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Get over here! This year’s Mortal Kombat is a reboot of the Mortal Kombat film series that’s based on the popular fighting game franchise created by Ed Boon and John Tobias. Even if you’ve never played any of the games – of which there are many – chances are solid that you know it helped redefine the gaming game genre (famously competing with the other fighting franchise, Street Fighter) with its memorable characters and its ultra-violent, ultra-gory content.
Unlike the two previous Mortal Kombat films from the 90s, this year’s reboot focuses its story around a new character not in the game, Cole Young (Lewis Tan). Young is a has-been MMA fighter who becomes a target for assassination by the deadly warrior known as Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) because he bears a special mark of those chosen to defend the world in a tournament known as Mortal Kombat.
With guidance and protection from Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), Young must team up and train with Earthrealm’s warriors Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Kano (Josh Lawson), Jax (Mehcad Brooks) and Kung Lao (Max Huang) in order to stand a fighting chance against the superhumanly powerful warriors sent from Outworld. And yes you read that right – Johnny Cage is noticeably absent from our hero line up. I know, it’s blasphemy.
Mortal Kombat is an inconsistent cinematic experience with acting and fight sequences that range from being absolutely incredible to seriously meh. For example, the introduction sets the bar high with an impressively intense, brutal and dramatic setup set in 1617, Japan where Bi-Han (Sub-Zero before he becomes Sub-Zero) fights Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), AKA Scorpion (before he becomes Scorpion).
Hiroyuki Sanada and Joe Taslim absolutely nail this scene with both their performances and martial prowess. When the scene ended I remember turning to my wife in the cinema and telling her “this is f&^%king awesome!” And she agreed. Finally, we were getting the R-rated Mortal Kombat experience with serious fight choreography with actors who are actually martial artists with some serious acting. This was lacking in the 1995 original PG-13 rated film.
But then it changes. We are introduced to Cole Young played by Lewis Tan who really isn’t that interesting. Tan gives an alright performance (and he can definitely fight) but it’s nothing special. It pales in comparison to what we just saw with Hiroyuki Sanada. And to be fair it’s not his fault. He’s not playing any of the characters we came to see. We came to see Liu Kang or Johnny Cage or, well, basically anybody from the game fight Goro (voiced by Angus Sampson), not this guy. Being surrounded by the interesting characters from the game just highlighted how uninteresting this new character was. And unnecessary.
Then we get to comic relief Kano. Now don’t get me wrong, Kano is hilarious. As an Australian I very much appreciated the performance from Josh Lawson. But he gets way too much screen time. So much screen time that for a while there it starts to feel like a comedy. Wait, is this a comedy now? Is this the Kano and Sonya show? I don’t mind a laugh here and there, but by the time you’re in the middle of the film and Kano has once again run his mouth and made you laugh, you realize the serious tone from the amazing intro is gone.
And speaking of Sonya, her casting is one that really surprised me, especially given how martially talented nearly all the actors were. It was embarrassing in 1995’s Mortal Kombat when they cast Bridgett Wilson as the special forces soldier Sonya Blade and they’ve done it again by casting Jessica McNamee. While McNamee is a great improvement compared to Wilson, she is unconvincing as a special forces soldier and looks out of place when surrounded by co-stars who have the physique and skill you would expect of a physical combatant.
Simon McQuoid makes his feature film directorial debut with Mortal Kombat and while the story is a bit of a mess and the tone isn’t consistent, he’s delivered a cool martial arts movie I think is a worthy remake. I’ve already talked about what I thought were some of the shortcomings so let’s look at what McQuoid did right.
Firstly, the fight scenes are brutal and well choreographed (ignoring Jax’s last fight scene). This film definitely earns its R rating which is what fans of the game have always wanted (I read he had to recut it to get it DOWN to the R rating). The game is ultra-violent with “creative” ways to die and the movie should be true to the game. Many of the in-game fighting moves are done in the film. It’s fantastic to see.
Secondly he gave us lots of Sub-Zero (well, technically the writer did). But I don’t just mean lots of Sub-Zero screen time. I mean he gave us a lot of what Sub-Zero can do. If you ever watch the original Mortal Kombat, Sub-Zero is crap. He’s there, but he doesn’t do much and he never really showcases much of his icy powers. In McQuoid’s Mortal Kombat, we get to see Sub-Zero unleashed and it makes for an awesome visual spectacle. This is the Sub-Zero we wanted and McQuoid delivered the goods.
Finally, McQuoid made sure the best fight sequences were saved for Sub-Zero and Scorpion, and it delivered. And we get two battles between them. Other than Liu Kang (who unfortunately is a bit short-changed in this film), the two characters I came to see were these two mortal enemies and their fight sequences are epic. It did not disappoint.
Mortal Kombat isn’t without its shortcomings but I really enjoyed it. With well choreographed fight scenes amplified with great special effects that are mostly true to the game, I can forgive the clunky plot that isn’t true to the game (though I still think they should have rewritten it to have Johnny Cage and not focus on a character who isn’t in the game). Though you can watch Mortal Kombat on HBO Max, I highly recommend enjoying this on the big screen to truly appreciate the action, special effects and bone crunching sound.