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Mortal Kombat review: A victory, but far from flawless

Movies based on video games have always been a mixed bag. The only Hollywood films to attain any level of persistent, franchise-spawning support up to this point have been the Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, and Tomb Raider movies, which have occasionally managed to be financially — if not critically — successful enough to merit future installments.

More than two decades removed from the last Mortal Kombat film (1997’s Mortal Kombat: Annihilation), this weekend’s Mortal Kombat reboot returns to the well that made the original 1995 film one of the most profitable video game movies of all time. It’s aiming to recapture the bloody, violent lightning in a bottle that made the fighting franchise a cultural touchstone. Although the film stumbles a bit while trying to make sense of the game’s convoluted mythology and spread the spotlight among a large cast of characters, Mortal Kombat manages to deliver a surprisingly compelling, self-aware adventure that embraces many of the elements that have kept the game franchise popular for nearly three decades now.

A bloody legacy

Directed by Simon McQuoid in his feature-length film debut, Mortal Kombat rises from the ashes of a pair of films released in the second half of the 1990s that initially overperformed, then underperformed expectations in spectacular fashion. While 1995’s Mortal Kombat was a surprise hit, its sequel was a massive flop, leading to more than a decade of potential sequels and reboots languishing in development limbo.

Despite no shortage of new editions of the Mortal Kombat game franchise released over that period, all was quiet on the adaptation front until a well-received 2010 short film and subsequent web series (Mortal Kombat: Rebirth and Mortal Kombat: Legacy, respectively) reignited interest in bringing the franchise back to the big screen. With high-profile director and producer James Wan on board the project and McQuoid attached as director, filming on Mortal Kombat finally began in 2019.

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The new film follows washed-up mixed martial arts fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan) as he finds himself caught up in a conflict between our own Earthrealm and an apocalyptic region known as Outworld, where the sinister sorcerer Shang Tsung reigns supreme. Cole is revealed to be one of several champions of Earthrealm tasked with preventing Outworld from winning the final tournament that would allow Shang Tsung to invade our realm.

Along with a group of powerful fellow champions — many of whom wield superhuman abilities — Cole and the champions of Earthrealm must fend off Shang Tsung’s attempts to eliminate them before the tournament has even begun, and learn to harness their new powers to protect our world.

Leveling up

It doesn’t take long for Mortal Kombat to set itself apart from past iterations of the film franchise. The opening scene of the film — the first seven minutes of which were released by Warner Bros. Pictures ahead of the film’s premiere (see below) — offers a series of wonderfully executed fight sequences that firmly establish the tone and pace of what’s to come with a confrontation between two of the franchise’s most iconic characters in their early years.

Mortal Kombat - Official Opening Scene (2021) Hiroyuki Sanada

The first Mortal Kombat movie featured some decent fight choreography that was often overshadowed by the film’s desire to replicate the look and feel of the game that inspired it, putting atmospheric style over action substance in many cases. This Mortal Kombat reboot strikes a better balance there, and manages to replicate the visual cues and aesthetic of the game’s mythology while also offering the best fight choreography we’ve seen in a Mortal Kombat movie so far.

Not only does each battle feel unique in Mortal Kombat, but (with a few exceptions), they also feel exciting and authentic to each participant’s particular skill set and abilities. The fights are as hard-hitting as they are complex, and it’s a nice touch that showcases the differences between the characters in the franchise while staying true to the martial arts movies that inspired the original game. The Mortal Kombat stunt team clearly went the extra mile with the film’s fight scenes, and it was a worthwhile investment.

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Acting meets action

While the fight sequences in Mortal Kombat are a win across (most of) the board, the performances of the cast are a bit shakier.

As a whole, the acting in the reboot fares a lot better than either of the original films in the franchise — although Robin Shou and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s portrayals of Liu Kang and Shang Tsung, respectively, in the 1995 film remain as memorable and iconic as the film franchise gets. After those performances, the first two films don’t have a lot to offer as far as memorably good acting, and the reboot succeeds in raising the overall bar with a lot of good-but-not-great performances from its cast.

Tan holds his own as both leading man and action hero in the film, comfortably handling both the fight scenes and the more dramatic elements of the story. It’s not a standout performance per se, but it’s a nice reminder of the potential he previously showed in a memorable, one-off role in Netflix’s Iron Fist series and later in a recurring role on the streamer’s Wu Assassins series.

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Playing two of the Mortal Kombat franchise’s most iconic characters, Joe Taslim and Hiroyuki Sanada steal every scene they’re in as Sub-Zero (aka Bi-Han) and Scorpion (aka Hanzo Hasashi), respectively. Both accomplished actors have plenty of charisma and experience finding the emotional core of their scenes, even when they’re battling in effects-heavy sequences that lesser actors’ performances could get lost in. Their presence prevents Mortal Kombat from slipping into silly punch-fest territory.

As the mouthy mercenary Kano, Josh Lawson also buys into his role in some rewarding ways, providing snarky commentary on the fantastic events happening around him while generally being the character you love to hate throughout the film.

The aforementioned characters are just a few of what turns out to be a surprisingly robust range of figures from the franchise who feature — or at the very least, are alluded to — in the film, and McQuoid does a good job of fitting them all in without making it feel overcrowded. In most cases, the rest of the Mortal Kombat cast does a fine job of leaning into their roles without slipping into campy moments, although the film’s habit to insert catchphrases from the games tests their ability to walk that line at times.

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Ripe for a rematch

Like the first installment of the original franchise, Mortal Kombat is intended to set up a future franchise, and it does so with a story that wraps up in a satisfying way but stops short of resolving the much-larger narrative arc. It’s not quite a cliffhanger, but it’s far from a self-contained story.

For those who grew up with the franchise — both games and films — Mortal Kombat will likely be a welcome addition to its multimedia universe. It’s an improvement on past iterations that manages to stay true to the property’s origins while taking it in some new directions and showcasing its tremendous potential. The mythology of Mortal Kombat can get confusing and contradictory, but the film does an admirable job of sorting it all out, using what can work in the world it’s operating in and discarding what will pull the story too far in one direction or another.

What Mortal Kombat doesn’t do, however, is elevate the film much beyond the expectations one has for it. It doesn’t do anything terribly innovative or groundbreaking, but it does offer an exciting new spin on a familiar franchise and its popular characters that makes them feel fresh and interesting again. It gives fans what they want, and doesn’t aspire to do more than that.

It’s not a flawless victory, but it’s a win for the franchise — and there’s a lot of value in that, too.

Warner Bros. Pictures’ Mortal Kombat premieres April 23 in theaters and on streaming service HBO Max.

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Rick Marshall
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