WARNING: SPOILERS FOR MORTAL KOMBAT
“Fatality.” “Finish him.” “Get over here.” “Flawless victory.” These phrases are burned into the brains of anyone and everyone who has played any of the (many) Mortal Kombat video games over the years. In 1995, New Line Cinema adapted the seminal fighting game into a film. It was… okay. The plot and dialogue are atrocious, the special effects have aged horrifically, and the production design makes everything look like a cheesy Power Rangers television show, but it still (shockingly) has its charms. Which is something you certainly cannot say about its sequel, 1997’s Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.
Now, nearly 25 years later, Warner Bros has given us an updated adaptation of this classic game. So, how was it? Well, it wasn't terrible, Which, let's be honest, is pretty high praise when talking about a film adaptation of a video game.
For some reason, adapting video games has proven to be more difficult than most. But when adapting a game franchise with a plot over its 12+ games that boils down to “crazy characters fight in an inter-dimensional tournament”, then you sort of know the plot isn’t that important. So I’m very confused by people complaining about the plot to this film. The games don’t have any plot, so what would make you think the movie would have a plot? We know the story is simply an excuse to get our characters fighting. The elements surrounding said story are what we go into the film to see: the fights, the gore, the characters, and the mythology/world. The same happened in the original films, the only difference here is that in 1995, Shang Tsung (the villainous sorcerer of Outworld) waited for the tournament, whereas in this modern version he cheats and attacks before the official start. But Cole and Raiden (our heroes) force him into a makeshift tournament at the end, so it’s still there in spirit.
This also film doesn’t go too deep into the mythology explored in the games, but its still more than we got in 1995. The emotional backstory of Scorpion and Sub-Zero is told very accurately, and (let’s be honest) that’s the backstory everyone remembers the most. The original film didn’t even feature this storyline, so this is the first time this tale has been seen on the big screen. The games have built up quite a mythology over its many games, but a studio will never go full force into that sort of stuff in their first film; it’s far too risky. So they test the waters and streamline things by only focusing on the mythology necessary to the current story. It worked. But now that this first film has been successful enough to warrant a sequel, you better believe we’re going to get far deeper into the lore.
So with all that said, the main plot of this new film boils down to “MMA fighter Cole Young is brought into the world of Mortal Kombat; told of the upcoming tournament and its ramifications, and forced to train (and obviously) fight.” So no, the plot is not breaking any kind of new ground here. But so what? Be honest with yourself, did you actually go into this film expecting a good plot, or did you go into it for the fights?
If your answer to that last question was "FIGHTS", then you're in the right place!
This film doubles down on its action, giving us multiple fight scenes; each bringing new characters and moves into the fold. The fight choreography is great, too. Some may complain that it’s not “martial arts” enough, but many of the characters seen here are brawlers not kung-fu masters, and the filmmakers took note of that. Characters literally use the exact same move set from their video game counterparts. And I’m not just talking about their signature moves like Reptile’s acid, Kano’s laser eye, or Liu Kang’s bicycle kick. The original film did that. But the filmmakers of this new film went the extra mile. They made sure that each character used the exact same moves and fighting style - meaning Kano throws a high punch the same way he does in the video games. Liu Kang’s leg sweep is also identical to how he moves in the games. This continues throughout each character. It’s incredible how carefully the fight choreography mirrors the actual gameplay.
Those different fighting styles help make each fight unique. Reptile (one of my all-time favorites MK characters) has little screen time, but he’s used very effectively. He looks AMAZING; exactly how I wanted Reptile to look. He also uses his most famous moves like his invisibility, acid spit, and the long tongue. This helps make his fight memorable even though it isn’t long. The same rules apply to the Jax vs. Sub-Zero fight, the Liu Kang vs. Kabal fight, and all the rest of the action. I really appreciated that. I can clearly remember moments from each fight scene which is pretty impressive.
The locations of the fights are also all based on levels seen in the games. This goes a long way to capture the feeling of fighting in Outworld, or in Raiden’s temple. The other HUGE win in this film is the fatalities. These were sorely lacking in the original films with the PG-13 rating severely limiting the effect of the action. The fatalities we did see were the few bloodless ones. The web series Mortal Kombat: Legacy helped bring back the blood and gore and gave us a much closer adaptation. But now we can finally see some of these finishing moves in all their gory glory. Sub-Zero freezes and rips off Jax’s arms, Liu Kang summons a dragon made of fire to incinerate Kabal, Goro is disembowled, and (the coup de grace) Kung Lao slices Nitara in half with his bladed hat!! Never in my life did I think I would get to see that last one on screen and I was positively giddy.
Acting is hit or miss here. Sonya was bad, but Jax was memorable. Sure, the new Liu Kang (played by Ludi Lin) isn’t Robin Shou. But let’s be honest, NO ONE is Robin Shou, except for Robin Shou. I’m not going to hold that against him. He did a great job with what he was given. But truthfully, Kano stole the show. Josh Lawson was fantastic, bringing a twisted sense of humor to a role that has, up until now, been pretty one-note. I also appreciated how the film played around with his relationship with Sonya. They’re normally mortal enemies, so forcing them to work together added a great new layer. Lewis Tan does a serviceable job as Cole, an original character created specifically for the film. He wasn’t great, but he also didn’t bring the movie down. Is his new character 100% necessary? Probably not, but he’s likable enough and doesn’t ruin any of the other characters with his presence, which is very important. I actually thought Cole felt right at home with the other characters from the video games and I fully expect him to be added to the newest game sometime via download.
There are some odd things in this film that I know some diehard fans must be angry about. The main one being the addition of the arcana, which serves as this film’s version of chi. It’s weird and a little jarring, as it is not an element featured in any of the games. I can completely understand some people being turned off by it. However, it serves a purpose. And that purpose is simplification. The Mortal Kombat games have, at this point, amassed over a hundred characters; each with their own unique abilities, backstories, and technologies. It has taken the franchise 12+ games and hundreds of hours of gameplay to get to that point. The film does not have that luxury. There is absolutely no way a single film could introduce each of these separate abilities within the allotted time.
Think about it. If we look at the characters featured in the film, we already have several individual abilities that are unique to each character that would need separate explanations. Shang Tsung is a sorcerer, Sub-Zero can control ice, Scorpion is undead, Liu Kang can manipulate fire, Raiden electricity, and Kung Lao has a magic hat. Then you have the technology-linked abilities like Kano’s laser eye, Jax’s robot arms, and Sonya’s wrist blaster. But if we say “your chi can unlock all of these are abilities”, it simplifies everything and makes it digestible for a viewer who has no idea what Mortal Kombat is. The original film didn’t have to worry about this because only the villainous characters from Outworld had any abilities at all. And the less we say about the animalities in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, the better. So even though the addition of the arcana threw me for a loop in the beginning, I think it works as a simple way to make sure each character has their signature abilities without having to devote too much time to explaining each one separately.
So, is the new Mortal Kombat amazing? Absolutely not. Are there places to improve? You betcha! But I honestly think this is the best adaptation of the game we’ve gotten yet. And considering this is director Simon McQuoid's feature film debut, that's mighty impressive. The film does a very good job of capturing what it feels like to play the game. It’s goofy, bloody and has cheesy dialogue; all centered around a group of people fighting in a tournament. And it’s FUN! And honestly, that’s really all a Mortal Kombat film needs to be. If you played the games as a child and understand why certain changes needed to be made, then you should find yourself having a good time. So crack open a beer, grab some snacks, and FIGHT!