In the fiction of this new Mortal Kombat film, I like to imagine there’s a whole crew of workers hired by thunder god Raiden to set up the lighting for the tournament arena. Floodlights with colored gel filters to set the mood. Torches for ambiance. Maybe a few big honkin’ spotlights to make sure everyone knows it’s fight night. It must’ve been as disappointing for them as it was for me when the fighters decided not to bother waiting for an arena and just starting killing each other in whatever dark alley, dark temple, or dark house they happened to be in at the time. The lighting union will not forget this betrayal!
Whether to help hide its CG effects or to set a dark and serious tone, the new Mortal Kombat seems to take place almost exclusively at night. It even begins in a deeply shaded forest in feudal Japan, telling the origin story of the warriors who will eventually become Scorpion and Sub-Zero. In this telling, Scorpion is a master ninja and kind father named Hanzo Hasashi; Sub-Zero is a Chinese killer named Bi-Han, who is, for reasons unexplained, obsessed with ending Hasashi’s bloodline.
He thinks he succeeds by killing Hasashi and his wife and son, but a baby daughter lives, eventually passing that bloodline down to a not-very-good MMA fighter named Cole Young. Hasashi, meanwhile, spends the next 400 years hanging out in hell becoming Scorpion, which ironically ends up making him much cooler.
Cole is our audience surrogate in this movie, the normal guy thrown into the battle to save Earthrealm from Outworld. Mortal Kombat needs someone to look confused when someone else—in this case a well-informed Sonya Blade—quickly explains other worlds, secret tournaments, chosen warriors, blah blah blah.
Or does it, actually? As hinted at by the lighting, Mortal Kombat takes its premise seriously, but it could’ve been a lot more fun to watch if it just embraced the absurdity of a game series that features characters named Noob Saibot and Cyrax. It’s a shame this film introduced an entirely new hero only for him to be this boring. They could’ve at least named him Kole.
Mortal Kombat relies on the usual character beats you expect from an unlikely hero story: Cole struggles to unleash his true fighting potential until he finally realizes that the key all along was his love for his family. (I could’ve told you that and saved you the training montage, Cole!) That justification is fine, but as with most of its other characters, Mortal Kombat’s script is doing only the bare minimum to make its fighters feel like people instead of stuntmen. In a better action movie, Cole’s family would have enough screen time for us to get to know and care about them, but here they exist purely as motivation fodder. It’s only been a couple hours and I’ve already forgotten their names.
Still, thin as they are, there’s a real pleasure in seeing characters I’ve known for 20-plus years put on screen and acted competently, even when what’s happening doesn’t make much sense. After the first half hour, which eases Cole and other Earthrealm normies Jax, Sonya and Kano into the wider world of Mortal Kombat’s magic and monsters, the sketch of a plot pretty much just jumps from one excuse for a fight to the next. I appreciate that it wastes little time, not unlike the story modes of the last few games.
I also appreciate Kano. Kano is the reason I laughed with Mortal Kombat more than I laughed at it. Actor Josh Lawson plays up Kano’s brash, obnoxious asshole persona so well he makes everyone else look flat by comparison. He keeps the first half of the film fun and breezy in between fight scenes. If you don’t enjoy Kano’s swagger, you’ll at least get a kick out of Mortal Kombat’s actors finding moments to drop series lines like “flawless victory” and “get over here!” which are exactly as dumb as you’d expect in a movie that otherwise tries to play it straight.
When the fighting happens, as with the acting, it’s competent, but that still ends up being a bit of a letdown. Sub-Zero actor Joe Taslim is one of the stars of The Raid and plays lead in the absolutely gruesome The Night Comes For Us, two of the best action movies of the decade. Those movies know how to make their fights feel genuinely dangerous and painful. In The Raid, nobody’s head just gets slammed into a wall—it gets slammed into a wall once for the knock-out and four more times to be fucking mean. Mortal Kombat may have fatalities like Jax exploding a dude’s head, but it never for a moment feels The Raid-level brutal.
Taslim brings an imposing screen presence as Sub-Zero, but it feels like he’s held back from being able to do the kind of choreography you see in a great martial arts flick. Too often characters get tossed around instead of killed, or shrug off wounds instead of staggering from them. Here, characters need to pose long enough to show off whatever move from the game they’re about to pull. The victor in every fight feels preordained, even if they look slick while they’re playing out. There’s not much tension, in other words, but a nice Hollywood sheen makes the inevitable entertaining.
And at least the movie saves the best for last: the ultimate showdown with Sub-Zero in a glistening icy arena strikes a balance between flashy powers and clear hand-to-hand kombat. Maybe they were just saving most of the lighting for the end.
There are fatalities, and they’re fun—though the CG blood sprays and spilled guts look about as cartoony here as they do in the games. For its R rating, Mortal Kombat really could’ve gone harder. But in the end, I got to watch my boy Kung Lao cut someone in half with his hat and then slide it back on his head, still dripping with gore. By videogame movie standards, I’m calling that a win.