There’s a new Mortal Kombat film in town, promising to bring all the gory violence the games are known for. Is it a load of nonsense? Liam Maguren says ‘yes’. Is it entertaining? Liam Maguren also says ‘yes’.
Who referees this tournament? Where do these powers come from? Why is ‘kombat’ spelt with a ‘k’? These questions and more are not answered in Mortal Kombat, the latest movie adaptation of a fighting game series better known for meaty deaths than engrossing narratives.
Instead of embarrassing themselves by attempting to put logic into this world of multi-realms and ninja wizards, feature debutant director Simon McQuoid and his team of writers wisely go with a ‘no time to explain’ approach. This leaves an almighty number of plot holes in their wake to which they hope you either: A, don’t care, or B, are a big enough Mortal Kombat nerd to fill in the gaps (fortunately, I was both).
This allows the fleet-footed pace to consistently cut-to-the-kombat, which is key. Much like Adam Wingard, who knew people came to Godzilla vs Kong to see an ape punch a lizard, McQuoid is fully aware that audiences are here for the bloody punching. This leads to the most important critical analysis of Mortal Kombat—does it punch good?
The answer is a soft ‘yes’. While you’re not getting the God-tier action of The Raid or John Wick—the shots are often too tight and the editing too flustered to truly dazzle—the fights are comprehensible enough to make the big hits/stabs/disembowelments stand out. And what it lacks in quality it makes up for in quantity—there’s a HEAP of kombating for a film just shy of two hours.
Equally as important (and something gravely lacking in Paul WS Anderson’s 1995 version) are the cartoonishly violent fatalities, which McQuoid displays to an admirable degree. They’re mainly live-action redos of what we’ve already seen in various games, but they hold a unique kind of weight in a movie knowing the people who get minced stay minced.
The production also deserves kudos. For a film that’s essentially a prog-rock fantasy version of Bruce Lee’s Game of Death (the original game was heavily inspired by martial arts cinema), a large number of the sets are either practical constructions or shot on location, adding more heft to the world(s) than expected.
The casting’s also hard to fault, doing right by the game’s Eastern influences by casting Asian hunks in most of the pivotal roles. That includes Wu Assassins‘ Lewis Tan anchoring the film as central hero Cole, Twilight Samurai‘s Hiroyuki Sanada and The Raid‘s Joe Taslim as star-crossed enemies Scorpion and Sub-Zero, Ludi Lin from 2017’s Power Rangers as an utterly ripped Liu Kang, and stunt performer Max Huang as Oddjob-esque warrior Kung Lao.
The great Chin Han also does a good job as Shang Tsung, though he’s not as memorable as Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s dagger-dimpled performance in Anderson’s version. On the flipside, Tadanobu Asano’s take on Lord Raiden is a lot more appropriate than whatever the hell Christopher Lambert was doing.
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You also couldn’t find a better Jax and Sonya than Mehcad Brooks and Jessica McNamee. However, and I take no pleasure in writing this, the film’s nearly stolen by its most prominent white guy. Playing the backstabbing piece-of-shit Kano, Aussie star Josh Lawson leans hard into his native accent as the comic relief this ridiculous film needs. Not only does he find numerous funny ways of saying ‘fuck’, he gleefully takes the piss out of all the stupid things in the movie—acting as both the guy you love to hate and the audience avatar.
It’s amazing how a little self-awareness can make a whole load of silliness more forgivable, something that will prove to be Mortal Kombat‘s most underappreciated asset. A lot of that silliness comes with the obligatory fan service that ranges from the subtle (you leg-sweep spammers, this film sees you) to the painful (a character saying “flawless victory” to himself… Jesus Christ), resulting in a film that perhaps cannot avoid being a load of violent nonsense. Fortunately, it’s an entertaining load of violent nonsense.