When the original Mortal Kombat film shot into theaters like a Liu Kang fireball in 1995, it quickly became a guilty pleasure for many. While it was fun, featured plenty of action, and had quite possibly the coolest soundtrack of all time, it was not a very good adaptation of the video game it was based on. Now, though, Mortal Kombat is back on the big screen for a second shot at igniting a live-action movie franchise.
The new Mortal Kombat is quite different from the original. While you'll see some familiar characters, albeit played by new actors, and a plethora of signature movies and iconic "fatalities"--along with some familiar music cues--this new take on the video game series manages to not only be a good and faithful adaptation of the classic game, but also an entertaining and engaging action romp filled with bloody fights, plenty of iconic Mortal Kombat gore, and a promise of what's to come should the franchise continue.
The film centers around Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a character created specifically for the movie. Cole is a washed-up MMA fighter whose best fights are seemingly behind him. That is until he's called on to participate in Mortal Kombat, an interdimensional tournament in which you fight to the death to protect the existence of your homeworld. Fans of the games will no doubt recognize this as the plot of the games that have played out over the last 30 years.
Dealing with three decades of established lore is a tough task, but it's one Mortal Kombat handles mostly well. While it does dispense a lot of information, beginning with the first scene of the movie that sets up an eternal feud between Scorpion and Sub-Zero, it deftly balances its exposition with over-the-top fights and action. In doing so, the film teaches us quite a bit about the backstory that's unfolding--though not everything--without becoming bored from characters endlessly explaining what's going on. Still, for those who are new to the Mortal Kombat franchise, there's a lot of information thrown at you, and chances are you won't retain it all. Luckily, missing some of the exposition isn't going to impede your enjoyment of this movie.
Mortal Kombat is ridiculously bloody and violent. Unlike past big-screen adaptations of the game, this movie is rated R and pushes that rating to the limit. There is no end to the blood, gore, dismemberment, and foul language on display--seriously, every other word out of Kano's mouth is an F-bomb. It's important to note, though, that the violence never becomes so graphic that it's unsettling. This isn't the kind of gore and brutality you'd see in a Saw film. Instead, it's stylized violence that will likely have you cheering at the screen when your favorite character pulls off a fatality.
Plus, the fight scenes are anchored by other high quality attributes in addition to all that blood and guts. One of the best things this movie has going for it is casting an abundance of talented martial artists in primary roles, leading to some of the most exciting on-screen fights you are going to find in a movie. The choreography of the battles is off the charts, from the impressive hand-to-hand combat to the execution of each character's arcana, which are the "special moves" from the games, including fireballs, lasers blasting from eyes, and any other incredibly unrealistic but wholly entertaining maneuver the Kombatants pull off.
It's refreshing to see an adaptation of a fighting video game pay such close attention to the art of the fighting it has on display. The age of movies like Street Fighter and the original Mortal Kombat films, which often featured clunky choreography mixed with fighters trading bad puns, is thankfully over.
To that end, though, some of the direction leaves a bit to be desired. Between the massive action set pieces and the elaborate set design of this film, more time should have been dedicated to seeing just how big this movie was in scale. While the camera isn't afraid to get up close to the action, a more seasoned action movie director--this is director Simon McQoid's first feature film--might have been able to better balance the fast-paced action with the enormity of the sets and fights. While this doesn't ultimately harm the film in a major way, it's something that will hopefully be addressed in any future installments.
As for the characters that populate that world, this movie is loaded with just about every iconic fighter from the franchise you can think of (except Johnny Cage). If you've watched the trailers for the film, you have already seen most of the primary characters in action, from the aforementioned Kano (Josh Lawson) to Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Jax (Mehcad Brooks), Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang), and a number of other iconic fan-favorites. However, there are also a handful of deeper-cut characters you'll meet through the course of the film, as the world of Mortal Kombat gradually expands.
The only flaw with introducing so many characters--on both sides of the fight--is that a couple of them simply don't get their time to shine because there's only so much movie. One character, in particular, is so quickly dispatched of that it felt reminiscent of the character Slipknot in 2016's Suicide Squad. Don't remember Slipknot? That's because he was killed off practically the moment he appeared on-screen. Still, the majority of the characters more than hold their own in the film, both in terms of fighting and keeping the story moving along. And the movie manages to avoid being too silly with Kano acting as the sole source of comedy--and a very funny one at that.
And, of course, fans of the game will be pleased to see nearly every character from the games putting their signature moves and fighting styles to work--including a number of iconic and sometimes gross fatalities brought to life. If you thought Sub-Zero freezing and shattering Jax's arms in the trailer was rough, just wait.
Movies based on video games are a difficult genre to crack. Starting the fad off with 1993's live-action Super Mario Bros. didn't inspire confidence and the genre is filled with so many duds that it would be understandable to write them off as a whole.
In recent years, though, there have been some promising attempts. Tomb Raider (2018) was an entertaining enough adventure, while 2019's Detective Pikachu and 2020's Sonic the Hedgehog were high-quality all-ages films that also managed to be huge successes at the box office.
This new take on Mortal Kombat is one of the most successful video game adaptations yet--by a long shot. While not perfect, it wonderfully captures the essence of the Mortal Kombat video game franchise. These are vicious fights with huge world-ending stakes, but at no point do you stop having fun watching them unfold, thanks to the colorful characters, the impressive bouts, the borderline ridiculous special moves, an abundance of nods to the various catchphrases in the games, and the world-building that is clearly setting us all up to demand a sequel. This is as close to a flawless victory as we're going to get for a Mortal Kombat movie.