Another short one, and you might have to get used to them for a while unfortunately.
So, I am not an MK head. I’m not a Street Fighter one either (though I do adore Jean Claude “The whar es can-celled” Van Damme) or Tekkan. But I do like action, and do like efforts to marry that action to interesting universes. Mortal Kombat, if absolutely nothing else can be said about the franchise, attempts to do this, with characters and a world they inhabit which does stand out. It’s ripe for adaptation, and even if such adaptations always run the risk of devolving into brainless bloodfests they will always draw the eye too. Was Mortal Kombat, denied a full release earlier this year owing to COVID, something to capture the spirit of the video game, and actually make good on the threat of the medium of “video game adaptation” coming off well?
Cole Young (Lewis Tan) is a small time MMA fighter with a family who depends on him and a strange dragon birthmark. When he becomes the target of a supernatural assassin named Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) Cole is drawn into an incredible world of martial arts, magic and threats of world domination. With the help of other fighters like military veterans Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and Jax (Mehcad Brooks), long time martial arts specialists Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang), Australian mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson) and the Thunder God Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), Young takes on the shadowy forces of Outworld leader Shang Tsung (Chin Han) with the fate of Earthrealm in the balance.
Is Mortal Kombat the best video game movie ever? Probably not. Is it a bad film? Maybe, from a certain point of view anyway. Is it something that you will easily enjoy if you go into it with the right mindset? I would say so. A lot of video game movies fail to capture the spirit of the thing they are adapting and, if nothing else, Mortal Kombat can say that it captures some of the spirit.
From an opening where Sub-Zero confronts Hiroyuki Sanada’s Scorpion (slumming it in this film it has to be said, with a bored-looking performance) through to an finale where our intrepid group of Earthrealm warriors all split up to face off against their individual enemies, Mortal Kombat is a rollicking ride through lots of ridiculous martial arts set-ups, heapings of gore (one moment, where a character is literally sawed in half, really stands out) and video game catchphrases that have no business in a 2021 production. But it’s leaning in hard to that kind of feeling, and one can appropriate the confidence on display.
Our cast is called upon to handle the workload where their prowess at MMA and various forms of quasi eastern fighting styles is more important than their ability to lend lines gravitas, and they do an OK job. Tan as the lead had a bit of presences, as does Asano as Raiden, but you could have a ensemble of classically trained award winners and they would struggle a bit with this script, which vacillates between trite sentimentality and needed exposition dumps as if the production team have to pay for every line. But it’s OK really: if you go into this expecting a storyline and performances of video game level, then you will have those expectations met. Tan does just fine as the audience surrogate really, with our introduction to him – getting pasted in what looks like an unlicensed MMA fight – helping to ground the character before we get into a world of lightning-based teleportation and very vaguely defined tournaments that decide whether hell gets to conquer Earth, or something.
One of the things that really marks Mortal Kombat out is the unexpected way that it becomes the Kano show for a surprisingly large portion of its running time. I have a feeling that this wasn’t the original idea but Lawson’s performance as the foul-mouthed Aussie merc is captivating enough that things were changed, and suddenly he takes up a big part of the film’s second act. He’s a guy whom I loved in his recurring role as the slightly crazed pharmacist in Superstore, and he’s working at the perfect pitch here. This is all well and good, but inevitably drains some of the energy away from the other performers, the ones that are nominally the actual main characters.
But of course none of that is why we are really, really here, though the cartoonish nature of the characters doesn’t hurt what Mortal Kombat wants to be. Instead, we are here to see lots of fighting, and the bloodier and more insane the better. Mortal Kombat delivers fairly substantially on that score, with an attitude that the film should never be slowed down by plot or exposition for more than five minutes, with the longest period of non-violence at the midpoint standing out hugely in the larger narrative. So flush with action is the film that it acts almost like a showreel of sorts, with the principals talking at each other in-between. Not since Hardcore Henry have I had this sort of feeling, but Mortal Kombat does it better.
And of course I do feel that it is good action. The side-scrolling fisticuffs are brought to life in a more third-dimensional space, and a good job done at keeping things fresh throughout. The supernatural powers help a lot of course, between Sub-Zero’s ice, Kung Lao’s razor hat, Kano’s laser eye or Jax’s robot arms. What I mean to say is that even if it is just a repetitive series of punches and kicks, it’s a repetitive series of punches and kicks undertaken by superheros who will occasionally fling a boulder or suck someones soul out of their body, so Mortal Kombat is rarely boring. Add in a soundtrack that is perfect mix of deferential to the source material and willing to overlay modern electronica beats, and you have something that does all that it can be expected to do in terms of capturing the feel of the video game.
So, it’s OK. I’ve seen some acting as if Mortal Kombat has finally cracked the code of the video game adaptation, but I would stop far short of that. If it has, its only demonstrated that this sub-genre is capable of only so much: a fast-paced action/adventure with lots of blood and guts, with only enough story to stop the whole thing from being a Let’s Play highlights video. There’s enough here, and enough that we haven’t seen yet, that I would be fine taking in a second one someday, and I suspect that we will get the chance. For now, Mortal Kombat is a diverting 100-minutes and change, and if you go into it with the right headspace, I think you will find lots to enjoy. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).