Directed by Simon McQuoid
Written by Oren Uziel, Greg Russo, and Dave Callaham
I know I'm not saying anything new here, but seriously: it should not be hard to adapt Mortal Kombat. Just to state the absolute fucking obvious, it's been adapted once already, in 1995, and that movie worked out okayish, even if it was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson. (Counterpoint: it's okay because it was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson.) The old Mortal Kombat understood the video games already had a story. Simplistic it might have been, but movies about martial arts can abide with fairly simple stories. So is the problem the supernatural accoutrements that gave Mortal Kombat its flavor, and made playing it so visually appealing? Well, even if it is, it's not exactly A Song of Ice and Fire, is it? It should be easy to adapt this. Especially the original trilogy: there is a fighting tournament called, for intellectual property reasons, Mortal Kombat (the new film lampshades this and, I admit, it's dishonorably funny), held every so often between the champions of our so-called "Earthrealm" and those of the extradimensional plane of Outworld, ruled by vile Emperor Shao Kahn, and upon this tournament the fate of realms turns, for, according to the rules established by the Elder Gods when they framed the cosmos, should Earth lose ten times, then our realm opens to Kahn and all his armies. Thanks to the bumbling of Kahn's deputy, Shang Tsung—not to mention the heroism of Liu Kang and the timely intervention of the last of the gods who cared, Raiden, who incarnated to fight for humankind—Earth broke Outworld's winning streak. Yet it seems like it didn't quite count, because another tournament was held on Outworld just a few years later, and this went poorly enough that by the third game, I think Shao Kahn was holding a fighting tournament on a ravaged and subservient Earth just to show that, in his omnipotence, he could.
That's how I remember the plot, anyway, to a game series I haven't played in ages, and, accordingly, my brain's sanded it down, making it even simpler than my perusal of Wikipedia informs me it was. And here's the thing: I think a "story by" credit going to "some idiot's 25-year old memories of an arcade game" still would've been a better backbone for this would-be franchise. Or, hey, make it completely faithful, if that's the side your bread's buttered on. Just bear in mind that the core audience for any adaptation of this property is going to be judging it on how it weaves in the sometimes-fascinating mythology of the series, how it revives their nostalgia for a world of iconic ultraviolence, and, because any Mortal Kombat film should still be getting ready to wrap up at the 90 minute mark, how artfully it applies the elisions it's obliged to make to a sprawling ensemble of dozens, each with their own fans and each with their own individual personality, even if eight or nine of them are, in truth, literally just the same guy wearing a different colored ninja outfit.
...Or you can take $95 million and make an OC fanfic out of it. Because, sure, that's a creative choice that doesn't seem at all insane. Imagine if Decker was the hero of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Kirk was in a barely-extant (or, depending on who you root for, entirely non-extant) supporting role. You're still imagining something better. This is the most unfathomable aspect of the new Mortal Kombat, its story and screenplay credited to just three guys, though bearing the scars of innumerable notes. The games themselves, in their diverse rosters, offer any number of excellent "ins" to the world and legendarium of Mortal Kombat: there is Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamnee here, and we'll start with ladies first, because this movie won't) and "Jax" Briggs (Mechad Brooks), soldiers who have tracked the traces of Shang Tsung (Chin Han) through international supercriminal Kano (Josh Lawson); if you wanted to be entirely straightforward, there is Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), who has trained his whole life to fight for Earth; if you wanted to get esoteric, there is Raiden (Tadonobu Asano), the divine lightning, here barred from direct interference by Elder God law on account of being OP and broken, though this never seemed to pose a problem when he participated in three tournaments in a row as my favorite character in the games; if you wanted to get melodramatic, there is Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada), pledged to rise from hell to avenge himself and his family upon Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim); and of course there's Johnny Cage (no one), who was always the most charming of MK's notions, the Hollywood stuntman-star—an accentless Jean-Claude Van Damme—who somehow got taught mystical martial arts and then used those powers to 1)make a lot of money and 2)punch dudes in the balls, while blanching at punching Sonya Blade in her vagina even though it would still hurt, whereas somehow it did work on the thunder god.
There was never, of course, Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a former champion mixed martial artist now jobbing for $200 a fight, to the consternation of his boxing movie wife (Laura Brent) and to the persevering pride of his daughter (Matilda Kimber), character relationships that I swear are not actually clarified as "spouse" and "presumably accidental child" rather than "casual girlfriend" and "younger but not that much younger sister" till an hour and twenty minutes of movie have passed, despite these relationships being, the movie says, of critical importance. Cole, anyhow, bears the mark of a chosen one—a birthmark resembling a dragon™—and this brings him into Jax's orbit, as he bears the same symbol, and has a good inkling what it is. Unfortunately, almost as soon as he's made Jax's acquaintance, Sub-Zero arrives. Sent by Shang Tsung to begin eliminating potential opponents before the tournament even begins, Sub-Zero notices something familiar about Cole. We'll get well ahead of both of them on this, because we already saw Sub-Zero murder Scorpion and his family four hundred years ago in an Edo-set prologue, but we also saw Raiden save Scorpion's youngest child; soon, we'll be privy to Cole's visions of an infernal realm and a certain ancestor as he pursues the destiny laid out for him by both his birthmark and his bloodline.
In the meantime, Jax is relieved of his arms by the overwhelmingly powerful Outworld warrior, and Cole's sent on a quest, to Gary, Indiana—perhaps literally the last time anything unexpected happens in this movie (though I'd suggest it does one slightly surprising thing later). Here, Cole links up with Sonya, who's holding Kano prisoner, much to his displeasure, but once the three dispatch a pretty off-brand Reptile, or at least one with all the mystique stripped out of him in the form of an invisibility-prone CGI lizard-man, they all head off to an Unnamed Country In Probably Asia to find Raiden and Earth's other champions, Liu Kang and the dapper Kung Lao (Max Huang). (This makes Sonya the odd-woman out, in that she bears no dragon mark, yet exposition has informed us that killing another bearer bequeathes you their spot, and Kano's still being awfully mouthy over there, so can you guess what happens; you can, and it ruins the one interesting thing about this set-up, which is the pragmatic amorality behind the cosmic mechanisms for choosing humanity's deadliest warriors, some of whom you would expect to be bad guys.) Under Raiden's protection—which, in another inevitable development, turns out to be less than foolproof—their training begins, as they are instructed to unlock their "arcana," a stupid kludge that conflates magic and cyborg parts like those were the same thing, and at some length finally grants our heroes the special moves that were typically no more complex than F,F+HP in the game.
You'll note I didn't quite get to "the Mortal Kombat tournament," but Mortal Kombat doesn't either, or if it does, it's awfully foggy about whether its finale "counts." Nevertheless, I'll give it this: Cole's a boring stock hero and when he's not he's a full-on cipher, and Tan is not elevating either function, but as an innocent, wide-eyed naïf he is not the worst possible lens by which to experience our awakening to the mysteries of Mortal Kombat, and once we've had our appetites whetted by Sub-Zero in the prologue, there should be a lot to find tantalizing about this secret battle for the freedom of humanity, particularly as the same blue ninja, four centuries later, starts summoning ice meteors out of the sky on a hot June night, and even once you escape him, you keep running into lizard people and kung fu masters with fire coming out of their hands. Not to even mention Kung Lao's hat.
Which is why, though I think Cole being here at all is what's fatal to this thing as an adaptation (and, in combination with a middle act that grinds the movie's momentum to a crawl in pursuit of training scenes and a foregone conclusion, maybe what's fatal to it as a story), what's ruins it as cinema is just the awful way the screenwriters and first-time director Simon McQuoid dispel mystery every single chance they get. Worried you might not be able to keep up with the story of a video game, they respond with deadening expository dialogue from every possible corner—which is, somehow, also arbitrarily-ladled out. Further worried you might be frightened by supernatural beings intruding into Earthly affairs—even though that's what the fucking film is about, and if we're supposed to align with Cole we should find it frightening indeed—McQuoid fixes early upon a strategy from Power Rangers, always starting any given sequence with a cutaway to Outworld so that we are never confronted with any of these bizarre and vivid monsters without being warned five minutes ahead of time first. It also helps disabuse us of any bizarre and vivid ideas we might've gotten about Outworld itself, as we're subjected to a place that's 95% rock quarry and 5% desperate CG tchotchkes to make the rock quarry "cool." I'm not sure anybody here acquits themselves more poorly than production designer Naaman Marshall. He clearly wasn't given much in the way of resources, but even on a shoestring—and $95 million should not be a shoestring—there ought to have been some way of translating the Hong-Kong/heavy-metal-album/fantasy-novel-cover aesthetic of MK into what is, at least, blockbuster-lite.
Transitions aren't really McQuoid's strong suit in any case: besides the choppy flow of the first half and the disaster of the finale, it's sometimes embarrassingly clear when the second unit hands things off to the film's actual "director." The shift from action to post-script after Scorpion's conclusive battle shouldn't even have found its way into a professional feature film, with Scorpion taking his mask off and putting it back on, over and over every time he says a line, making him look more like a chickenshit covid denialist than the ninja who broke out of hell. (So, clearly, a lot of things kill the story here, but I think what desecrates the story's corpse is how they handle Scorpion, which winds up absurdly superfluous. It's hard not to be suspicious that the reason Cole was even pulled from the void in the first place was to wear the yellow, and when that was derailed for a Scorpion/Sub-Zero mini-movie in the midst of this other movie, it left everyone scrambling to try to find anything interesting for Cole to do, or even an interesting power set for Cole to have. They failed hard, making his arcana'd form possibly the least Mortal Kombaty design in the franchise's history. Including Stryker. Say, if you wanted to have gotten political, Stryker would've been fun!)
There are those who claim that Mortal Kombat succeeds as an adaptation solely on the basis that this one's R-rated, and has more and better martial arts, and it has the fatalities, man. The martial arts are mediocre-to-decent. But, in individual moments, it has the fatalities—it's at least acceptably gory, and the digital sheen of the blood and guts honestly recalls the game's aesthetic better than more legitimately realistic gore would. One bit with Kung Lao is priceless (it is also the other moment I found surprising: I'll give it some genuine credit for being a movie where a female villain is not obliged as if by law of nature to meet her end at the hands of a female hero). It also asks you to pay for these bitchin' moments with a lot of deeply annoying, largely-context-free references to famous lines from the video game, like "flawless victory" and "finish him" and, for some specious reason, "Kano wins." Basically a lot of the movie is founded on the questionable pleasure of recognition, far more than is seemly, far more than would ever work, to the point you expect Dan Forden to pop up and shout, "Toasty!", and apparently this did in fact almost happen. It also demands an even dearer price, in the form of a montage of battles in which, suddenly, teleportation is a thing, and which, theoretically, serves as the climax. Though it eventually leads into the one personalized conflict in the film (between secondary or, arguably, tertiary characters), it resembles a trailer for a movie more than any actually functional or exciting scene from one. This fits: Mortal Kombat feels like they forgot to make half the film. Jesus, I think it wants to look like a gameplay montage. And I say this as someone who actually does watch a lot of fighting game tournament play: it fails on this level.
It's not usually actively painful, at least: the ensemble beyond Tan offers some personality, particularly in Lin and Huang as the old hands (and in Damon Harriman's curious choice to overdub the villain Kabal's voice in an impression of an Evil Ray Romano). I'll grudgingly admit that Lawson is the movie's MVP, giving us a type you rarely see these days as an unapologetically-nasty Kano, so intentionally-irritating he occasionally swings back around to funny and charismatic. The best performance belongs to Taslim, however, and this seems counterintuitive, given Sub-Zero has, like, ten lines; but Taslim brings his experience with much better martial arts cinema to actually make his fight scenes part of his performance, even using the mask to enhance that performance by having it call attention to what he's doing with his eyes, particularly in one excellent moment where Sub-Zero silently reflects on the nature of consequences and, I think, concludes he's had a pretty good run, considering. Grace notes like that are few and far between in Mortal Kombat, sadly. It's the kind of mess you thought studio filmmaking had evolved out of over a decade ago, though it seems to be back in fashion at Warners with a vengeance. The bastards laid off the Archive staff, and this is where their money goes?