Warner Bros.’ Mortal Kombat reboot has been riding a steady wave of buzz and momentum since the first trailer smashed records to become the most-watched red band promo of all-time, although it’s already been surpassed by James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad. Producer Todd Garner wanted it to be the most badass martial arts movie around, while director Simon McQuoid said he planned the best hand-to-hand combat sequences ever put to film, and star Lewis Tan claimed that once you’ve seen it, you’ll never forget it. That’s an awful lot of hype, but does Mortal Kombat manage to live up to such lofty and borderline hyperbolic expectations? In a word, no.
The smartest thing for the reboot to do was distance itself from Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1995 original, which has endured as a camp cult classic packed to the brim with vintage 1990s cheese. Writers Greg Russo and Dave Callaham set their stall out from the very first scene, which establishes the new Mortal Kombat as an altogether more serious affair, but as the story unfolds it never relents on its almost deified approach to the source material, to the extent that it becomes nearly impenetrable for non-fans to find their way into the lore and become invested in what’s happening.
Russo admitted that Tan’s Cole Young was a studio-mandated protagonist, and it shows. A failed MMA fighter, Cole is tracked down by Mehcad Brooks’ Jax, who delivers the first of what feels like a nonstop barrage of exposition dumps that fill in the gaps in the backstory. Tan is an accomplished martial artist and a charismatic screen presence, but having been saddled with the rote Hero’s Journey arc, Mortal Kombat doesn’t require him to do much more than move from one scene to the next, asking questions on behalf of the audience that then get filled in by another lengthy explanation from one of the supporting players.
Of course, when we’re talking about a movie that features four-armed monsters, mercenaries that shoot laser beams out of their eyeballs and an immortal ninja that freezes a guy’s blood and then stabs him with it, the plot is hardly the most pressing issue. Luckily, the fight sequences in Mortal Kombat are the highlight by far, even if the prowess of the actors and the choreography itself is vastly superior to McQuoid’s camerawork, which doesn’t do enough justice to each crushing blow landed on screen. The fatalities are also suitably gory, with blood splattering everywhere on numerous occasions as the battles each end with their own signature visual flourish that provide several deliriously entertaining moments.
If you’re a Mortal Kombat fan, then you’ll no doubt get a much bigger kick out of the latest feature-length adaptation than those going in cold, many of whom more than likely won’t have a clue what’s happening at various points. It’s all very on-the-nose, to the extent that the majority of characters are introduced by saying their own names and relaying their backstories out loud. There’s a severe lack of personality in terms of both the visual style and the personalities on display, too, save for a couple of notable exceptions.
The various locations seen throughout Mortal Kombat are drab and uninspired, particularly Outworld, which is a missed opportunity in terms of going all-in when it comes to production design and fantastical settings to use as a backdrop for the marquee smackdowns. Joe Taslim is fantastic as Sub-Zero, though, gliding through the early stages of the story like a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator and Friday the 13th‘s Jason Voorhees, and he’s the only one of the bad guys with more than one dimension.
Josh Lawson’s Kano, meanwhile, provides the majority of the levity, and comes close to walking away with the entire movie, although it feels like it was mandated that only one person gets to really sink their teeth into the outlandish nature of the premise and have a little fun with it. The quiet grace and dignified gravitas of Hiroyuki Sanada’s Scorpion is also more than welcome, even if he’s not in the film anywhere near as much as the marketing would have you believe. The plot device tying him to Cole Young is flimsy at best as well, especially when the script establishes the dragon birthmark as hugely important in terms of being ‘the chosen one’ and its associated lineage, but it can also be transferred from one person to another by defeating them in combat.
Perhaps the most egregious sin committed by Mortal Kombat is that it’s all setup and no payoff. The movie doesn’t even involve a tournament at all, and it’s got one of the most infuriatingly sequel-baiting endings in recent memory, which we won’t spoil here. Taslim, Sanada, Lawson and the gloriously R-rated fights elevate Mortal Kombat significantly, no doubt, and you can slap on another star if you’re a longtime fan of the series, but newbies will be left largely unimpressed.