A truly great video game adaptation is something akin to a unicorn in that it doesn’t exist no matter how many times we sing Bryan Ferry’s “Is Your Love Strong Enough?” into our pillow. There are fun ones (Monster Hunter, 2020), atmospheric ones (Silent Hill, 2006), and Uwe Boll ones (too many to list), but great ones? It’s apparently a nut too tough to crack. That said, the latest attempt to bring Mortal Kombat to the screen might just be the best of the bunch. It’s creatively violent, smartly stylish, and surprisingly funny at times, so yeah, you’ll want to get over there.
A family in feudal Japan is attacked by ninjas led by Bi-han (Joe Taslim), and while Hanzo (Hiroyuki Sanada) puts up a spirited fight he’s defeated and left to fade into the underworld. Many generations later we meet his descendant, a mediocre MMA fighter named Cole Young (Lewis Tan) whose only defining characteristic is a dragon-shaped birthmark on his chest — surprise! — it’s not a birthmark at all, it’s a signifier meaning he’s been chosen as one of Earth’s warriors to fight in an interdimensional tournament with the fate of humanity riding on his shoulders. Cole is taken to a remote training facility alongside other warriors including Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kano (Josh Lawson), Jax (Mehcad Brooks), and Kung Lao (Max Huang) where they practice under the supervision of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano). The Earthrealm has lost nine times, and one more means the end of all we hold dear!
I know it sounds like a lot to take in, but Mortal Kombat wisely moves quickly through the details knowing full well that the audience is there for anything but a detailed narrative. Writers Greg Russo and Dave Callaham streamline what could have been a convoluted backstory into bite-sized nuggets of story, and the character introductions are equally parsed for easy digestion. All of that would risk being a negative in most films, but here the details given are more than enough to keep viewers engaged between fights. The script also makes sure to include several dialogue nods to the games ensuring fans will be more than pleased.
Director Simon McQuoid makes his feature debut here and gives the entirety of his focus to the action, set-pieces, and style with pretty thrilling results. Those familiar with the long-running video game franchise know this isn’t strictly a martial arts tournament — these characters have special powers, fancy finishing moves ranging from Sub-Zero’s (Taslim) deathly chill to Kane’s laser eye — but we still get some solid fight sequences sending bodies flying through the air and slamming to the ground. It’s those extra beats where the fights shine, though, as flying killers, a giant, four-armed dude, and others make their mark on opponents and surroundings alike.
Mortal Kombat looks good throughout, whether we’re fighting in a frozen lair, a cavernous compound, or more earthly locales, and the character design is equally slick. All that beauty pairs well with some gory demises too as arms are ripped off, characters are gutted complete with organ spillage, another is sliced straight down the middle from head to toe, and one unlucky sap even gets their head smashed Riki Oh style. They’re big, bloody, cheer-worthy takedowns marred only slightly by the copious CG blood at times.
While the fights and bloody kills are the big draw here, the film has personality to spare as well. Sure, Cole is a bit of a wet blanket — he’s a nice guy with a family he loves and zzz — but others make up for it. Taslim shines as a merciless killing machine whether he’s beating someone down or freezing women and children in blocks of ice. Lawson’s Kano won’t be mistaken for a likable chap, but he brings the funny with one-liners, pop culture references (ranging from Harry Potter to Magic Mike), and a very punchable face.
This latest Mortal Kombat — the third since 1995 — is every bit as one-note as its predecessors, but it succeeds where they stumbled with style, charisma, and legitimately entertaining action sequences. Like the new Godzilla vs Kong (2021), it’s a movie that knows exactly what it needs and, perhaps more importantly, what it doesn’t. Come for the flashy characters, bloody brawls, and f/x-fueled fights, and you won’t leave disappointed. And who knows, if the response is as strong as it deserves the film smartly sets up both a sequel and a world in which defeated fighters can always return for another round.