It’s reasonable to expect that a movie about a tournament called Mortal Kombat would have an actual tournament occur at some point. Instead, not unlike Godot, the subject of the new movie never actually arrives. Does it matter? Probably not. None of the characters in this video game adaptation really needs a particularly good reason to fight. And in a twist that undoubtedly helped keep the budget under control, it seems evil wizard Shang Tsung (Chin Han) is such an inveterate cheater that he wants to off the opposition before any tourney can actually start.
This allows for characters like ice-throwing Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) and monster-toothed Mileena (Sisi Stringer) to materialize on regular city streets and desert mountainsides. Rather than, say, expensive interdimensional magic islands. The script still mostly consists of one-on-one fights. But like the climax of Rocky V, they’re effectively unsanctioned bouts.
The only major character who initially has no idea what’s going on, and therefore serves as the audience surrogate, is Cole Young (Lewis Tam). An MMA fighter who taps out all too easily, he’s one of a select few born with a familiar dragon birthmark. Others with the mark have somehow magically acquired it by killing the previous holder. Only Cole had it from birth. But rather wisely, director Simon McQuoid and writers Greg Russo and Dave Callahan don’t even try to explain most of the mythology herein. They just throw it all at the wall to see what sticks. Fighters with the mark have to get their asses kicked until they spontaneously develop a random superpower, er, “arcana”? Sure, why the hell not?
An opening sequence set in 16th-century Japan nobly strives to look something like an art movie. But while its “obvious metaphor” moment of blood dripping on flowers feels risible, the blood-gushing, torn ninja throats are why most people will watch. Back in 1995, the first live-action movie had a mandate to be PG-13, even though the game was not. Because movie studio logic dictated that realistically, young teens played the game more than anyone else, the thinking went, they should be allowed in without ID. Today, those young teens are middle-aged and working at the studios. So the gore they and other fans always wanted to see is now a free-for-all.
The 1995 film felt ground-breaking in its day, and not just for actually taking a video game adaptation seriously. In the pre-streaming era, it offered the first look mainstream American audiences had of the Hong Kong style of wire-work fights onscreen. Combined with then-innovative CG and impressive practical sets and costumes, it blew more than a few young minds. This 2021 edition, in the post-MMA era, focuses on more realistic grappling. Albeit combined with the occasional monster effects and over-the-top “fatalities” of the game.
Augmenting the R-rating, characters repeatedly drop f-bombs like ten year-olds trying to sound tough. This works most effectively with Josh Lawson’s Kano, a rowdy Australian who’s more of an antihero than before. Knowing exactly what sort of movie he’s in, he barks his lines out like a Mad Max villain and steals the show. Other performances range from an intensely cult-like Ludi Lin as Liu Kang to Tan’s utterly wooden Cole Young. Thankfully, Tan fights much better than he emotes. And both Han’s Shang Tsung and Tadanobu Asano’s Raiden feel like they’re channeling their 1995 predecessors.
Even in this new incarnation, Mortal Kombat still feels more like a Hong Kong film than a Hollywood production. Its wild mythology, uneven performances and graphic violence feel like they ought to be badly dubbed and watched on a bootleg video. Anyone expecting it to make too much sense, or treat the material with Zack Snyder-like grimdark reverence, will feel misguided. It’s not quite camp, but nobody here ever takes the material too seriously. Iron-lunged villain Kabal, for example, comes with a cartoonish Tony Soprano voice by Damon Herriman that will dispense with all thoughts of solemnity.
And some readers will already say to themselves, “Who cares? I don’t want Citizen Kane. I want Citizen Kano, ripping out some hearts.” Friends, you will get that and more. X-ray kills, however, remain the specialty of the most recent animated movie instead. Four-armed Goro may not look quite as real in CG as he did while a huge puppet, but he fights a lot better. And gorier.
As video game adaptations go, this doesn’t measure up to the likes of Detective Pikachu and Silent Hill in terms of story. It’s more akin to something like the non-game-based, and yet game-like, Freddy vs. Jason, which of course had a Hong Kong director, Ronny Yu. Like that title, it should prove a great rowdy, brainless party movie to just put on and cheer on in years to come. What else, really, should one expect from a movie whose tagline is “Get over here”?
Mortal Kombat opens in theaters and premieres on HBO Max on Friday, April 23.
Recommended Reading: Mortal Kombat X Vol. 3: Blood Island
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