The latest film adaptation of the legendary fighting video game delivers on its violent fights and has a ton of fun doing it
The ultra-violent fighting game franchise Mortal Kombat has endured for decades now, going from bulky arcade cabinets to the latest generation of home gaming consoles. Its unique roster of characters and over-the-top graphic violence has served the series well, with 2019’s Mortal Kombat 11 being the latest well-received entry. A pair of film adaptations were attempted at the height of the game’s initial popularity in the 90s, with the 1995 Paul W. S. Anderson movie still maintaining a cult following to this day. The film’s 1997 sequel, however, was received far more poorly, putting any future plans on an indefinite hold.
Over twenty years later and the time seems right for the historic video game to get the big screen treatment again. Superheroes are the dominant force at the box office as of now, and the many fighters of Mortal Kombat certainly lend themselves towards that aesthetic and storytelling with their various backgrounds and abilities. Directed by Simon McQuoid and produced by genre legend James Wan, this new adaptation can take pride in the fact that its action sequences are superb and the characters have never looked better. The screenplay jams as many recognizable heroes and villains in as possible, but it mostly works instead of feeling like an overload, even if some characters are more fleshed out than others. The story is pretty simple and thin – despite a lot of exposition and setup – but that likely won’t matter to the established fans seeking the film out.
The film opens on a tranquil scene of a warrior named Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) enjoying time with his family in 17th century Japan before their peace is interrupted by an assassin named Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) AKA Sub-Zero. Using terrifying ice powers, Sub-Zero slaughters the Hasashi family in an attempt to end their bloodline, unaware that Hanzo’s youngest child has been hidden away and survives the attack. The baby is taken by Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) to be raised in secret and centuries later, the last of the Hasashi clan is a Chicagoan orphan under the name of Cole Young (Lewis Tan) who makes a living as an MMA fighter.
But he’s not an especially good one. In fact, he’s known more as a punching bag than any kind of actual competitor. But Cole still has a warrior spirit, and even when he’s getting the snot beat out of him for a measly $200, he never goes down without an attempted fight. His motivation is his wife Alison (Laura Brent) and their daughter Emily (Matilda Kimber), who are constantly in his corner cheering him on. Like his ancestor before him, however, Cole’s life is turned upside down when Sub-Zero arrives to complete his mission, putting his family in extreme danger.
The Youngs are saved by a Special Forces Major named Jax (Mehcad Brooks), who, along with his partner Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), has been tracking people that bear a certain mark that resembles a dragon. Cole has this on his chest, which he hilariously believes to simply be a very specific-looking birthmark. Jax and Sonya believe that the mark is a sign of someone who has been chosen to participate in Mortal Kombat, a deadly tournament between realms. Everyone eventually winds up at an ancient temple to prepare for the inevitable deathmatches, and Cole, Jax, Sonya, and a crude mercenary named Kano (Josh Lawson) train under the tutelage of fellow warriors Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang).
It’s undoubtedly a lot of characters to keep up with, and that’s not even mentioning the movie’s big bad played by Chin Han and his squad of demonic fighters. But Mortal Kombat’s plot doesn’t get much more complicated than this: a bunch of people are gonna fight to the death and it’s gonna get bloody. The film certainly delivers on that front. Blood sprays and splatters across the screen in properly exaggerated fashion, and the video games’ iconic (and at one point controversial) Fatalities are fully realized in all of their gory gruesomeness. The stunts and fight choreography look fantastic – Taslim especially is a tremendously imposing onscreen presence as Sub-Zero – and even though the fights could threaten to become repetitive, they never feel dull.
The film is a bit overwrought with its exposition, which can make it difficult for its many characters to really stretch their legs and establish themselves as people beyond their abilities. Luckily the core group of Cole, Jax, Sonya, and Kano work especially well together, especially the loud-mouthed Kano, who Lawson plays with just the right amount of obnoxiousness to be genuinely funny (even if half of his jokes are just pop culture references) and bring some needed levity to the movie. Jax and Sonya are the most compelling out of everyone, as the two are just regular people going up against superpowered foes with nothing but their fists and kicks, and Sonya’s arc is especially gripping. She’s the only one without the chosen mark and is dismissed by the group since she cannot unlock her “arcana”, which bestows the warriors with their own individual abilities. She’s the one with the most to prove, perhaps even more than Cole himself, who is defined by his ability to keep on taking hits but always getting back up.
Cole’s motivation to protect his family is endearing, and arguably enough for a movie like this, but there are other facets of his character that feel like they should’ve been better explored, like his lonely upbringing on the streets of Chicago or how he used to be an MMA champ that’s now fallen from grace (this especially feels left unexplained). Instead, Cole’s story is largely just another tired chosen one prophecy trope, and by the film’s end, it’s one that honestly feels largely unnecessary. The screenplay leaves a bit to be desired, and it shamelessly dedicates its ending to setting up a sequel rather than let the story wrap up satisfactorily, but of course this may not matter much at all for fans. The action is a ton of fun and continuously impressive, and the film never allows itself to be taken too seriously. Even for those not overly familiar with the games, the film is solid escapist fun that goes all in with its fantasy elements.
The absurdly graphic violence of the series may have pushed buttons back in the 90s, but it’s impossible for it to really shock audiences or be provocative in today’s world where you can find stuff like that (and much worse) with relative ease on the internet. The best you can shoot for is ridiculous fun, and Mortal Kombat certainly seems to understand that. It’s tough not to have fun with this one.
Mortal Kombat is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.