It was the gore as much as the gameplay that made the original “Mortal Kombat” such a success at the arcade, and while the 1995 New Line movie broke the curse on video game adaptations — following such bombs as “Street Fighter” and “Super Mario Bros.” earlier that decade — the film version did so by turning the koncept into a slick but kitschy action spectacular. While heavily indebted to Hong Kong cinema, the fluke hit (which made a whopping $122 million) hasn’t aged well, considering how much “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” transformed Hollywood fight scenes.
Now, “Mortal Kombat” gets the R-rated reboot its fans feel the property deserves, which entails being as graphic as the game was when it comes time for the pugilists to eliminate their opponents, whether that means ripping out their hearts or buzz-sawing them in twain with a razor-sharp hat. Such ruthless finishing moves may be the selling point here, but it’s the more nuts-and-bolts backstory that matters if the studio hopes to build a fresh film franchise around the property.
As such, “Mortal Kombat” functions mostly as prologue, circling back to reintroduce characters from across the 11-game franchise — including such icons as Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Goro (a four-armed CG monstrosity voiced by Angus Sampson) — while setting up a never-before-seen contestant in Cole Young (Lewis Tan). A Muay Thai-style MMA fighter who doesn’t understand the significance of his dragon-shaped birthmark, Cole and his young family are at risk of being iced by a dangerous Cryomancer named Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), whom we’ve already seen assassinate Cole’s relatives generations earlier in the movie’s opening scene — a bloody teaser the studio released early to excite (and possibly mislead) audiences, since what follows isn’t nearly as arty.
The more complicated a movie’s mythology, the more helpful it is to provide a naive character like Cole who can serve as an exposition-thirsty stand-in for audiences who don’t already know the score. Not that there’s really all that much to understand about “Mortal Kombat,” in which there are good characters — followers of “elder god” Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) of the glowing eyes and pointy hat — and bad ones in service of soul-sucking Outworld sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han), and where some kind of apocalyptic event may happen if the former can’t smack down the latter in a series of suitably gruesome death matches.
See, that wasn’t so difficult, was it? More challenging (for screenwriters Greg Russo and Dave Callaham, at least) is coming up with some kind of story to string together all the fight scenes. The scribes settle for a “round up the gang” situation where Raiden’s warriors assemble and train. Some of them have yet to discover their special skills — known as “arcana” — which should be fun for real-world game players who know more than their favorite on-screen avatars. Take Jax (Mehcad Brooks), an arm-y Special Forces commander who hasn’t yet gained the bionic upgrade for which he’s known, or mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson), who still has both eyes but hasn’t quite decided which side he’s fighting for.
Sub-Zero stalks Cole, who is helped by Jax, who tells the newbie to find Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), who enlists Kano to take them halfway around the world, where the characters then practice their power moves on each other. There’s a lot of dodging and deflecting during this time, since it wouldn’t be kosher for the good guys to kill one another in training. But soon enough, they’ll be able to teleport anywhere to take on Shang Tsung’s team, whose introductions are so brisk, only loyal gamers will know who’s who — and even then, it can be confusing.
Director Simon McQuoid (an Australian ad director making his feature debut) has a slight paradox on his hands here: On one fist, he wants to honor the fans by bringing this film back around to what they most love about the game, while on the other, there’s a certain pressure to update the costumes and appearances of characters who’ve evolved plenty in the three decades since the arcade version debuted. In 1992, “Mortal Kombat” featured some of the most “realistic” computer graphics around — with actors performing the signature martial arts moves — which made the violence all the more striking.
Still, the uncanny valley between the 16-bit game and this 2021 live-action movie gapes wider than the Grand Canyon. Designs that looked cool in that earlier incarnation had to be rethought for the movie, though the franchise’s irreverent sense of humor helps provide a certain self-aware distance. When filmmakers take a game and treat video game source material too seriously, they risk alienating the fans, as worst offenders Andrzej Bartkowiak and Uwe Boll have shown (although a certain directorial incompetence also accounts for their infamy).
Here, the goal is clearly to elevate what people love about “Mortal Kombat” in the first place — the cult characters, the gonzo death blows, the satisfaction of a “flawless” fatality — without watering it down too much with pomp. If the earlier movie now suffers from looking too ’90s, that probably doesn’t bother McQuoid, who embraces the retro-atmospheric style of ’80s action movies, staging confrontations in an abandoned warehouse or a waterfront trailer home. The characters go out of their way to reach a suitably scenic backdrop for a brawl, before ripping the place apart.
Of course, late-20th-century directors didn’t have anywhere near the visual effects technology at McQuoid’s disposal, which allows the new movie to more convincingly mimic the various fighters’ signature moves, some of which are so cartoonishly macabre as to be practically comedic — as when Sub-Zero smacks the blood out of an opponent’s body, freezes it in midair and then plunges it back into his flesh like a frozen dagger. True to the game, the violence is both ghoulishly creative and gratuitously extreme, as when Kano stabs a lit flare into Reptile (reinvented as an actual reptile) in order to track the invisible foe’s movements.
Granted, it’s a lot more fun when you’re actually controlling one of the characters, although “Mortal Kombat” has always been unique among games in that it could be just as fun to stand over the players’ shoulders and watch (plus, it cost a lot fewer quarters). That makes the property rather well suited to the big-screen experience, especially in a world where people tune in in droves to watch others duke it out on Twitch. And even if the gamers reject this latest incarnation — which they won’t, since they can stream it on the same screens they use to play it — there’s no killing this franchise.