-sucking Shang Tsung (Chin Han), himself given zero motivation other than wanting to take over Earthrealm.
There are simply too many characters given too much to do. Mortal Kombat wants to assemble its own Avengers, but does not have the space to make them likable individuals. That’s partly the fault of this being an almost too-accurate adaptation of Mortal Kombat, a series best known for fatalities, the horrendous killer moves that caused every mother in the ‘90s to ban their children from playing the video games. McQuoid wants to depict these moves in all their bloody glory while also making us care about the characters being killed. As a result, the filmmaker reaches for too much, and everything between the action drags.
Luckily, though, when the fighting does the talking, Mortal Kombat delivers a few swift uppercuts. Each battle is beautifully shot and choreographed, with some excellent fatalities that will be best enjoyed amid a roaring cinema crowd. Meanwhile, the actors bring technical know-how to their roles, especially Tan and Taslim, which enhances these scenes, as does each character having their own visually different fighting style. Plus, their abilities make for some visually exciting moments that will be enjoyed most by devoted game players. So, if you can make it through the predictable story and dire dialogue, then the brutal fights are certainly exhilarating spectacles. A movie to turn off and plug in to.
Mortal Kombat is out now on HBO Max in the US (check out the best HBO Max prices) and on-demand in the UK.