Mortal Kombat review

Mortal Kombat is only half a movie

The new reboot is gory and appreciably stupid, but the drawn-out storytelling does no one any favours.

I think there was a time where I would’ve automatically looked down on a new version of Mortal Kombat; I would’ve had my mind made up way before even laying an eye on the movie, and it would’ve been a pretty fiercely negative take. I don’t really know why that is. I loved Mortal Kombat as a kid, inasmuch as you can like the universe of an arcade game rumoured to have special cheat codes that turn the character sprites into NAKED character sprites. But in this day and age, when one hears of a reboot of a movie that’s meant to piggyback on both videogame fandom and generalized ’90s nostalgia, the picture is already pretty clearly drawn.

Then, over time, I found myself anticipating Mortal Kombat with utmost sincerity. I think part of the anticipation came from the one thing that I truly knew: that Mortal Kombat is mainly about two visually distinctive people fighting, and that it would be extremely difficult for the filmmakers to somehow weave a complicated continuing universe out of it. I wanted to see Mortal Kombat because I assumed that it could not get the superhero treatment. I was wrong.

Mortal Kombat
Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat at least has the benefit of only partially borrowing from the superhero genre. It’s not so much cribbing from the genre than from the first act of every superhero team-up movie. It’s no less than the part of Justice League or Avengers in which the heroes gather up the team, stretched out over roughly an hour and 40 minutes, broken up with gory kung-fu fights and crowbarred one-liners. I’ll admit that, on paper, this sounds like an absolute perfect way to adapt an arcade game, but in practice, there’s something flimsy and unsatisfying about the way Mortal Kombat goes about its business. Films that are this transparently made to springboard a franchise are made all the time, and yet Mortal Kombat somehow wears this on its sleeve more than most, taking the wrong lessons from the right situation.

Cole Young (Lewis Tan) is a washed-up MMA fighter who has essentially become a jobber, accepting to throw fights for a pittance. One day, he’s approached by the mysterious soldier of fortune Jax Briggs (Mehcad Brooks). Jax claims that Cole has been “chosen” to participate in an interdimensional fight pitting a disparate group of Earthly combatants against the Emperor Shang Tsung (Chin Han), who rules the forces of the Outworld. Every once in a while, the Outworld and Earth engage in mortal combat, which the Outworld has won nine times in a row. If Earth loses for a tenth time, its future hangs in the balance. Cole joins forces with Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) in order to find the other fighters and take on Shang Tsung.

Mortal Kombat opening scene

Ordinarily, I would sum up a film as above, leaving out the third act to keep the review spoiler-free. Though the above summary contains no real spoilers, it also sums up the entirety of Mortal Kombat, which has rather ostentatiously been designed as a prelude to bigger things. Obviously, there’s a narrative arc of sorts; the characters start somewhere and end somewhere else and asses get kicked somewhere in the middle, but there remains very little progression in the whole of Mortal Kombat. By the time I was already halfway through the film and new characters were still being introduced consistently, it started to become obvious that Mortal Kombat’s ambitions had run amok.

I can already hear people taking me to task for expecting nearly anything out of Mortal Kombat. It’s true that the film does deliver the base expectations of characters who look like the videogame characters wailing on each other in various locations. (The real-world setting of Mortal Kombat also means real-world environments for the characters to beat each other up in, leading to perhaps my favourite trope in all martial arts movies: smashing someone’s head through a toilet bowl.) After an arterial spray-spurting prologue set in feudal Japan, Mortal Kombat delivers pretty solid and consistent fight scenes replete with fan service and cameos from videogame favourites. What the film does perhaps best of all is strike a tone between a videogame movie that takes itself and its mumbo-jumbo lore very seriously and a boneheaded ’90s action movie filled with one liners and climactic violence. Mortal Kombat doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is rather refreshing, but nevertheless, there’s an unaccomplished feeling that comes with the film.

The fact that Mortal Kombat doesn’t feel like a whole is ultimately what does it in. Plenty of horrible movies with no redeeming values nevertheless feel “complete”; they give you a beginning, middle and end that feel justified even if that movie contains absolutely nothing of note or value. Mortal Kombat feels perfunctory even with its base pleasures of hearts being ripped out and people being sawed in half by metal hats. It feels like half of a thing, or perhaps the free half of a product that asks you to pony up the cash to see the rest — without ever giving us that option. It’s not really surprising — everyone has gone franchise-crazy and producers are seeing franchises in everything — but this particular version of Mortal Kombat feels unfinished. ■

Mortal Kombat opens in Montreal theatres and is available on-demand as of Friday, April 23. Check out our interview with the film’s producer and director here.

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