Synopsis: Washed-up MMA fighter Cole Young, unaware of his heritage, and hunted by Emperor Shang Tsung’s best warrior, Sub-Zero, seeks out and trains with Earth’s greatest champions as he prepares to stand against the enemies of Outworld in a high stakes battle for the universe.
Stars: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin, Ng Chin Han, Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada, Max Huang, Sisi Stringer, Matilda Kimber
Director: Simon McQuoid
Running Length: 110 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: In 2013, as part of my In Praise of Teasers series I featured the still-burned-in-my-brain teaser for the 1995 adaptation of the classic SEGA game Mortal Kombat. With its throbbing electronic score, flashy editing, hype-inducing character introductions, and hints that every teenage boy’s favorite video game was about to spring to three-dimensional life, Mortal Kombat was poised to clean-up at the box office when it was released that August. And it did…to a tune of over 70 million here in the States and nearly that overseas. For a modestly budgeted film, this was a win. Here’s the thing about that PG-13 movie though: it was missing a key element that made the video game such a adrenaline boost to play and wound up for many fans feeling defanged, bloodless, and watered-down.
A sequel recast a number of players and went nowhere and soon after video games shifted to different arenas and interests as the ‘90s gave way to a new millennium. I honestly hadn’t even thought about Mortal Kombat (the movie or the game) for years until I heard that Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema were partnering up for reboot of their franchise, this time allowing the film to embrace the ultra-violence present in the game and giving longtime fans their long awaited bloodsport. An early trailer released mid-pandemic landed at a perfect time to rack up the best kind of fan buzz, so once more the stakes were high for another Mortal Kombat movie as it powered up for a rematch with audiences.
Shortly before the release date, to generate even more fervor, Warner Brothers released the first seven minutes of the film on its partnered streaming service HBOMax and I can totally see why. The opening prologue contained in those seven minutes takes place in a remote 17th century Japanese village where Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada, Life) is forced to defend his family from the onslaught of chilly killer Bi-Han (Joe Taslim, The Raid: Redemption) and his deadly assassins. It’s an energizing way to start the film and if I saw those seven minutes and were on the fence about heading to the theater to watch the rest of the movie in IMAX or finishing it at home on a much smaller screen, in less concerning times I might have been checking for seats at the first showing the day the film came out. And I think everyone at the studio is counting on those previewing the preamble to have that same thought.
The honest thing to do would have been to show the first seventeen minutes as those give you a little better idea of what director Simon McQuoid and writers Greg Russo and Dave Callaham have concocted to follow that promising beginning. For as fun as it is to finally see the violence of the game on full display in its gory glory, as jaw-dropping a vision it winds up being watching hearts ripped out and sharp objects plunged into every conceivable nook and cranny of the human body that hasn’t already been broken or broken off, you begin to realize that the whole fun of playing Mortal Kombat the game was, y’know, playing it. Not watching it.
Moving from the past to the present (or maybe slight future?) we’re given info about the ongoing battle between Outworld and Earthrealm. Outworld, led by sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han, Skyscraper, preening so hard throughout the film it almost borders on a drag performance) dominates in Mortal Kombat, fights to the death that determine the rulers of both worlds. Outworld is one victory away from having Earthrealm under their control and Shang dispatches his top warrior, Sub-Zero (also played by Taslim) to hunt down Earthrealm’s greatest remaining warriors to eliminate any hope of them winning. Over in Earthrealm, a motley crew of underdogs have assembled at the temple of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano, Battleship) for their training, hoping to find their unique power that will assist them in defeating Sub-Zero and his horde of vicious killers.
As far as plot goes, that’s all Russo and Callaham seem to lay down as their base and about an hour in you realize that it’s all been designed to get contenders in various locations to do battle with only the bare minimum of exposition between set-ups. For acting purposes, that’s fairly good news for the likes of Lewis Tan (Deadpool 2) as Cole Young, an MMA champion haunted by visions of Hanzo Hasashi now transformed over time into a vengeful spirit waiting to take his revenge. He can take a licking and keep on ticking (never damaging his movie-star good looks, natch) but Tan’s lack of true conviction in any of his line readings robs the film’s lead of some much-needed empathy when it’s desperately needed. At least Tan can get the lines out without looking like he’s laughing, not so for Jessica McNamee (Black Water: Abyss) as Sonya Blade. Either McNamee was trying for something that didn’t translate or she just gave up, but the lone female of the group is a serious let-down. He’s supposed to be the most annoying (and he is, trust me) but Josh Lawson (Bombshell) as Kano goes a special extra mile to make his character atrociously unlikable. It’s only Mehcad Brooks as “Jax” Briggs and Max Huang as Kung Lao that create the type of fully realized creations that don’t let the script limitations impact their own work.
The film mostly belongs to Taslim and Sanada, though, so much so that they wind up smartly bookending the movie with fight sequences that are a thrill to see no matter what size of screen you view it on. Well-staged and filled with moves the camera can follow and pick-out nicely, McQuoid and his crew obviously spent a great deal of time figuring out how they wanted to present these passages and made sure they looked the best for maximum impact. As with several of the fights during the film, there comes a moment when you sort of inadvertently let out a whoosh of air, aware that you’ve been holding your breath a little too long.
The film is worth seeing for how it differs from the 1995 version, both in the way it takes itself a little more seriously and the way in which it accepts its origin as a video game at the same time. Understanding it can have its cake and slice and dice it too, Mortal Kombat isn’t a flawless victory, but it finishes the job with style.
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