Mortal Kombat is not an objectively “good” film, but it is one hell of a fun one that gleefully embraces a midnight movie aesthetic and showcases a game set of performers.
I think, before we delve into a discussion of the new Mortal Kombat film, you need to take a step back and ask yourself what you expect from a film called Mortal Kombat, spelled with a “K” instead of “C” because of a misspelling on a developer whiteboard. It’s a film that derives from a decades long video game series known best for its preposterously violent finishing moves called “fatalities” that actually led to congressional inquiries and the creation of parental ratings for video games. This is a movie that obviously and purposefully leans into the cheesy gore that defines the series. The film’s story – like the games – is little more than a threadbare excuse to find various vaguely superpowered individuals locked in one-on-one battles. If you’re expecting a film that will dizzy and dazzle with sublime cinematic luminosity, look elsewhere. If you’re looking to laugh along with a midnight movie that happens to have a much larger budget, I present to you Simon McQuaid’s Mortal Kombat.
Like many my age, I loved the Mortal Kombat video games as a kid. I used to go to a local pizza place to wait my turn to clash with other neighborhood kids on the arcade machines in the back when Mortal Kombat 2 first launched. I saw each original film in theaters opening weekend. My mother hand made me a Sub-Zero costume for Halloween when I was 8 or 9 years old, long before “cosplay” was a common thing. And like most, I largely fell off the series as arcades died and the games transitioned to modern 3D gameplay. Still, there’s a primal visceral appeal for me here.
Mortal Kombat opens with a prologue in feudal Japan. Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada, of The Wolverine, Sunshine) steps away from his bucolic wooded estate to gather water for his family. By the time he has returned, Bi-Han (Joe Taslim of The Raid, The Night Comes for Us) and his ninja lackeys have brutally murdered Hanzo’s family. The two, who will soon be known by their IP approved names, Scorpion and Sub-Zero, duel in the woods. Here, McQuaid has crafted a gorgeous fight sequence with two genre studs. For a battle that sees its combatants – sorry “kombatants” – shrug off impalement and borderline evisceration with a shrug, it’s a nearly poetic sequence that eschews the sort of rancid overcutting that mars so many fight scenes. It steals liberally, and effectively, from decades of samurai filmmaking. It teases a better, more serious film than what’s to follow.
Ostensibly, the story, here, sees a world of bad guys attempting to invade “Earthrealm” to murder the champions of Earth before a mystical tournament. Said tournament, the titular Mortal Kombat, is imbued with the power of an interdimensional traffic cop for reasons left unsaid here and, I imagine, goofily explained in one of the series’ great many interactive versions. Our heroes are quickly introduced: a soon to be robot armed special forces operator (Mehcad Brooks, Supergirl, True Blood), a special forces exposition specialist (Jessica McNamee, The Meg, Black Water: Abyss), a prickish mercenary (Josh Lawson, Holly Slept Over, Superstore), and a pair of monk warriors (Ludi Kin, Power Rangers, and Max Huang, Sense8). If it feels like a lot, that’s because it is. Nevertheless, this is the sort of film that works with broad archetypical characters. Our time is better respected with a few extra minutes of violence than rambling backstories.
The audience proxy is a new character created for the film with an exceedingly obvious tie to the rest of the lore. Played effectively by Lewis Tam (Deadpool 2, Wu Assassins), Cole Young is a reasonable addition to the Mortal Kombat canon. While he’s a bit of a Male Mary Sue, Tam does what he can to elevate the character’s brief humanizing beats. He’s plenty credible in the action scenes, which is really what matters.
The dialogue throughout the film is largely risible. Exposition dumps are juxtaposed with entirely goofy one-liners. I’m embarrassed to admit how many of the quips made me chuckle – they’re just the right sort of dumb.
Look, the action scenes determine what you’re going to get from this. I’ll fully admit my disappointment that most of the film’s action fails to lead up to the quality of the opening prologue. Hyper editing makes the battles somewhat difficult to comprehend. Nevertheless the fights are insanely violent in a way that will immensely appeal to the film’s built-in fanbase. From still beating hearts ribbed from chests to arms frozen and ruptured in a spray of blood, there’s a lot of payoff for gorehounds here, and, for me, that was more than enough.