It’s been 24 years since Mortal Kombat: Annihilation committed cinematic franchise Harakiri. In that span, there have been 11 entries in the video game series. I owned them all and the less said about a few of them, the better; but that’s not really the point of all this.
We’re here to discuss Mortal Kombat. It’s finally back, and it’s actually brutal this time. That is one positive amongst a plethora of the not-so because the “M” in the title could just as easily have stood for muddled or messy or even mindless.
Before we address those alliterative adjectives, let’s start at the beginning. Bi-Han/Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) murders Hanzo Hasashi/Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his family in 1617. That act is central to the overall plot; and the scene itself sort of over promises what’s to come.
That being Cole Young (Lewis Tan)—who after being approached by Jax (Mehcad Brooks) and then pursued by the merciless Sub-Zero—going on a quest to find the others with a dragon marking like his. He thought it was a birthmark, but it’s actually a golden ticket to participate in Mortal Kombat—the tournament to decide the fate of Earth Realm. Why would you want to be chosen for Death Bowl? That’s a fair question that nobody seems to be all that worried about.
But if you’ve played the games, the lore here is very similar. Outworld has won nine in a row. With one more victory, they will be able to invade earth, enslaving its inhabitants. Yikes! Anyway, Cole—whose character is unique to this film—finds Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), who, in turn, introduces him to a shackled up Kano (Josh Lawson). Quick aside: Without Kano, this movie would be almost devoid of personality and charm. He seems to be the only person who knows what movie he’s in.
Their joint task then becomes to locate Raiden’s (Tadanobu Asano) temple. Of course they do, and then we get more backstory on the origins of the tournament, as well as an introduction to Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang), and the “Thunder God” himself, Raiden.
This is where Mortal Kombat struggles to find itself. The plot becomes absurdly convoluted, focusing on the group’s need to discover their individual Arcanas. An Arcana is an ability buried deep within each fighter, one they must call upon if they hope to survive the dangers ahead.
Those dangers are Shang Tsung (Chin Han) and his horde of minions—Reiko (Nathan Jones), Mileena (Sisi Stringer), Nitara (Mel Jarnson), Kabal (Daniel Nelson), and Goro (CGI).
As a concept, I guess the Arcana is fine. It’s definitely not necessary, and it certainly stops the movie’s momentum in its tracks. It goes from somewhat intriguing to fairly pedestrian, paint-by-numbers storytelling.
As someone who loves the games, the film adaptation shouldn’t have to create superfluous elements to justify the narrative its telling. There’s just too much interesting mythology to already mine. And honestly, we’re all here to witness the titular tournament. Who cares why Kano can shoot a laser out of his eye or why “Magic Mike,” Liu Kang, can conjure fire with his fists?
Well, this movie does. Yet it doesn’t care about the rules of said sporting contest because Shang Tsung is constantly breaking them. It’s his desire to ensure that Earth Realm’s warriors never make it to the dance. Does a victory count if there’s nothing to be won? Too much thought … Focus! Back to Shang Tsung. This dude is the “Big” Ernie McCracken of Outworld, constantly attempting to rig things in his favor.
And that comparison is more in-depth than anything the movie attempts to do with its villains. They exist simply to fulfill what we all came to see: die in gruesome and grisly ways.
As incoherent as the plot can be, that element of Mortal Kombat does deliver. And if you’re pretty stoked about watching a person’s head get smashed, then you’re in luck. The violence is spectacular. The actual Kombat is a mixed bag.
Most of this cast are legit martial artists, which is why I wish the choreography was given more room to breathe. There are far too many quick cuts and close crops; it’s hard to discern what’s happening. That’s a shame. Had they nailed more of the fisticuffs—as they do all the Scorpion and Sub-Zero stuff—then the movie’s failure to not equal the sum of its parts would be less apparent.
Unfortunately, there’s just too much that doesn’t work with either the story or barbarity to elevate it. In saying that, this is still a video game movie that is vastly superior to other entries in the genre.
It’s just not as good as it could’ve been, though I did geek out at several moments. I’m talking hardcore, like wanting to jump out of my seat, chills down my spine. And that ranges from the simplicity of Liu Kang standing back-to-back with Kung Lao to how the finale plays out.
That’s what hurts most. Mortal Kombat was right on the cusp of transcending into something more special. Being so bogged down in the middle just suffocated it.
In the end, to put it in the game’s terms, it’s like barely winning a match and then showing your opponent Mercy. They then kill you and make you watch them do a Friendship. Just let me die with dignity!
For further thoughts on the movie, tune into next week’s Hops and Box Office Flops.