‘Mortal Kombat’ Upgrades With Slick Visuals but Less Combat

Since around the ‘90s, turning video games into movies has been one of the toughest challenges faced by countless screenwriters and directors. “Mortal Kombat” is the latest attempt and it succeeds and falls short on some surprising levels. As most of its targeted audience knows already, the movie is based on the famous and once-controversial fighting game that launched nearly thirty years ago. The whole point of a fighting game is to, well, fight. “Mortal Kombat” in particular had gained some infamy for its high levels of gore. This new effort definitely has more blood and guts than the previous two cinematic incarnations, but it also tries so hard to be taken seriously that it meanders when it should be kicking ass.

Nothing much has changed in the plotting. Essentially another world known as Outworld is engaged in some kind of cosmic rivalry with Earthrealm. Outworld has won about nine tournaments against Earthrealm in a tournament known as Mortal Kombat. One more victory and Outworld takes over the other one, meaning our world. Enter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a martial arts master marked with a mysterious dragon tattoo he can’t explain. When he and his family are attacked by the ice-conjuring Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) from Outworld, he discovers he is one of several “champions” who can defend Earthrealm in the tournament. Cole’s friend Jax (Mehcad Brooks), saves him on time to then give Cole a chance to meet Sonya (Jessica McNamee) and Kano (Josh Lawson), two other champs with their own, buffed fighting abilities. They then enter the Mortal Kombat realm, where they come face to face with Shang Tsung (Chin Han) hoping to defeat the other side by simply killing off the champions before they can fight. His great rival who will offer guidance to our champions is Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), a thunder god. 

It may read as odd, but one of the key flaws in this “Mortal Kombat” is that it seeks to be a brooding drama. Director Simon McQuoid is following the recent protocol of taking genres that were once colorful and hyper and turning them into moody reflections on the CGI soul. It’s a stark contrast to the original 1995 movie adaptation by Paul W.S. Anderson, a director derided by many but who still made what remains a decent, pleasurably guilty popcorn movie. Anderson seemed aware that the very premise of the “Mortal Kombat” video game is absurd, so he filmed it as an exercise in ‘90s action style, where it really was about the fighting. Unsatisfied fans complained it wasn’t gory enough and on that note McQuiod certainly upgrades. When his “Mortal Kombat” gets moving you will see disemboweled intestines, spines torn through skulls, arms ripped out of their sockets and other doses of what in the game are called “fatalities.” 

As a narrative the screenplay by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham is no different from your average movie clearly designed to establish franchise. “Mortal Kombat” is not an adrenaline rush of bloody combat, but what feels like the first entry in another attempt by Warner Bros. to get its own version of the Marvel universe going. The movie opens with a grand and well-done scene in 17th century Japan where assassins kill a family who turn out to be Cole’s ancestors. We then fast-forward to the present where the champions are introduced and prepped for nearly the entire movie. Once Cole, Sonya and the untrustworthy mercenary Kano are taken by Raiden to his training fortress, the plot takes a backseat for the fighters to banter, duel with a few CGI creatures and try to teach viewers that practice makes perfect. Actual duels with Tsung-aligned MK favorites like the six-armed Goro, Scorpion and Sub-Zero don’t come in until about the third act, and late into it. But once our heroes take them on, the action scenes are filmed with a slick style and graphic energy. Yet nothing is resolved plot-wise and the characters themselves have little juice. Sonya is just a blonde object there to provide at least one woman to the team, Jax is all one-liners and Cole is meant to pose, worry about his family and then throw some kicks.

Of course action characters are not meant to be evocative or Shakespearean, which is why McQuoid should not have filmed “Mortal Kombat” with little sense of life to it. The technical craft is flawless because of its budget. Cole, Sonya and Kano walk around vast deserts, Raiden shoots lighting from his eyes and Goro is this towering, monstrous fighter with multiple limbs. But a lot of the cinematography is so depressive and even Sub-Zero, who was once famous for his trademark blue, now just wears a dreary and dead metallic grey, unless the color was drained on purpose in post-production. The music by Benjamin Wallfisch has a few flashes of techno fun but is forced to be an ambient dirge. Fans will get impatient waiting for the famous theme song that wisely opens the 1995 movie with a kick. It can be said this is a better movie than another entry in the franchise, the infamously bad “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation” from 1997, where the costumes look like leftovers from a high school play. This new movie is not necessarily terrible and the casting is great. It just has to aim higher when it obviously can. Fans of the game may delight in the later sections, while non-players will wonder what all the fuss is about.

Mortal Kombat” releases April 23 on HBO Max and theaters nationwide.