Bloody, gory, skull-splitting action. The new Mortal Kombat film has all the gruesome elements fans of the famous video game series have been waiting for.
Years after a third film failed to get off the ground, Mortal Kombat is back on the big screen (and HBO Max). Directed by Simon McQuoid, the film launches a new but familiar take on the fighting games. It’s loaded with a ton of characters and a ton of quality martial arts action. Does this highly anticipated release live up to the hype?
Mark of the Dragon
The first chapter of the film takes place in 17th century Japan and sets the stage for MK’s fan favorite rivalry between Scorpion and Sub Zero. Hanzo Hisashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), leader of the Shirai Ryu clan, and his family are attacked by the rival Lin Kuei, led by assassin Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) who will later refer to himself as Sub Zero. Hisashi and his family are killed, apart from his infant daughter who is hidden under a floorboard in their home.
Flash forward to the present and the build up continues with the introduction of Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a down on his luck MMA fighter. After another loss in the cage, Young is accosted by Jax Briggs (Mehcad Brooks) who asks Cole about a weird dragon mark on his chest.
Cole, his wife and daughter go grab a bite and this is where we’re thrust into the meat of the story. Sub Zero attacks the family before Jax helps them escape. Jax explains the dragon mark means Cole has been chosen as a defender of Earth. It also means Sub Zero will stop at nothing to kill him. Jax instructs Cole to find Sonya Blade and learn the role he has to play in saving the world.
Earth is just one realm that has competed in the Mortal Kombat tournament for centuries. Outworld, home of the film’s villains led by Shang Tsung (Chin Han), has won the last nine tournaments. If it defeats Earthrealm for a tenth consecutive time it will be able to invade Earth and Shang Tsung will enslave humanity. Pretty good incentive for Earth’s champions to get their stuff together.
But Shang Tsung doesn’t intend on even having a tournament. Instead he means to kill Earth’s heroes before the tournament even begins, thus why Sub Zero hunts Cole.
Choose Your Fighter
Mortal Kombat doesn’t hold back on throwing a lot of characters at the audience. Unfortunately several get shortchanged.
Since the games have such a rich history, there is a lot of lore to play with. Each recurring character has a well established history and distinct motivations. With a runtime of under two hours there simply isn’t room for everyone to shine. Add Cole as the main character, who is an original character to this movie, and opportunities are slim.
The standouts are Sonya, Kano and Sub Zero. Sonya becomes Cole’s de facto mentor who helps him understand what Mortal Kombat is, what must be done and where he fits into all of it. She unleashes a large portion of the exposition, including a brief history of how she knows any of this. She also has her own arc throughout the film.
The early consensus seems to be voting Kano as the highlight of the movie. He’s a rugged dirtbag from the jump, but in a funny and likable way. There’s a pretty fair amount of humor throughout with him at the center of it. Some of his dialogue feels over the top and unimaginative at times. But you shouldn’t turn this on expecting insightful monologues anyway.
While Shang Tsung is the big bad of the movie, Sub Zero is really the most prevalent villain. He’s more menacing than in any other depiction, constantly stalking his prey. He truly does come off as cold and calculated (really, no pun intended). His fights are the highlights of the film.
Lui Kang, Kung Lao and Goro are among the most notable characters that weren’t nearly as important as you’d expect. Goro looks great, but he’s essentially relegated to being another henchman. Lui Kang and Kung Lao hinted at some of their storied history and gave enough to get fans of the Shaolin Monks to want more, but they faded into the B or C story in the scheme of the film. Perhaps future entries or a spinoff film could better take advantage of these characters. This isn’t a knock on Ludi Lin or Max Huang respectively. They just weren’t atop Raiden’s roster of heroes.
The most important thing this movie had to get right to appease MK fans was the fights, and it did just that.
This is a martial arts film at its core. It should be no surprise the fight scenes were fluid and forceful throughout. Especially with Jackie Chan Stunt Team member Max Huang in the cast. Huang plays Kung Lao and also helped polish a lot of the fight choreography. Huang, Taslim, Tan, Sanada and Ludi Lin are all experienced at bringing high quality fights to the screen.
The action and violence was dialed up significantly from the film’s 1995 predecessor. It took advantage of every bit of that R rating. It wasn’t just bloody. It was gutsy and brainy as well! Even veteran’s of the video games will find themselves saying “Damn!” a time or two.
The only downside to the fights is many of them were taking place simultaneously. This takes some of the investment out of each of them. With three or four battles taking place all at once, it was difficult to feel the stakes of any individual showdown. That bitter grudge or looming threat was numbed just enough to feel cheapened. It also made some of the really cool moves not register because there was just so much going on. Again, this made some aspects of the characters and the action feel shortchanged.
The exception to this problem is in the face offs between Sub Zero and Scorpion. These were the only fight scenes where the viewer could really sit back and soak in the action. The Sub Zero versus Scorpion fight is one MK fans have been pining to see on the big screen for almost 30 years. Finally seeing it happen with this level of care was very rewarding.
Finally, real Fatalities worthy of the Mortal Kombat name were brought to film. Like the fights that preceded them, the kills were given special attention.
If you’re looking forward to this movie because of your thirst for blood you will certainly leave plenty full. Part of what makes the Fatalities great is the sheer shock that comes with them. Even if you’re anticipating a violent finish coming, actually seeing it play out still comes with a level of gratification. Therefore I won’t spoil any of the kills for you.
Mortal Kombat is known as much for its eerie, macabre and gothic backdrops. This movie brought out a taste of some of those impressive stages. The most impressive was the fan favorite stage, the Pit.
The Pit location was briefly used in a fight between Jax and Reiko. It was an almost picture perfect adaptation of the klassic stage, though it wasn’t used to its fullest potential if you know what I mean.
While the visual effects were adequate-to-great when it came to fatalities and some of the grander set pieces, there were some areas where special effects were lacking. The first that comes to mind is the character Nitara. She just looked off and interacted awkwardly. She didn’t have a huge part to play, thankfully, but when she was on screen it was hard not to notice.
There were also some jarring edits during the fights, especially while Lui Kang was training with Kano.
Mortal Kombat isn’t a flawless victory but it achieves what it sets out to do pretty well. While the games and previous film iteration more resemble Enter the Dragon, this take is closer to Seven Samurai with our heroes defending Earth from invasion.
Oddly enough the Mortal Kombat tournament never even happens. All of the fighting takes place before the tournament starts. So if there is a sequel, which plenty of threads set up for, it could still be about the same tournament.
This was a highly enjoyable martial arts film and even more fun as a fan of Mortal Kombat games. The fights were reminiscent of recent video game entries with fast-paced action and the creative array of attacks. If you love the games you’ll enjoy this movie.
But what if you aren’t well versed in MK lore?
The filmmakers seem to expect viewers to have at least a cursory knowledge of Mortal Kombat and its characters. There is very little hand holding other than laying out the unique rules of this film, such as the importance of the dragon mark. Luckily it doesn’t dive too deep into the various realms that exist in the games. You just need to know Earthrealm is good, Outworld is mostly bad and Scorpion is trapped in the Netherrealm, the deepest layer of Hell.
The main thing holding this film back is also its main character, Cole Young. You can tell Lewis Tan is invested in being part of this movie but his character just isn’t that interesting. Even worse, he gets in the way of Scorpion and Sub Zero having a true one-on-one rematch. Too often Cole is nothing more than an observer to all of the real Mortal Kombat stuff going on. When he wasn’t fighting he might as well have been holding a camera.