The surface appeal of the Mortal Kombat franchise has never been hard to figure out. There is a visceral thrill to be found in its stylized violence, so over-the-top it becomes a kind of graphic dark comedy. It’s easy to think that’s all there is, but if you look beyond the brutalities, the series also involves a surprisingly heavy amount of narrative, character dynamics, and world-building. The most recent film adaptation of the game does its best to deliver on both sides of this equation, even if it sometimes gets beaten bloody by its own script.
The focus of the movie is Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a former MMA champion reduced to fighting in local cage matches for a few dollars. He finds out that he’s been marked as one of Earth’s champions in Mortal Kombat, a series of tournaments between Earth and an extra-dimensional place called Outworld. If Outworld wins, Earth will be conquered. Cole joins several other fighters to protect the Earth, unaware of both his potential and of his true place in the legacy of Mortal Kombat.
If you’re a fan of the games and don’t recognize the name Cole Young, don’t worry. Like the Resident Evil films’ protagonist Alice, Cole is a character invented for the movie to serve as an audience surrogate. And like those films, this actually works better than expected. Giving the story a clear central protagonist, as opposed to diffusing focus across the team, helps move everything forward a little bit easier and gives the audience an anchor. The fact that’s he’s handsome AF doesn’t hurt, either, but maybe that’s just me.
It’s a shame that he’s so thinly written, however. We get just enough details to latch onto Cole, but the actual character is a little shallow. It’s not Lewis Tan’s fault, entirely. He does the best he can with the material, and he’s clearly making a genuine effort. He just gets tripped up by the screenplay, which scores high on its story but low on its dialogue. Seriously, some of the lines are so damn clunky that they trip over themselves, roll across the ground, and land face first in a heap before they get to the end of a sentence.
That’s kind of a theme throughout the movie. There isn’t a truly bad performance among the cast, and there’s nothing that even comes close to the infamous Kitana/Sindel moment in MK: Annihilation. Meryl Streep on her best day couldn’t make gold out of some of the lines here. (Although to be fair, she probably couldn’t do a spinning roundhouse kick, either, but how awesome would that be?) That doesn’t stop the cast from trying, but their concerted effort just makes the script’s flaws all the more apparent.
Even with that in mind, the film is highly enjoyable and entertaining. Sometimes even because the script is so clumsy. (To be completely fair, there’s nothing here worse than the dialogue you find in the games.) The actual narrative — the character dynamics, the story arcs, the world-building — is handled much better. A lot of effort went into keeping the games’ established mythology as intact as possible, even with the addition of a brand new character. While that mythology is a little goofy at times, especially to people not familiar with the games, that’s part of its charm. The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, finding a fine balance between sincerity and camp and between fan service and accessibility.
The most notable aspect of this adaptation is the fact that this is the first theatrical MK movie to get an R rating. A very, very hard R. In fact, it allegedly had to be edited down to avoid an NC-17. It takes the film about 4 minutes to show someone getting a katana through the skull is what I’m saying. Between the constant f-bombs and the unashamedly graphic fatalities, this is clearly aimed at the adult fans who were teenagers when the original, PG-13 MK movies came out. And the movie is honestly all the better for it. The violence is absurd and gratuitous in all the best ways. If at least one character doesn’t get disemboweled, can you even truly call yourself Mortal Kombat in the first place? No, I say.
Visually, in general, the film is a success. The character designs, the sets, the CGI effects all came correct. The fight scenes are thrilling and not overly complex, with the recreation of characters’ special moves folded in as organically as possible. Unlike the 1995 MK film, there’s no attempt made to make things look realistic. Liu Kang shoots fireballs in his very first appearance, and Sub-Zero is brings frost and snow with him everywhere he goes. Director Simon McQuoid, in his theatrical debut, does a good job in aping the visuals of the games. His shots aren’t always the most dynamic or innovative, but he more than gets the job done.
Circling back to the cast, there are a few performances that definitely make the movie worth watching. The most notable is Josh Lawson as Kano, who gets all the best lines and is clearly the film’s designated Merc With a Mouth. He throws his entire self into making Kano both as slimy and as sarcastic as possible. His Kano is curiously charismatic while not denying the character’s inherent viciousness. Chin Han’s take on Shang Tsung isn’t nearly as iconic as Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s from the 1995 film, but he’s appropriately villainous and imperious.
Of special note are Joe Taslim as Sub-Zero and Hiroyuki Sanada as Scorpion. Unlike the original films, which made them featureless bad guys, a great deal of attention has been paid to the enmity between them that’s a strong part of the games’ lore. The film even opens on a flashback to centuries earlier, when both were still human, to show the roots of their conflict. It gives a weight to both characters that was lacking before, and both Taslim and Sanada give dedicated performances and some truly remarkable fighting.
Although the film is focused on its primary story arc with Cole’s developement, it clearly lays the groundwork for sequels. Its curious choice of characters speaks to this, with several prominent MK fighters absent and several relatively obscure ones featured (Reiko and Nitara? Really?). But given the body count along the way, as well as the MK’s franchise ridiculous amount of fighters to choose from, this is probably a good thing. You don’t want to blow your entire load right away; the final scene in fact hints at the arrival of one of MK’s most popular and iconic characters in a sequel.
But even that again speaks to the dedication this film has to the fans of the series. This is a film that really, truly wants to get Mortal Kombat done Right, from its lore to its decapitations. Its dedication is admirable even if its execution doesn’t always hit the mark, and fans of the franchise should find a lot to enjoy here. It’s far from a flawless victory, but it definitely wins the first battle.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B
Mortal Kombat can be streamed exclusively through HBO Max.