The storied, iconic universe of Mortal Kombat is one with countless fans and at least a passing interest from most gamers. I wasn’t there for its debut in the 90s, but in picking up Mortal Kombat: Deception in 2004, I was immediately hooked. The fights were brutal, the characters looked badass, and the ‘Krypt’ mode in particular had me playing for countless hours. It was also an early experience with complex storytelling in a game, where characters had depth and history with one another. It’s why I, and many others, keep coming back to the series with each new installment and why the prospect of a film adaptation is a lucrative one. Mortal Kombat has always had a cinematic flair to it, one that films have never quite been able to capture.
Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat from 1995 is something of a cult classic and generally liked by the fanbase, but mired with whitewashing and only the simplest reflection of the franchise’s real potential. This is about 100x worse in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, the infamous sequel that is personally enjoyable for its sheer absurdity, but fails on almost every level as an adaptation. I say almost because what’s so hard to take away from any iteration of Mortal Kombat is its baseline cool factor and fascinating characters. Maybe that’s just the nerd in me talking, but it’s hard to divest from this franchise, no matter how ridiculous or bad it gets.
Which brings us to the latest Mortal Kombat, resurrected by Warner Bros. and helmed by newcomer Simon McQuoid with the promise of a true adaptation, with respect to the lore and gore of its signature name. It succeeds on one of those fronts, but not quite the other. Mortal Kombat, from the opening scene all the way until the end, wants you to know it’s made by realheads for realheads, with absurd gore and accurate character histories, but lacks any real interest in telling a good story.
The film begins beautifully with a retelling of Scorpion and Sub-Zero’s origin as mortal enemies, but quickly switches gears to tell the story of its new protagonist, Cole Young. This is the film’s first and most fundamental misstep. In a desire to create new eyes and ears for audiences unfamiliar with the Mortal Kombat universe, it pushes them away from the most interesting characters. However, this isn’t the fault of Lewis Tan, who is charming in the role of Cole and has a physicality that lends a great deal of believability and brutality to all of his action scenes.
You just can’t help but wonder how much more interesting a movie centered on Liu Kang or Scorpion could have been. Mortal Kombat promises a series of films, bound to further explore fan favorite characters, but Scorpion and Sub-Zero are the marquee names for this one and its bewildering that we’re given so little time and development towards them. When they’re there, they’re great, but it doesn’t feel like enough. This decision was surely done for the sake of not wanting to confuse audiences and to save them for sequels, yet it’s a choice that even the newest Mortal Kombat fans will find frustrating.
What saves Mortal Kombat from being a complete failure is the simple fact that it’s pretty fun. The history of these characters and their relationships is well-conveyed and intriguing, if only skin deep. As mentioned before, making the lead an original character was a misstep, but Lewis Tan gives the role his all and has a star quality that can easily go far in future films. Hiroyuki Sanada’s work as Scorpion, though not explored nearly enough, is well realized and performed with equal parts nuance and brutality, making the deepest impression of anyone in the film. A personal favorite is Joe Taslim as Sub-Zero, making for an incredibly cool and compelling villain, showcasing the film’s best action beats.
Which brings us to this adaptation’s greatest accomplishment, the action. If you’re headed into Mortal Kombat with the sole desire to see brutal, bloody fatalities and well-choreographed action, you’ll get what you came for. It’s pretty much a f*cking hoot watching Sub-Zero freeze someone’s blood and use it as a weapon, or Liu Kang doing his signature flying kick to ridiculous effect. The film is filled to the brim with references to the games and lore, even the gameplay itself getting a playful jab in the form of a character spamming the same attack against an opponent. It’s all very knowing and fun stuff that makes the film so conflicting as both a fan of Mortal Kombat and just a fan of good movies. Good fun can only get you so far before flaws in a film’s construction make it impossible to truly love.
Even the film’s most fun aspects become tainted by filmmaking slips, with clean-cut action sequences devolving into a mess of cuts and poor visual storytelling. It spends so much time spinning its wheels and setting up the world only to fly past any real emotional catharsis or arc resolution into its action-packed finale. It’s a film so confident in future sequels that it pays little mind to its own story or emotional intelligence. There is so much potential here and that the film largely succeeds in building its foundation is what makes it all the more frustrating that it doesn’t ultimately deliver on its promise of the world-ending tournament. It leaves you wanting more in a way that is less “that was great!” and more “… was that it?”
As the first film in an expected franchise, Mortal Kombat isn’t the flawless victory fans or newcomers are hoping for. You can only hope its promised sequel devotes as much time to its character and story as it does referential fun and action.