A quarter-century has passed since Hollywood first adapted the arcade classic Mortal Kombat, with a film that launched newcomer Paul W.S. Anderson into his career making bad but extremely profitable movies full of CG mayhem (and a side career flummoxing those casual moviegoers who confuse him with two similarly named but slightly more brilliant auteurs).
This year the newcomer is Simon McQuoid, whose version of Mortal Kombat ditches original character Johnny Cage but revives most others dating back to Midway’s 1992 game. A B-movie that would benefit immensely from some wit in the script and charisma in the cast, it’s not as aggressively hacky as P.W.S.A.’s oeuvre, but it runs into problems he didn’t face in 1995: Namely, the bar has been raised quite a bit for movies in which teams of superpowered young people have fights to save the universe. While gaming die-hards may enjoy this riff on familiar characters and kills, Kombat looks pretty rinky-dink when compared to the thrill rides Marvel cranks out on a regular basis.
A prelude set in 17th century Japan introduces one of the series’ most familiar fighters, who (unfortunately, as he’s probably the best actor here) will spend most of the film offscreen: Hiroyuki Sanada plays Hanzo Hasashi, the lone survivor of a clan that is being exterminated by Bi-Han (Joe Taslim). We arrive just as the latter is killing the former’s wife and son, encasing them in ice that grows out of his own body — hence Bi-Han’s alias, Sub-Zero. Hanzo is left for dead himself, but Hell’s got nothing on him: When he returns in the final act, he’ll have transformed into Scorpion.
In the present day, we meet washed-up cage fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), who has never understood why he has a birthmark shaped like a dragon’s head. He’s about to find out.
A pair of former Special Forces soldiers, Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and Jax (Mehcad Brooks), have uncovered a mysterious, centuries-old ritual in which champions from various dominions (like our Earthrealm and the gloomy Outworld) hold tournaments with epic stakes: If Earthrealm loses one more of these tourneys, all humanity will be ruled by Outworld’s evil Shang Tsung (Chin Han).
According to the vets, Cole’s tattoo marks him as an heir to Hanzo’s legacy. Teamed up with a sketchy Aussie mercenary named Kano (Josh Lawson, who tries to make up for his dialogue’s lack of crackle with troweled-on arrogance), they all need to find the temple of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), who can transform them into planet-saving heroes.
There’s more to the plot, including the introduction of two already-trained champions (Ludi Lin, Max Huang) and a slew of nasty, CG-enhanced villains — none of whom are anywhere near as interesting as Sub-Zero, whose powers provide a couple of genuine highlights here. (See him freeze an opponent’s spurting blood into a dagger! Watch as the individual pellets from a shotgun blast slow to a snail’s pace as they approach him!) But what will interest MK fans most is not the plot but the kills.
Ordinary action fans should understand that this franchise, despite its many nods to Asian cinema, isn’t much interested in advancing the art of big-screen chop-socky. Throw a dart at a list of martial arts films, and you’ll find better-staged action sequences than McQuoid and company offer. They care more about pairing up colorful characters with superhuman powers, then seeing how one slays the other. The franchise’s so-called “Fatalities” can get pretty gory, sometimes replicating moves from the game: Yes, a man who wears a razor-sharp hat reminiscent of Captain America’s shield does transform it into a circular saw and slice his female opponent in half lengthwise. It’s not as grotesquely misogynistic and sexualized here as in the game. But still, come on.
Even so, the kills mostly lack the kind of shocking thrill that is offered by pulpier, more unrepentant genre pictures. Though the filmmakers definitely wanted to please the gore-starved faithful by getting an R rating (and threw a lot of gratuitous “fuck”s in the dialogue to seal the deal), you do get the impression they don’t want to alienate ordinary viewers either. The result is kombat that isn’t as viscerally mortal as it wants to be. Yell “Flawless! Victory!” all you want, but this is just an ordinary product hoping enough people buy it to justify a sequel.
Production companies: Atomic Monster, Broken Road
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Joe Taslim, Mehcad Brooks, Matilda Kimber, Laura Brent, Tadanobu Asano, Hiroyuki Sanada, Chin Han, Ludi Lin, Max Huang
Director: Simon McQuoid
Screenwriters: Greg Russo, Dave Callaham
Producers: James Wan, Todd Garner, Simon McQuoid, E. Bennett Walsh
Executive Producers: Richard Brener, Dave Neustadter, Victoria Palmeri, Michael Clear, Jeremy Stein, Lawrence Kasanoff
Director of photography: Germain McMicking
Production designer: Naaman Marshall
Costume designer: Cappi Ireland
Editors: Dan Lebental, Scott Gray
Composer: Benjamin Wallfisch
Casting director: Rich Della
Rated R, 110 minutes