Synopsis – MMA fighter Cole Young seeks out Earth’s greatest champions in order to stand against the enemies of Outworld in a high stakes battle for the universe.
My Take – Until a few years ago, it was a given fact that films based on video games are notoriously terrible, with a few successes here and there in the past two-three decades. However, over the course of the last three years, with the release of films like the 2018 Tomb Raider reboot, Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019), and last year’s Sonic the Hedgehog, the sub-genre has seem to found a new lease of life, with appreciation coming from satisfied fans for embracing their source materials, and the general audience for making them largely accessible. Factors which also made filmmaker Paul W. S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat such a success, all the way back in 1995.
Now after more than two decades of development, a third feature film (by counting 1997’s disastrous Mortal Kombat: Annihilation) has finally released (not in the U.S. though), thanks in large part to the participation of producer James Wan (Aquaman, The Conjuring), who thoroughly backed Warner Brothers’ big screen reboot of the highly successful fighting video game, despite the added pressure of having to outperform the original film.
While I personally don’t count myself as a fan of the video game, probably because the last time I laid my hands on a game pad was about 15 years ago, yet, I must say witnessing the beloved video game characters come to life on screen with a new cast was sure a joy.
Yes, while the fun bloody action-packed romp is no doubt primarily made for fans, with Simon McQuoid in his feature directorial debut showing genuine love for the source material, delivering on the franchise’s signature gory martial arts violence, it thankfully also introduces enough mythology to general audiences to latch onto, and the right amount of action to leave one satisfied.
Sure, marred with pacing issues, lack of character developments and strange editing choices, the reboot doesn’t come out exactly unscathed, yet, for a film which includes centuries old ninjas still spilling nonstop blood, invisible lizards, bat-winged demon babes, a man using a razor sharp hat to slice people and a soldier with robot arms, this failings ultimately don’t matter.
I guess, sometimes you just need to watch a film where a character freezes another one’s blood and stabs him with it, without thinking about the drama behind it.
The story follows Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a former MMA champion, who spends most of his nights losing in fixed caged matches all in order to help provide for his wife, Alison (Laura Brent) and young daughter, Emily (Matilda Kimber). That is until his content life is suddenly interrupted when he finds himself the target of Bi Han aka Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), a centuries old deadly assassin with ice powers, doing the bidding for Outworld sorcerer, Shang Tsung (Chin Han).
Unbeknown to Cole, he is the descended from the austere warrior bloodline of Hasashi Hanzo (Hiroyuki Sanada), one of Japan’s greatest warriors, who was killed by Bi Han, back in the 17th century. With his mysterious birthmark symbolizing him to be one of the selected fighters for Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), the God of Thunder, to defend Earth, Cole must join Jax Briggs (Mehcad Brooks), Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kano (Josh Lawson), and Kung Lao (Max Huang) to fight the forces of Outworld.
Starting off with a tragic prologue about the franchise’s most iconic characters Scorpion and Sub Zero, the film shows that it’s not here to mess around, as the conflict between the two is what most of the events in the film tied to. Here, director Simon McQuoid and writers Greg Russo and Dave Callaham try to accomplish a lot by devoting half the attention to these two main plot lines while the other half is spent on world-building.
Gradually as we move towards the middle of the film, it is full of world-building. Half of the dialogue is composed of game quotes that are made more impactful by the constant presence of gimmicks that will make you laugh at one moment and fill you with adrenaline during the next. Even though they are decent gags provided in the script, the comic relief works half the time.
That’s the thing about the film, while it’s technically a Hollywood blockbuster, is that it it plays out more like an action film you’d expect from the genre’s heyday. The story might feel secondary at times, but you can’t deny the sheer joy and madness of it all. Yes, the editing is occasionally choppy and sometimes, it does feel quite rushed as not every fighter gets a well-rounded intro, but it’s far from the overstuffed 1997 sequel where characters just appeared for the sake of it.
This is the type of fun action film that doesn’t shy away from having its cast say ‘Flawless Victory’ after splitting someone in two. Where two ninjas can respond to threats hurled at each another, even though one is speaking Chinese and the other Japanese, and be taken seriously, even after the film itself points out they can’t understand each other. You just get sucked into the fun aspect of it, rather than question every detail.
While fans displayed their disappointment with the introduction of a new character in the form of Cole Young taking center stage, he feels like a total natural in the franchise. With his legacy is uncovered, his powers unique, Cole’s journey has the emotional hook to resonate with the general audience.
However, where the film scores the most is in its trademark fatalities which director Simon McQuoid delivers in complete gory glory. Here, the amount of work that went into the choreography and stunt work is beyond impressive. You can see it’s a group of martial artists performing their own fights on the screen and not just quick hack-slash edits or CG doubles. You’ll even forgive the ridiculousness of the story’s plot twists, because the action leaves you satisfied.
Performance wise, Lewis Tan, previously seen in series like Iron Fist and Into the Badlands, makes for a very likable lead, while Jessica McNamee and Mehcad Brooks acting as solid support systems with grounded personalities. Hiroyuki Sanada gets to showcase his steely-eyed charisma and impressive martial arts skills, and shines in a way he’s never had in his past Hollywood films, despite a minuscule role. Joe Taslim makes for an intimidating antagonist here, and is finally given the big screen respect that he deserves.
Josh Lawson inherits the film’s sole duty as the comic relief and audience avatar and elevates the talky scenes with irreverent quips and free form profanity. While Max Huang who plays Kung Lao, has the most iconic scene in the film, he unfortunately is underused, the same goes for Ludi Lin who shows immense promise initially but is unfortunately sidelined. In other roles, Sisi Stringer, Laura Brent and Matilda Kimber are good, while both Tadanobu Asano and Chin Han ham it up. On the whole, ‘Mortal Kombat’ is an unbridled unapologetic fun adaption which acts as a promising start to what can become an entertaining franchise.
Directed – Simon McQuoid
Rated – R
Run Time – 110 minutes