Throughout promotion Mortal Kombat has been forthcoming about its departures from the source material, even as efforts were made to sell it as a mostly faithful adaptation. A new lead protagonist made it difficult to hide fundamental change, but what is most shocking is just how far the film goes off the rails. At times, it seems its greatest influence may be the last big screen adaptation -- 1997's infamous Mortal Kombat: Annihilation -- with only costume design and sporadic game references to elevate it. This review will contain extensive spoilers:
If you just came for some fights and bloody finishing moves you're in luck. Anyone with a casual interest in the games will probably walk away pleased, if not truly adrenalized. At times the action looks reminiscent of Mortal Kombat 11 gameplay, but haphazardly killing characters doesn't make for a satisfying story, and a Mortal Kombat movie has so much fertile material to play with, it's all the more frustrating that the theatrical reboot is so generally lacklustre.
The first seven minutes were heavily promoted and released online before the movie came out. It's easy to see why. The muted depiction of a ninja farmer and his idyllic family isn't perfect, but is the most satisfying part of the film. Hiroyuki Sanada is a compelling Hanzo Hasashi, infusing dynamic martial arts action with credible character and emotion. The scene is the only time director Simon McQuoid is able to show higher aspirations of filmmaking. It's to the film's detriment that Sanada really only returns for another seven or so minutes at the very tail end of the movie. He's very good.
The opening scene plays generally like its animated equivalent in last year's Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion's Revenge, but any concern the two adaptations would be too similar ends there. Once Hanzo takes his dramatic final curtain and bursts into flame, the movie immediately announces itself as a pretender in Mortal Kombat clothing, showing little interest in the established details of series canon to begin a downhill rollercoaster ride through sights and sounds that lack feature film definition.
Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) is enlisted by screenwriters to retrieve a surviving infant from the elaborately named "Hanzo Hasashi Compound" in the film's first boldly planted red flag. The change undermines the simple pathos of Scorpion by setting up revenge for his mostly murdered family after four hundred years spent in Hell, and more than a dozen generations of living descendants. Relocating the ninja's existence to the year 1617 might make more sense to grandma, but its an unnecessary holdover from Kevin Tancharoen's mostly abysmal Mortal Kombat Legacy webseries, and only serves to put distance between Scorpion and the real star of the movie.
A made-for-the-film prophecy now holds equal importance with the Mortal Kombat tournament itself. White text summarizes the overarching threat of inter-realm invasion caused by Earth's previous defeats. If that sedate introduction leaves you expecting the tournament of the klassic Mortal Kombat video game -- or its multitude of subsequent adaptations -- you'll be disappointed. The real story here is the continuation of Hanzo Hasashi's bloodline. It seems like the ambiguous prophecy is supposed to set up a surprise, but subverting iconic canon can only lead to disappointment, and only seems to be building to the studio requested protagonist Cole Young (Lewis Tan).
Cole is a loser MMA fighter with no sense of self-preservation, and a dragon-shaped birthmark the same as Hanzo's. The mark draws Jax (Mehcad Brooks) to a dingy arena, where he meets and follows the Young family while they have post-fight ice cream. The vanilla cone is cold, but it's still surprising to see snow in July. It signals the dramatic return of Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), who announces himself as the final boss of the movie by unleashing a hail storm that smashes everything except Jax's truck. As seen in the trailers: he gets even by shattering Jax's arms.
For reasons that are never particularly clear: Sub-Zero has survived for four hundred years and taken up employment with Shang Tsung (Chin Han). The Outworld sorcerer sits on a throne that would make Wile E Coyote nervous, overlooking a realm entirely comprised of barren Australian dirt. This slightly gloomy, color-tinted dirt is distinct from the sun-kissed dirt that surrounds storm god Raiden's desert temple. The underwhelming aesthetic choices seem to betray the film's modest budget and location shooting, and recall Annihilation more than any iconic reference from the games.
Cole arrives at Raiden's temple after the armless Jax sends him to poor and obsessed survivalist Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee). She collects a wall of inconsequential "easter egg" references, and has already kidnapped mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson) and hires him to take them there with millions of dollars she'll never have. The trio are greeted by Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), who already resides at the temple, and appears with the sun behind him in one of the movie's single best shots. You'll know it from the trailers.
Like Annihilation's Temple of Elder Gods: Raiden's temple is carved into the side of an earthy mountain, and like Annihilation's Nightwolf, Liu Kang greets the new heroes in the desert with a gratuitous demonstration of his "cool" powers, and offers sage-like pep talks for unlocking the inner power of feeling their "arcana". If it wasn't already obvious: magical dragon-shaped markings that flee the body upon defeat have only ever existed in Annihilation as well, and the only thing stopping frequent visitor Shang Tsung and his posse from entering the temple is an electrical fence projected by Raiden just like the start of Annihilation. It really feels as if the nineties movies were a main inspiration for this production.
"Arcana" is otherwise a new and original invention of this film, and seems to manifest in inexplicable, sometimes ludicrous super-human abilities: Liu Kang is a little too eager to be a human Zippo lighter; Kano involuntarily shoots a laser beam from one eye; Jax manifests complex machine engineering around the framework of under-sized prosthetic arms; and Cole Young spontaneously grows a wicker tapestry of flexible armor and retractable tonfas.
It's the kind of cornball movie conceit that explains everything and nothing. Kill a fighter with a birthmark and it shows up on you -- good news for Sonya Blade, who is the only fighter present without one, presumably a sideways nod to her lack of invitation in the original tournament canon. This unifying theory might smooth things out for grandma, but the concept is unnecessary, and is typical of terrible video game movies. It deserves the meme ridicule it will probably receive.
They at least have the wherewithal to avoid committing too boldly to Cole Young. Every effort is made to soften his impact without escaping the inevitability that a character who hasn't existed in twenty-five years of the franchise is our lead protagonist. He takes the longest to unlock his arcana, benched by Raiden until Goro is teleported into the family garage by Shang Tsung, and engages in a backyard brawl that forces Cole to finally unlock the power of defense. The already mentioned wicker sweater saves him from being torn apart. From there he commits the cardinal sin of dismembering and eviscerating 9-time Mortal Kombat Champion: Goro. In his backyard. Before the tournament has even happened.
All of the bad guys, with exception of Shang Tsung, are here to die and not much more. There is almost no sense of backstory or motivation for characters. Kabal (Daniel Nelson) is an unlikely stand-out, already confined to life support because of something Kano did, and working for Outworld because they apparently have a bank account. He streaks across the battlefield with purple aplomb, voiced a little too well with a hint of Casey Jones in his masked, rough 'n' tumble attitude. Not quite as loud as Kano, but just as much foul-mouthed, wisecracking fun until he's burned to a crisp by Liu Kang. "You're gonna love him."
Reptile is an early casualty, appearing as a very literal CG lizard before Kano rips his heart out. Nitara (Mel Jarnson) unremarkably flies in just long enough to receive a buzzsaw hat fatality, while Reiko (Nathan Jones) is played like a big, dumb slack jawed ox whose IQ may actually go up once his head is squashed by Jax. He's visually and conceptually unrecognizable from the cunning general of Mortal Kombat: Armageddon, or even Mortal Kombat X tie-in comics that raised his profile while still treating him as cannon fodder.
Mileena (Sisi Stringer) fares only slightly better, eventually baring her fangs -- and her spine -- once Sonya shows up with arcana unlocked by killing Kano. In 1995 Bridgette Wilson gave Kano a break and snapped his neck. In this movie [Sonya] gives him a boner and buries a garden ornament in his face. The death of Mileena is a tag team moment with Cole at a point in the film that seems to be trying to play like an Avengers team-up instead of a tournament, even though there's a vague sense of Mortal Kombat II's renegade Outworld tournament.
The death of major characters should be an unforgiveable sin, but the movie aspires to some of the worst narrative habits of the recent video games by implying none of it matters. Their bodies disappear in a puff of black smoke, and Shang Tsung renders the entire episode moot two-fold by promising he has an army of other fighters to come back with, and death is just "another portal" any way.
The body count may play to the myth that R rated violence is in any way essential, but the gimmicks aren't intriguing enough to even reach slasher satisfaction, no matter how much the music might swell again and again. Heart rips and dismemberment are fun tricks in a game, but this kung fu violence -- which was never horror -- should be an afterthought. If Cole Young could've served any purpose, it might've been giving us an earned, but affordable death. Instead the heroes lose Kung Lao (Max Huang) to Shang Tsung's only soul stealing of the movie. Disappointing.
The screenwriter assured fans that Shang Tsung was mistakenly identified as "Emperor of Outworld", but like most attempts to pacify fans, it doesn't ring true. Joylessly conjuring black puffs and lording over the movie in wuxia armor, he appears an emperor in function, bearing, and role. Quite unlike any version of the sorcerer, let alone the wizened Shaw Brothers kung fu wizard contemporary culture is probably a little too uncomfortable with to finally deliver. Raiden also still refers to himself as an "Elder God". Details that constantly reaffirm this is neither loyal to the source material, nor the movie for die hard fans they would like you to think.
The final battle sends Cole Young into a showdown with Sub-Zero, who taunts him with his daughter's yellow & black bracelet from earlier in the movie. He runs through a portal to the icy cage match featured in trailers. Cole's wicker armor absorbs some punishment until Scorpion arrives in the modern day to double-team the ice ninja to a toasty death that foreshadows the return of Noob Saibot with black ash surrounding the body.
Speaking Japanese to the Chicago orphan, Hanzo entrusts his bloodline and future sequels to Cole Young. A "poster child", by any other name, but not the child of the poster that finishes the movie. The final scene makes sure you spot the promise of Johnny Cage when Cole sets off for Hollywood and a sequel that will more than likely happen.
Fans are unified in their desire for the return of Mortal Kombat movies, and the devout will probably find a way to enjoy themselves. There is some semblance of a character arc or two: Jax learns to live with robot arms, and Kano turns on the good guys, with Josh Lawson bullying the rest of the cast a little too successfully with his smash mouth, scenery chewing skullduggery. It kind of feels like the basic story has been told, even though the entire movie is about fighting a fight so they won't have to fight later at a tournament. At least the bad guys lost. It seems like it would've been bad if they won, even though I'm sure they aren't all murderers in Outworld.
If you're a weekend button masher, want to kill a couple of hours in pandemic lockdown, or subscribe to the theory of low expectations: you'll probably be fine, but it would be misleading to call this a movie for fans. If story mode is your first port of call, you're dedicated to a particular character, or you happen to be a cinephile, you're going to struggle with a very unfocused, shallow movie that asks no questions, and hopes you do the same. It's difficult to discern if the filmmakers themselves know better than studio mandates, or if they're part of the problem.
This has been a very critical look at the new movie -- but what do you think? Vote in the current User Poll and share your experience watching the movie in the comments below! Find and discuss more stories in the Media & Merchandise forum! Mortal Kombat is now showing in theatres around the world and streaming for 31 days on HBO Max in the United States.