Made for hardcore fans only, this third attempt at the infamously brutal video game series brings the gore but forgets a coherent plot
There are few video game franchises more iconic than Mortal Kombat, which dominated ‘90s culture with enough bloody violence to send every parent and politician in the western world into a meltdown. While the ‘90s film adaptations brought the trademark ninjas and dragons to the big screen, they left the violence behind, and it’s in mending this mistake that Simon McQuoid’s new take sets itself apart. Unfortunately, that’s all it really brings to the table, throwing gore at you in an attempt to distract from abysmal writing and acting – a gambit that only very rarely pays off.
Opening with the best scene of the film and going downhill from there, Mortal Kombat introduces us to its world through a flashback to 17th century Japan as immortal, ice-conjuring assassin Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) attacks the homestead of legendary swordsman Hanzo aka Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada). This fight is brutal and brilliant, packing in easter eggs for series fans, but still easily entertaining enough in its own right to win over anyone unfamiliar with this universe as Hanzo tears through Sub-Zero’s men with blood-soaked abandon.
As soon as we jump forward into the present day, though, the problems come thick and fast, starting with the unimaginably bland protagonist Cole Young (Lewis Tan). Created specifically for the film, Cole has no identifiable character traits or even memorable powers, and the quest he embarks on is utterly incoherent. Born with a dragon birthmark, Cole is some sort of chosen one, destined to participate in “Mortal Kombat,” a gladiatorial fight to the death between the heroes of Earth and the villains of Outworld, an evil dimension that seeks to invade our world.
Greg Russo and Dave Callaham’s script hardly bothers giving any exposition, instead settling for a confusing mishmash of barely connected scenes that are edited together so choppily that it’s almost impossible to keep track of who’s doing what at any given time. It doesn’t help that almost the entire cast give bland-to-awful performances, so even characters like the metal-armed spec ops soldier Jax (Mehcad Brooks) and literal thunder god Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) make very limited impressions.
At least the fight scenes are mostly fun, leaning into the series’ trademark violence for memorable bouts and even more memorable kills. As Cole trains up and gets ready to take on the fighters of Outworld, the fights get bloodier and bloodier, and Sub-Zero makes for a compelling, Terminator-esque villain, popping up over and over whenever the heroes need to face a real challenge.
Given how schlocky its story is, it’s a shame that Mortal Kombat didn’t also try and carry over some of the game series’ goofy humour – there’s always been a self-awareness to this franchise to offset the blood and guts. There is one genuine laugh-out-loud scene as fire-throwing Shaolin warrior Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) uses the same cheap tactics in a sparring match that gamers have long used as the character, and it would have been nice to see more silliness to distract from how second-rate the storytelling is (if there’s a more anticlimactic “final battle” this year, we’ll be very unlucky).
Bookended as it is by fights between Sub-Zero and Scorpion, and chock full of references, Mortal Kombat clearly has a solid grasp of the specific moments fans would want in this movie, but absolutely no idea how to string them together into a comprehensible whole. Instead, the end result is a bit of a slog, fronted by an absolute charisma vacuum of a leading man. The first great video game movie eludes us still.
Mortal Kombat is now available on various digital platforms.Where to watch