Well this is a remake/reboot I never saw coming. I remember when “Mortal Kombat” took the early 1990s arcade scene by storm. From the very start the video game from developer Midway courted controversy for its graphic violence (aka Fatalities) which paved the way for the ESRB video game rating system. But “Mortal Kombat” also became a cultural phenomenon that spawned numerous sequels and since 1992 it has appeared on nearly forty different gaming platforms.
In 1995 during the height of the its popularity, “Mortal Kombat” did the unthinkable and came to the big screen. I vividly remember sitting in a jam packed theater on opening night. To this day it was one of the most excited and energetic crowds I’ve ever sat and watched a movie with. In all honesty, aside from a great score and some terrific fight choreography, it wasn’t a great film. But it remains a lot of fun. Sadly it was followed by a cringy and utterly abysmal 1997 sequel that seemed to kill the movie franchise in its tracks.
Yet here we are in 2021 getting a brand new film offering a completely different take on the franchise. Simon McQuoid makes his feature directorial debut in this entertaining and hyper-violent adaptation that tosses aside any and all PG-13 constraints. McQuoid along with screenwriters Greg Russo and Dave Callaham go all-in for the R-rating, giving fans of the video game series all the blood-drenched kombat and grisly fatalities they could ask for. The story is every bit as silly as it sounds, but it also makes for a good time if you know what to expect.
The movie opens with a terrific introduction to two of the franchise’s most iconic characters. In 17th century Japan Hanzo Hasashi (played by the always terrific Hiroyuki Sanada) has set aside his old life and now happily lives in a quite village with his wife, young son, and newborn daughter. But his new life is interrupted by a team of assassins led by the cold-hearted (see what I did there) Bi-Han (Joe Taslim). The brilliantly conceived intro plants some narrative seeds and gives the audience a taste of what McQuoid and company have in mind.
Now jump ahead to current day where a lot of goofy exposition lays out the setting and backstory. In a nutshell the dark and ominous Outworld and our Earthrealm have been battling it out in an ancient to-the-death tournament called Mortal Kombat. The built-in rules state that the first realm to win ten tournaments will be granted the right to invade and overtake the other realm (don’t ask, just go with it). But when Outworld’s leader, the sinister sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han), gets wind of a prophecy that could thwart his victory, he decides to bend the rules. He sends his top warriors to kill Earthrealm’s upcoming batch of new champions each bearing the same dragon mark on their skin.
Despite the franchise’s wealth of great characters, the movie makes the interesting choice of introducing a new face as its lead. Lewis Tan plays Cole Young, a down-on-his-luck former MMA champion marked with the dragon symbol. Cole is thrust into the world of Mortal Kombat after Bi-Han (now known as Sub-Zero) attempts to kill him and his wife and daughter. Through no fault of Tan’s, Cole doesn’t make for the most compelling protagonist and he’s consistently overshadowed by the big names who fans are really itching to see.
While Cole is considered ‘the lead’, the supporting cast of established franchise veterans get plenty of screen time and are the gas that keeps the engine running. Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and her special forces partner Jax (Mehcad Brooks) have been studying the dragon symbol and searching for those marked by it. Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) is responsible for gathering earth’s new batch of champions. The unsavory Kano (Josh Lawson) is a dragon-marked mercenary who can be both laugh-out-loud funny and aggressively obnoxious. Kano is essentially an attempt at comic relief, pumping out some genuinely funny one-liners while exhaustingly cramming as many f-bombs into each sentence as he can.
To this biased Sub-Zero player, not only is he the film’s coolest character (sorry, couldn’t resist) but he gets many of the best scenes including a showdown with a certain fiery nemesis. Other recognizable names get their moments to shine including Liu Kang, Mileena, King Lao, and a few other surprises. They all weave in and out of a story that mostly takes a back seat to the high-energy fight scenes.
The rest of the movie never quite matches its exhilarating opening 15 minutes and it’s surprising to see how little the actual Mortal Kombat tournament plays into the story. At the same time “Mortal Kombat” is very much a movie made for the fans. It takes a lot for granted and expects the audience to either already know the backstory or have a certain willingness to just go with it. That allows it more time to show off what it does best – offer thrilling, deliciously brutal, nostalgia-soaked kombat. And while it’s a far cry from a ‘flawless victory’, it’s an undeniable good time specifically for those who know the franchise well. “Mortal Kombat” today (April 23rd) in theaters and on HBO Max.