As the gory and glossy but often boring reboot of “Mortal Kombat” plays out with fights and exposition, fights and exposition, exposition and more fights, rinse and repeat, one can almost hear the studio executives discussing how to make a movie to satisfy the hardcore fans as well as the newbies.
“Let’s make this one more violent and more serious than the 1990s ‘Mortal Kombat’ movies and include plenty of callbacks and Easter eggs and inside references for the gamers who love the franchise!”
“Sounds great, but – and hear me out now – let’s also introduce a brand-new character and make him an MMA fighter who knows nothing about the world of ‘Mortal Kombat,’ so when characters explain things to him, they’re explaining everything to the audience as well!”
Based on the monumentally successful video game franchise and essentially wiping clean the events of the 1995 “Mortal Kombat” movie and the 1997 sequel, this blood-spattered, hard-R fantasy adventure is a fresh start in what is clearly intended to be a new series of films. (The ending even spells out certain details about the next adventure.)
It’s a good-looking film with impressive special effects and some darkly funny kill scenes, but story lines and dialogue that might work in a participatory video game experience often come across as ridiculous and convoluted when we’re just sitting back and soaking it in. Nor does it help matters that the aforementioned new character, a former MMA champion named Cole Young (Lewis Tan), who has yet to realize he’s the latest in a very long line of noble warriors, is earnest and drab and not nearly as interesting as just about every supporting character around him.
After a beautifully filmed and quite effective table-setting prologue set in 17th-century Japan, we pick up the story in present day, where the evil warriors of Outworld have been doing battle with the good guys and gals from Earthrealm (aka Earth) in the Mortal Kombat tournaments for centuries. As the rules have it – and there are LOTS of rules to learn along the way – if you win 10 straight tournaments, you earn the right to invade and conquer the opposing realm. Outworld has won nine tournaments in a row, but even so, the evil, soul-stealing, hiss-worthy villain sorcerer/warlock Shang Tsung (Chin Han) has commanded his Outworld warriors to track down and assassinate all the best remaining Earthrealm fighters so their roster will be depleted even before there’s another tournament (and you thought college football sometimes has a corruption problem).
Meanwhile, former MMA champion Cole Young is making $200 per battle to get the daylights knocked out of him in low-rent gyms, much to the consternation of his loving wife, Allison (Laura Brent), and their daughter, Emily (Matilda Kimber), who is actually the corner “man” for Cole’s fights and THAT seems to be a bad twist on Take Your Daughter to Work Day. After an unsettling visit from the ice-manipulating warrior Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), who tries to take out Cole because of a certain birthmark Cole is sporting, it’s game on.
Cole (along with those unfamiliar with the video game) is introduced to former Special Officer Jackson “Jax” Briggs (Mehcad Brooks); Jax’s military partner Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), who runs her operation out of a ramshackle house in Gary, Indiana; and the wisecracking and cynical Kano (Josh Lawson), who makes pop-culture references (calling a shirtless fighter “Magic Mike”) and isn’t nearly as entertaining as he thinks he is. This bunch is transported to an ancient temple in order to receive training from Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), who can shoot fire from his hands, and Kung Lao (Max Huang), who uses his sharp metal hat as a deadly Frisbee flying disc weapon. (Take that, Cap!) I’d say this group is a decided underdog against the Outworld bunch, whose ranks include a winged beast, a four-armed colossus and a bloodthirsty maniac with the scariest rows of teeth this side of “Alien.” Not to mention Sub-Zero and his icy ways.
Director Simon McQuoid keeps the accelerator floored in the fight sequences, as characters are stabbed, gouged, choked, kicked, punched, mutilated, eviscerated, sliced in half, burned alive and on and on it goes. This is an unapologetically violent video-game-turned-movie, filled with gore and also brimming with flat dialogue, whether it’s big-picture speechifying or mostly lame attempts at snappy, action-movie banter. One might reasonably surmise longtime fans of “Mortal Kombat” would have a better time playing the latest version of the game than watching this origins story.