Mortal Kombat is a movie about two teams of martial artists dueling it out in a transdimensional tournament of sorts to determine whether Outworld will rule Earthrealm. It’s based on the famously violent arcade game from the 1990s, which spawned a decades-spanning multimedia franchise of which this is the most recent, but by no means final, entry. Some of the games are very good. Some of them are very bad. The original 1995 movie was considered bad for a long time but seems to have aged into its place as dated kitsch, as such things often do.
It’s hard to say whether this new Mortal Kombat will age in the same way. Unlike the original, it clearly feels beholden to existing fans of the franchise and spends very little time catering to viewers who might not have much knowledge of either the convoluted lore or which characters hold longstanding beefs. For anyone without all that stuff taking up bits of our brains, there’s quite a lot of gore to make up for the exposition. Which is just as well.
Cole Young (Lewis Tan, playing an original character for this movie) is dragged into an eternal battle between Shang Tsung (Chin Han) and Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano). Tsung is a god in Outworld whereas Raiden is a god in Earthrealm. There are other realms, but Tsung states that their gods are too busy to be bothered to interfere in this particular conflict, which makes for some easy sequel story when they wake up and feel like joining in.
Anyway, Tsung’s key warrior is Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), who does Ice Stuff. Taslim is basically wasted on this role, his handsome and confident face covered by a mask and his fluid, brutal movements cut to death in the editing room. Sub-Zero hates Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), whose bloodline is prophecized to end Tsung’s conquest. The opening is set in the past and depicts Hasashi being sent to hell by Sub-Zero and his child escaping with Raiden. Cole is the latest in that Hasashi bloodline. He finds out he has special powers. He joins other fighters with special powers. They fight the bad guys who have grosser special powers. Et cetera, et cetera.
Director Simon McQuoid actually does a decent job keeping the movie moving along at a decent clip, portioning out the hyper-violent finishing moves (and game-reverent one-liners) to keep attention on the action rather than the mind-numbing story that never goes anywhere surprising. There was a time when video-game movies were known for being poor adaptations because of the way studios made weird choices in search of a wider audience — in the process diluting what fans of the games wanted to see in translations of their favorite characters and stories. Those movies tended to please nobody at the time and, as a result, ended up as box-office failures. Some — like the aforementioned Mortal Kombat — have become cult classics in hindsight; see our Game On series for a wide-ranging collection of essays on video-game films our writers have enjoyed … or otherwise. But it seems we’ve arrived at a place where the corporations who own the IP understand that the core audience is the target audience.
Frankly, that is probably for the best. Mortal Kombat succeeds at times because it’s so shamelessly devoted to being exactly what fans of the franchise must want — a violent, brain-dead fight movie stuffed ridiculous lore and all of their favorite characters butting heads. There is not much to this. There probably doesn’t need to be.