I’m not sure there’s a video game that holds a firmer grip on my memories and childhood affections than Mortal Kombat. I recall my first exposure to it in the early 90’s as an arcade cabinet in the Food Lion in Thomson GA. While my uncle was off buying groceries, I was staring at the rolling demo that the game would offer, with bios of each of its fighters and little clips of the motion capture performers. What kid doesn’t love ninjas, especially when they’re palette-swapped in a variety of colors? From then on, I was obsessed. My parents got me the Genesis console version to play, which I thoroughly excavated…from the blood code to fighting Reptile (the green ninja of that many-hued crew) in the spike pit. I even read and loved the tie-in novel, which I found in some bookstore while that same uncle was scrounging around in back-issue boxes.
It goes on and on. I had an issue of the Malibu comic, my dad took me to see the movie (which promptly lead to my father hilariously making fun of Christopher Lambert’s acting), and despite having a number of home versions of the sequels, it was always THE game I’d make a b-line for at the arcade. “Whoa! A purple ninja named ‘Rain’!” et al….
Eventually, my love affair with it ended. You discover girls, you discover music, whatever, it’s just a thing you put aside. But every once in a while, I’d get the urge to fire it back up and see if my patented “spear-uppercut” combo would still win the day. Heck, about ten years ago, I made a run through the reboot of the game on PS4. You can take the boy out of the forest of souls…
With the release of this new cinematic iteration of this now nearly 30 year old franchise, there’s absolutely going to be a clamor out there of “it’s for the fans, not the critics”. Well, baby, let me tell you something. I’m a massive fan of Mortal Kombat, as old school as it gets, and this movie sucks all the same.
Where does it go wrong? Well – how much time do you have? Let me pivot actually, to the one (ONE) thing I think it does right. If you’ve seen the recently released 7 minute clip of the intro, you’ll know that this new spin on the franchise centers itself on the feud between Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim). Scorpion, here mostly referred to by his actual name Hanzo Hasashi, is a family man in 1600’s Japan living what seems to be a tranquil life. That is, until the wretched Bi-Han arrives to slaughter his wife and children and then murder Hasashi himself, all in an effort to wipe out the last remains of Hasashi’s Shirai Ryu clan. Hardcore fans like me know where this is going, but the one wrinkle is that Hasashi’s wife hides away their youngest infant child whom the lightning god Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) squirrels away with after the battle has ended.
So, whereas the previous film basically turned its two most famous characters into non-speaking grunts, here they’re front and center. And it’s a great idea, as the intrigue between Scorpion and Lin Kuei is easily the most compelling part of the Mortal Kombat mythos, it’s Snake Eyes and Stormshadow for the fighting game set.
Flash-forward to present day and we’re hanging out with Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a down on his luck MMA cage fighter, who also happens to be a family man, and also wears yellow and black, and has a birthmark of the famous Mortal Kombat symbol. He’s contacted by Jax (Mehcad Brooks), a Special Forces op who has the same mark, and after Jax rescues Cole and his family from an attack by Sub-Zero, thus begins Cole’s odyssey through the world and characters of Mortal Kombat. Sonya, Kano, Liu Kang, Shang Tsung, yadda yadda yadda…
Mortal Kombat’s biggest failings surely begin at the directorial level, with first time filmmaker Simon McQuoid clearly in over his head throughout. The storytelling choices themselves are fairly questionable, such as the decision to blow through the introductory “what is Mortal Kombat?” stuff (rightly) only to dirge the audience through an entire second act dedicated to explaining how and why these fighters have special abilities like conjuring fireballs and shooting lasers out of their eyes. It’s a weird focusing decision that feels more like something made to appease the superhero crowd. The few hand-to-hand fights that happen just highlight the fact that McQuoid doesn’t know how to shoot action at all, mostly obscuring much of the full body contact through bewildering editing choices. There’s plenty of gore, so they got that right, but it’s so fake looking as to basically make no impact at all.
It’s a cheap looking film too, with only a few real exterior shots, and everything else done in relatively poorly envisioned interior environs (Sonya’s house, Cole’s house, what looks like a high school gym that also serves to host the film’s finale – never a good sign of a well-oiled production) or weightless CGI nothing such as any sojourn into Outworld.
Though truly, all technical and budgetary squabbles aside, it’s just a badly written and frankly, badly acted, film. I realize Tan is a fan favorite, and he’s startlingly good looking, but he’s an absolute charisma vacuum as the film’s lead. Notwithstanding the strange dichotomy of attempting to be more adherent to the game universe while creating a brand-new character from whole cloth, he’s simply just not an effective leading man on any level. Unfortunately few others fair any better, Ludi Lin’s performance as Liu Kang is so overcooked its hard to watch, Max Huang (playing Kung Lao) basically feels like he’s there to spout Mortal Kombat catch phrases, Jessica McNamee’s Sonya seems to be fighting her accent more than going to blows with anyone on screen, and poor Chin Han as Shang Tsung looks like he wandered off a summer stock production.
Much of this is centered on a badly conceptualized screenplay, attempting to eschew the Enter the Dragon rip-off material of the first game/film and instead embracing the same interdimensional ballyhoo that sunk Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, which is fine if the film had any real scope or scale whatsoever. It does not. But it’s also incumbent on the filmmaker to help guide the performances of their cast, and McQuoid inexperience here has led his stars astray. Almost every line reading is terrible, except the rare times we spend with Taslim or Sanada, the latter being an especially powerful actor that can spruce up even the most wretched material. Imagine what Gareth Evans could do with this stuff.
Mortal Kombat is not the first in a long line of awful video game films, and it surely won’t be the last. Just today I saw an interview where Taslim indicated he was signed up for four sequels to this film, provided it does well. I can’t think of anything sadder.