Film adaptations of popular video games have quite the reputation for not living up to fans’ very high expectations. Despite how much the filmmakers try to stay true to the mythology while also elevating the material, the efforts to take the games to the big screen often end up being substandard at best. So rather than continue with “Mortal Kombat” films of the 1990s, or do another generic telling of the video game, Simon McQuaid’s “Mortal Kombat” attempts to start with a clean slate, with a brand-new story and a new character to act as a guide to this new world.
“Mortal Kombat” opens with Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) and the members of his Lin Kuei clan attacking a small remote village where Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) lives. The purpose Bi-Han’s ice-cold savagery isn’t just to wipe out Hasashi’s home but to end his bloodline for good. Though the grieving Hasashi valiantly fights to avenge the loss of his loved ones, he falls to his rival and is then taken to the Netherrealm.
The film then flash-forwards to the present day, where the Outerworld sorcerer Shang Tsung gathers his mightiest warriors in preparation for the upcoming death tournament known as Mortal Kombat. Should Earthrealm’s fighters fail to win and Outworld’s fighters prevail, Shang Tsung will be allowed to conquer Earth. So, he attempts to tip the balance in his favor by sending his fighters to assassinate Earthrealm’s fighters, all of whom are identified by a distinctive dragon mark.
Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a washed-up MMA fighter now picking up gigs at a small-town gym, is then attacked by Bi-Han, who now goes by Sub-Zero. And the assassin lives up to his name as he attacks Cole and his family with his cyromancerpowers. That’s when Special Forces’ Major Jackson “Jax” Briggs (Mechad Brooks) steps in to protect Cole. He instructs him to go to an address and meet up with fellow Special Forces soldier Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), who explains the long history of the Mortal Kombat tournament. She tells him that fighters are chosen by an identifying birthmark that can only be transferred by a bloodline or if they killed the one who bears the same mark. One of the latter is Kano (Josh Lawson), the leader of the Black Dragon’s criminal organization, who has a foul mouth and a mean disposition.
After a few more assassination attempts, the four find themselves at Raiden’s temple, where they learn more about Mortal Kombat, what’s at stake, and what the fighters must do to unlock hidden power, known as the ‘arcana’ that lies within those who carry the mysterious dragon mark. They are trained by another two of Earthrealm’s champions: Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), a pyrokinesis martial arts expert, and Kung Lao (Max Huang), another martial arts expert wielding a magical blade hat.
As the tournament nears, Earthrealm’s champions find themselves desperate at unlocking the arcana before it’s too late. For some, it comes sooner, but for Cole, he struggles to turn the key, and soon he finds himself at the mercy of Tsung’s assassins. With time running out, Cole must find a way to bring his arcana to the surface or die trying.
Having “Mortal Kombat” take place from Cole’s perspective helps familiarize the audience with the rules of this world and everything outside of it. The other aspects are merely nods and references to the games themselves. You’ll hear familiar phrases, spot some nice easter eggs in the background or foreground, and gasp when there are a few bone-crunching moves or deadly fatalities.
It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but it’s not for the faint of heart, considering the entire film is based on a game that encourages brutalizing an opponent and kill them with a merciless fatality. And McQuaid’s direction stays true to the spirit of the “Mortal Kombat” games as characters put on a brilliant display of fighting sequences and over-the-top kills that are highly entertaining and a bit squeamish. It also helps to add in those iconic catchphrases like “Get Over Here” or “Flawless Victory.”
The obligatory broken bones and bloodshed are a fun nod to those who have followed the iconic 29-year-old franchise game, and there are even more references scattered throughout the film. Though it is great to see those Easter eggs, it leaves very little room for the character drama to play out. That being said, no one goes into a film with a title like “Mortal Kombat” for the story.
Still, Russo’s script makes an effort to be something more than just a game about making vicious kills. Cole serves as the audience’s emotional anchor point as the film takes place from his perspective. Through him, we get acquainted with the rules of Mortal Kombat, the long of combative diplomacy between the two worlds, and relationships between the various characters, especially his family unit, which drives him to join the tournament. While the fate of the world may be in his hands, he joins the fight to protect his family, and isn’t so much interested in saving it from the impending doom.
As silly as the exposition sounds, even Cole scoffs at what Jax and Sonya explain to him. The film understands that “Mortal Kombat’s” fights are the selling point. The martial arts fights are rather impressive and work cohesively with their respective powers. And they aren’t all elemental based like Bi-Han’s ice powers or Liu Kang’s fire powers. Some of these powers enhance a character’s athletic prowess, like Jax’s brute strength or Kung Lao’s ability to sling his blade hat.
Even if there are some quiet expositional moments, “Mortal Kombat” tries to find a way to get itself into a fight, or at least give our characters a reason to fight each other. And sometimes, it may not require trading fists. Instead, some of the characters roast each other so they can have the motivation to unlock their hidden arcana. It certainly gives the film some much-needed humor since it is based entirely on fights to the death.
Though “Mortal Kombat” may lack in nuanced character drama, it makes up for it in terrific fight chorography and obligatory nods to the games. You get what you pay for when you go into a film filled with chosen ones, identified by a mark, fight off against giant lizards, four-armed beasts, ice ninjas, shadowy speedsters, an assortment of demons, and an evil sorcerer. While “Mortal Kombat” may not end the current trend that film adaptations of video games are bad, it does prove that under the right direction, it can be some decent popcorn fare.