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PLOT: With the Outworld realm on the verge of winning its tenth MORTAL KOMBAT tournament, which would give it the power to invade the Earthrealm, Earth’s champions team up and do what it takes to stop the enemy fighters in brutal combat — err — kombat.
REVIEW: For being based on a video game series that’s been loved for decades thanks to its cast of colorful characters, expansive mythos and insanely bloody, brutal gameplay, it’s almost impressive how painfully dull the latest Mortal Kombat movie manages to be. Despite years of character history and world-building to draw upon, director Simon McQuoid and his team have barely cleared the lowest possible bar to bring these classic characters to the big screen, meaning that, by the end, even the most diehard fans may realize that the last 100 minutes they’ve wasted with a cavalcade of wooden characters, threadbare plotting and minimally entertaining action could’ve been spent playing through the game once again for an infinitely more satisfying experience.
The shame of it all is the movie doesn’t begin with such a hint towards failure. Taking us back years before the bulk of the story takes place, a renowned ninja named Hanzo (who fans may know as Scorpion, played by Hiroyuki Sanada) loses his family to the villainous Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), resulting in a slick fight scene that doesn’t skimp on the gore – and hints to a greater conflict for the rest of the film. But from then on it’s a perpetual slide down as we shift to Hanzo’s far less interesting descendant, Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a fighter who lost his prowess in the ring, but bares a mysterious dragon mark, thus making him of use to characters Jax (Mehcad Brooks) and Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), who pull him out of cage fighting mediocrity for the sake of helping them fight on behalf of Earthrealm in a mythic Mortal Kombat tournament.
After a mountain of matter-of-factly explained exposition, Cole has no hesitancy towards any of it, leaves his family behind, and joins the quest that brings them one after another towards other classic game characters, leading to a sandy fighting pit where they kick and punch each other in hopes of proving their not a bunch of lame asses with no powers, stopping only to talk very seriously about this very silly scenario.
From a storytelling perspective, that’s about as far as the narrative goes, meaning there actually isn’t much of a story at all. None of the characters involved, whether it’s the good guys on Earth or the bad guys from the alien Outworld, have any rhyme or reason for doing anything other than to battle over the Earth. The motivation on both sides stems from Earthrealm having lost the last 9 tournaments, the tenth time meaning Outworld gets to claim our realm. For the villains, it’s like getting nine punches on a card from your favorite sandwich shop, and the tenth one gets you a free sub. With that motivation alone, it’s understandable why the beings of Outworld, led by evil warlock Shang Tsung (Chin Han), would want the Earth so desperately, because other than the prospect of free shit, there’s no other noticeable motivation for the big bad or the goons who follow him.
That thinnest of plotting and character development shines a light on McQuoid and writers Greg Russo and Dave Callaham’s entire approach to Mortal Kombat, which is that character and storytelling don’t matter, and as long as fan-favorite characters wearing game-accurate clothing show up and say things their characters may say in the game, nothing else matters. Every plot beat where characters don’t beat each other is driven by stale dialogue that readdresses how serious this tournament is, listlessly moving along until yet another character enters the fray. Once the major players are gathered, there are so many of them that none get the chance to have any other depth besides their basic attributes.
Sonya Blade is tough as nails, and seems to exist to be told there’s nothing special about her because she doesn’t have a dragon mark; the Aussie Kano only opens his mouth if it’s to say something crass and prove a horrid person to be around; game favorites Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang) are both very serious and take the tournament very seriously and; thunder god Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) is a sort of Nick Fury of the group, and is very serious and takes the tournament very seriously. Most disappointing of all is Young, the character who is supposed to be the focal point of everything, hardly getting much to say, doing nothing but getting the crap beat out of him by everyone else in hopes it will unlock his secret. His depth comes from having a family and nightmarish visions of Hanzo, but all of that means very little, as none of it is used to truly explore him as a character and contribute to an emotional journey. Tam, McNamee, Han as Tsung, and everyone else in the cast are left to hack their way through wooden, doom-laden dialogue, of which even a veteran cast would struggle to give any weight.
Despite all these characters coming together like some sort of ragtag group of would-be super fighters, the lack of any distinct personalities outside of Kano’s rampant boorishness means that they’re nothing but figureheads transported from game to screen. Even passionate fans will only have reason to care for the characters when and only when they recognize a game character’s move set coming to life on screen, accompanied by whatever throwaway catchphrases they have and to an invasive score inspired by classic game themes. While McQuoid understands that’s what fans came to see, so much of it feels tacked on and sometimes wildly out of place and out of character for how they speak before and after. But still, a character drops a line, a box if checked, and it’s on to the next.
But hey, maybe you’re reading to everything I’m saying and ignoring it because the only thing you’re really looking for is epic kills – bloody, intricate, explosive kills. Even then, I’m sorry to say, Mortal Kombat still feels like a letdown. Aside from a rather slick, bloody opening fight with bursts of CGI blood, you’ll have to sit through another solid hour before more fights come along to satisfy your bloodlust. Oh, there are fights in between – even one with a disappearing alien creature with acid blood. But no matter the scenario, fight scenes usually begin with a random character or creature showing up out of nowhere, and proceeding to get in a clumsy, ham-fisted, and often all-too-brief clash with one of the “good guys.” Granted, when the bloody finishing moves do come rushing out during the sprint to the finish, they are gloriously vicious. But even still, it’s gratuitous violence purely for the sake of it, because it’s what people expect. Behind it all are no stakes, grace or style in choreography to make it feel unique to the big screen. So much reliance was put on things looking similar to the game, that even during moments of brutality, nothing proves that this is an adaptation that can stand on its own.
But for a movie that seems so reliant on making sure fans get what they want, I’m sure many fans may even leave disappointed. Particularly, this is due to the treatment of fan-favorite character Sub-Zero, who graces the promotional material more than any of the more showcased characters. While getting a decent intro, the rest of the movie he’s relegated to being a goon for Shang Tsung, meant to show up wherever, whenever, being stoic and silent before unleashing some freezing powers. When it comes to Zero’s much-advertised fight with Scorpion, I will only say those advertisements don’t leave much room to be surprised, made up entirely of beats designed to make fans go, “I recognize that move…and that phrase…and that move too.”
For those fans, perhaps that’s all enough, and perhaps the filmmakers can act as if they’ve succeeded by checking off every box on a player’s wish list. But Mortal Kombat made me wonder how exactly low the bar for filmmakers is when adapting popular games into moviegoing events. Is checking all those boxes proof of success, or is it no more than cinematic copy-paste? Is that really doing justice to these characters and their world that fans love so much? True service to fans and the material would be exploring these characters with even a microcosm of depth, and then giving them a world to play in that feels as invigorating as picking up the controller and clicking “Play”. On both those fronts, Mortal Kombat is an abject failure — a self-inflicting fatality that’s far more brutal an experience than any bloody end characters suffer in kombat.