Film Review: Mortal Kombat
Director: Simon McQuoid
Atomic Monster Productions
In Theaters and Streaming on HBO MAX 04.23
The interesting thing about nostalgia is that it can kick in when you least expect it. I went into the new version of Mortal Kombat having forgotten that I had actually played the video game quite a few more times than I thought, back at the video arcade at the old Crossroads Mall when I was in my late teens, and a lot of memories came flooding back to me as I watched the movie.
The convoluted story sees the realm of Outworld on the brink of victory against Earthrealm, having won nine out of 10 Mortal Kombat tournaments that would allow the winning realm to invade, conquer and even subsume the defeated realm. However, an ancient prophecy states that a new generation of Earthrealm’s champions will unite to prevent Outworld’s victory. Aware of the prophecy, Outworld’s Emperor, the sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han, The Dark Knight) employs warriors to hunt and kill all Earthrealm champions, identified by a distinctive dragon mark, before the next tournament begins.
Cole Young (Lewis Tan, Iron Fist, Into The Badlands) is a small-time MMA fighter accustomed to taking a beating for money, unaware that the “birthmark” he bears is actually a magical symbol of his true heritage. But when Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim, The Swordsman), an otherworldly Cryomancer hunts Cole down, putting his family danger, Cole is rescued by a man called Jax (Mechad Brooks, Supergirl) who sends him in search of a woman called Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee, Battle of the Sexes).
Soon, he finds himself at the temple of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano, Mongol, Midway), an Elder God and the protector of Earthrealm, who grants sanctuary to those who bear the mark. Here, Cole trains with experienced warriors as he prepares to stand with Earth’s greatest champions against the enemies of Outworld in a high-stakes battle for the universe. But will Cole be pushed hard enough to unlock his arcana—the immense power from within his soul—in time to save not only his family, but to stop Outworld once and for all?
Mortal Kombat isn’t a good film in terms of storytelling, acting or, honestly, not even particularly in terms of action, as the fights are mostly confined to fairly cramped spaces and the choreography is nothing special. But freshman director Simon McQuoid has succeeded remarkably well at capturing the feel of the video game, something that previous film versions haven’t done. The emphasis here, more than anything, is on capturing the brutality that made the original game controversial, and therefore cool, when it first came out. The actual fights don’t matter nearly as much as the “fatalities”—the over-the-top deathblows that come when one opponent finishes off the other by doing something like ripping their spine out. At times, it’s really just a “greatest hits” parade of shocking but campy video game violence.
Mortal Kombat is aimed squarely at diehard fans of the game, and it barely even tries to appeal to a wider audience. The movie is likely to be a point of contention for some gamers and moviegoers because it raises a question: Is a videogame movie that is dumb as a tree but really gets the essence of the game a good movie? And as someone who firmly believes that a film should be judged primarily on how well it succeeds at what it’s trying to be, I find it to be a surprisingly complex question, but ultimately, I’d have to say that “kinda sorta but not really” is as close to a definitive answer as anyone can give.
The performances are mostly quite weak, with arguably the most charismatic also being easily the most annoying, and that comes from Josh Lawson (House of Lies, Bombshell) as boisterous Australian mercenary named Kano. He’s obnoxious as hell and never shuts up. What’s more, a good deal of his dialogue is either sexist, racist or otherwise distasteful and vulgar, but still, he’s basically the only character with a personality. The production design by Naaman Marshall (Underwater, Stuber), costumes by Cappi Ireland (I, Frankenstein, Lion) and the rousing musical score by Benjamin Wallfisch (It, Shazam!) are probably the biggest strengths of the film.
Mortal Kombat, quite honestly, was never a truly great game so much as it was a trendy and successful one. It’s certainly not a very good movie. But I did leave the theaters filled with incredible desire to hang out at Crossroads Mall—which has been closed for about 17 years, which is to say that it tapped into a certain wistful sentimentality that I wasn’t expecting it to, and I have to admit that I found myself swept up in something approximating fun in the final third. It’s not a movie I would recommend to anyone apart from those who are already going to be dead set on seeing it, but it will probably bring a smile to most of their faces—though it’s hopefully a slightly guilty one. –Patrick Gibbs