No matter how many of my people you put in the ground, we will not fail.
Video game adaptations are hard. Translating an interactive entertainment experience into an enjoyable passive entertainment experience is not easy at the best of times; and it’s even harder when the game series you’re adapting has a story which is completely bananas and plays second fiddle to what the game is actually about – over the top fights to the death between larger than life, interdimensional superbeings.
So. Mortal Kombat.
While Shang Tsung (Chin Han) and the chosen fighters of the Outerworld prepare for the latest, and potentially last, Mortal Kombat tournament; the chosen fighters of Earthrealm are being tracked by two groups; Major Jackson “Jax” Briggs (Mehcad Brooks) and Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) from the US military; and Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) and the his students, Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang). Jax finds washed-up MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan) and saves him from an attack by Sub Zero (Joe Taslim), beginning a journey that will bring all the Earthrealm fighters together to prepare for the Mortal Kombat tournament.
This movie is absolutely ridiculous, and I mean that as a compliment. We’re not here for the narrative; though my understanding is that it’s surprisingly faithful to the story of the games, somehow; but it’s actually sort of inconsequential in a movie like this, I feel. It exists only to move the large ensemble cast in the right direction to get to the thing that actually matters, which is the ludicrous, over-the-top fighting. However, ignoring the story of this film would also ignore the work that Lewis Tan puts into Cole Young, and would do a disservice to an excellent actor who has deserved to lead an action movie for a long time. Cole was a character created for the movie who has never appeared in any of the games, and Tan brings a lot of heart to the character. This is key, as Cole is the only character in this ensemble who has a truly fleshed-out story; with a wife and daughter, Allison and Emily (Laura Brent and Matilda Kimber), and a considered, emotional arc; the aforementioned washed-up MMA fighter story. The Mortal Kombat tournament provides Cole with the opportunity to find redemption within himself and unlock his true potential in order to save the world; which is a pretty lofty height to a reach for a man who was losing cage-fights for $200 a night. This is the crux of our story here, and the emotional heart of the film is built around Cole in a way that provides the audience with a genuine emotional connection – however, it does so at the expense of the rest of the cast.
As a film, Mortal Kombat is powered by its performances, but with the focus centered on Cole Young, it’s hard to form an attachment to our other heroic leads. Jessica McNamee and Mehcad Brooks put in a lot of effort to flesh out the avatars they’re bringing to life on screen, but aside from expositional dialogue early in the film, and one or two touching and effective scenes together later on, we don’t get as much out of them as they probably could. Sonya Blade in particular has a disappointing narrative journey here; her quest to prove herself worthy of entry into the tournament having an anticlimactic conclusion that neither makes a larger point in the subtext, nor demonstrates an especially remarkable level of strength or ability over her eventual opponent. Similarly, Jax’ story is very much played out in the background; and while his personal narrative has a more satisfying conclusion and message, it’s still relegated to the background in a way that reduces the effectiveness of it when we do get to see him brought into the forefront.
There is an argument, of course, that focusing on the narrative and characterisation in this way is actually missing the point of what this movie is supposed to be. The fact that this film has anything even resembling a coherent plot should probably be celebrated for what it is, and the fact I’ve been able to write multiple paragraphs about the narrative arcs of more than one character is, frankly, exceptional. But the multidimensional chicanery is engaging enough to keep the audience involved and interested enough to move the plot through the action scenes, which is what we’re all actually here for, and they are worth the price of entry. Everyone involved in this movie can fight, and they do fight; frequently and without remorse. Mortal Kombat as a videogame series is known for its graphic and brutal fatality victories, and these are gloriously and disgustingly recognised on screen at numerous points. When people aren’t having their arms ripped off or hearts ripped out, the action continues to be great fun; with a cast packed with skilled screen fighters facing off in a variety of match-ups through sneaky assaults, training montages and the actual Mortal Kombat tournament itself. Great effort is made to provide different locations for these fights, with callbacks to a whole host of different arenas from the Mortal Kombat games being featured. While the action is entertaining, well-paced and frequent enough to hold engagement, I feel like the Hollywood fight scene editing style removes an opportunity both to pay homage to the series and provide a fresh take on screen combat. The Mortal Kombat games have a traditional fighting-game structure, with the fights being seen from the same parallel angle. The fast-paced Hollywood tendency to cut away to different camera angles when a character makes contact during a fight doesn’t really fit with that feeling the game gives; and a more static editing style, more akin to the great Asian cinema classics starring the likes of Bruce Li and Jackie Chan, would not only have lent itself better to the game genre which the film takes its inspiration from, but also would have given the actors a chance to better showcase their own fighting abilities and styles on screen, as that filming style looks so much more naturalistic for the audience viewpoint; making it feel more like sitting at ringside than sitting in a movie theatre. Though, perhaps that doesn’t need to be quite as much of a consideration when some of that fighting involves fireballs and laser eyes…
Mortal Kombat is a ridiculous movie. It’s brash, colourful, bold and loud. It has saw hats and swords made of ice, fist fights and grappling, and a giant monster with four arms and ripped abs fighting one of the most underrated actors of their generation in a large shed. It also has a plot, buried in amongst all of the nonsense, and it has some solid performances from some very enjoyable actors. If you like the Mortal Kombat games, or you like films with thinly veiled excuses to have a load of people throwing hands, get yourself some popcorn and your drink of choice and check this one out; ‘cause it’s a big, silly, fun fight fest; just don’t go into it expecting any award-winning elements.