Watching Mortal Kombat I was reminded of Eddy Gordo. Wait, back up. Put down the pitchforks and torches, all you fighting game fans. This is no faux pas deserving a good bludgeoning. I’m fully aware that capoeira practicing Eddy is from Tekken, a rival fighting game franchise to the long-standing video game series this new R-rated Mortal Kombat reboot film is adapting to screen, but hear me out on this analysis: Eddy’s whirligig fighting style involves a whole lot of eye-catching and entertaining flair. A portion of his attacks is pure fan-service flashiness, while another portion is all just painfully blatant misses, but in the end, it all still comes together to kick some serious ass. And that’s exactly what Mortal Kombat does.
What VFX-guru-turned-first-time-director Simon McQuoid gives us here is without a doubt no “Flawless victory!”. And if me forcing that line from the game into my review made you roll your eyes, then I would suggest you getting used to revolving your orbs so far back in your skull you can see your own spinal cord as screenwriters Greg Russo and Dave Callahan try to work iconic catchphrases and trademark visual cues into the film whenever they can, even when it sometimes makes no plausible sense. When it does work though? Oh man, I was punching the air in fanboy giddiness.
Not that I needed to add any punching of my own as McQuoid and co stage fights frequently and brutally. Given that the Mortal Kombat games’ original calling card was their ludicrous violence, it’s kind of shocking that it’s taken this long for a live-action adaptation to finally start pouring buckets of R-rated crimson on everything. And the filmmakers here definitely don’t shirk away, giving us a handful of gruesomely satisfying fatalities (aka ultimately gory finishers) straight from the games. Personally, as bloodthirsty as this makes me sound, I would have loved a few more fatalities, but luckily the fights overall already get pretty intense, helped along substantially by Benjamin Wallfisch’s pounding score (and yes, that includes a remix of the classic shouty anthem).
The film actually kicks off with one of its best fights as we get introduced to Hanzo Hisashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Bi-Han (Joe Taslim), two rival ninjas who go to bloody war with each in Feudal Japan. As fans will know, these are the two men who will eventually become Scorpion and Sub-Zero, the Mortal Kombat franchise’s resident poster-children. Fittingly, while there isn’t all that much narrative meat to it, it’s Scorpion and Sub-Zero’s tale that forms the spine of this film, from start to finish (I’ll leave it at that to avoid spoilers). They’re also responsible for the film’s best beats, not just because it looked like a lot of the technical polish the film’s smaller-scaled budget could afford was saved for these scenes, but also because Sanada and Taslim’s veteran skills are on full display. By that I mean skills of both the thespian and martial variety (especially for Taslim, who is essentially the central villain, a supremely badass force of nature that slices his way through the film), allowing McQuoid to direct far more coherently around them without needing to cut away to hide inefficiencies that sometimes crop up with some of the less seasoned members of the cast.
And here’s where things get odd though. While Scorpion and Sub-Zero are the marquee draws here (although Scorpion is absent for large sections of the film), the actual lead in this story is Lewis Tan’s Cole Young, a brand new character that doesn’t exist in the game mythology. And one that probably should not have existed at all. Tan is a fantastic martial artist in real life and he’s shown flashes of bristling charisma in past projects, but those aspects are barely visible. His action scenes are sometimes mired in shadowy lighting or choppy choreography, not doing Tan’s legitimate skills justice, while his dramatic performance leaves a lot to be desired. He’s not the worst actor around, but you can see the acting here. Ouch.
Most criminally though, Cole Young is just boring. Essentially introduced as an audience surrogate, the script sees him as a washed-out ex-MMA champion just still competing (and often losing) to take care of his family. The only noteworthy thing about Cole is the weird dragon-shaped birthmark on his chest. After being attacked by the ice-slinging Sub-Zero and subsequently saved by hulking military man Jax (Mehcad Brooks) and his partner Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Cole discovers that his birthmark is actually a mystical sign that he’s been chosen to be a champion for Earthrealm in its fight against the nefarious forces of Outworld as a part of a tournament that decides which realm rules over the other. If you don’t know what Earthrealm and Outworld are, don’t get too hung up… because the script definitely doesn’t, just tossing out these names and locations with very little in the way of background explanation.
Instead of exposition, McQuoid and co are far more interested in introducing and staging action between the film’s character roster. You have Ludi Lin as Liu Kang, as serene in composure as his fighting is fiery; Max Huang as Kung Lau, an arrogant but immensely talented fighter with some killer headgear descended from great champions; Tadanobu Asano as Lord Raiden, the stately Elder God protector of Earthrealm; and Chin Han as Shang Tsung, the soul-sucking Outworld sorcerer who breaks the rules of the ancient Mortal Kombat tournament by attacking champions on Earth. To execute Shang Tsung’s dastardly scheme, besides for the aforementioned Sub-Zero, he also employs some more familiar faces in the form of Mileena (Sisi Stringer), Kabal (Daniel Nelson), Nitara (Elissa Cadwell), and Reiko (Nathan Jones).
If you’ve eyeballed Mortal Kombat’s IMDB page, you may have realized that I missed somebody. Again, not a faux pas. Instead, I’ve saved Josh Lawson’s Kano for last for a very special reason. I went back and forth on whether this counts as a spoiler, but in the end it was just too good to not mention it. Out of all of the cast, I had the most trepidation for Lawson, whom I only know as the oblivious chemist in sitcom Superstore. Could he play the foul-mouthed, immoral sonuvabitch that is Kano? Well, my concern was totally unfounded because Lawson’s Kano – to paraphrase one of his many memorable lines – is a f–king beauty!
While just about everybody else suffers from an acute case of “Taking this silliness very seriously”, Kano is a walking gag reel, taking the piss out of everything and everyone with hilariously vulgarity. Virtually all of Mortal Kombat’s characters are paper thin cutouts, and the same kind of applies to Kano, but in terms of pure personality and memorability, he stole my heart. By ripping it out of my chest with his bare hands.
Kano’s pitch-perfect execution and the film’s muscular action really do a lot to help you ignore some of the script’s sillier foibles, like it’s introduction of “arcana”, a mumbo-jumbo explanation for why these humans have the special video game abilities they do (Cole’s arcana is so underwhelmingly in-character for his overall blandness that I had to snort). And that’s really the story here: For every step backward it takes, Mortal Kombat then promptly flying-bicycle kicks its way forward again to the point where I walked out of the cinema not just thoroughly entertained, but actually all-in on the next chapter teased in its closing moments. With just a $50 million reported price tag, the film won’t need to do much to break even and guarantee a sequel, so let’s just hope that 2021 doesn’t pull a fatality on this franchise.
Last Updated: April 13, 2021