(WARNING: This review contains some spoilers for the film!)
Mortal Kombat’s live-action adaptations have been a roller coaster since the original film came out in 1995. The 1997 sequel is one of the only films ever to make me want my money back, and the 1998 television series was a rip-off of the Hercules/Xena shows.
Fans had some hope with the short film Rebirth and the following web series Legacy, both of which had tremendous potential. However, they were short-lived (and the web series went off the rails at the end), and we were once more left without a good adaptation of the Mortal Kombat franchise.
When the trailer came out for Mortal Kombat, many of us were optimistic. The trailer looked like the dark fantasy we wanted was finally coming to the big screen – a semi-serious, R-rated, splatter gore-filled, martial arts extravaganza.
I’m sad to say, all we got was essentially the same hokey ’90s shlock with better fight scenes and effects.
The biggest problem with Mortal Kombat is the script, which is a shame because it started decently. We receive some crucial historical backstory, followed by a shift to modern times, but the film begins its slow descent into nonsense from there.
There’s no “mysterious tournament that turns out to be mystical,” which even the 1995 film did better. Instead, the audience is constantly yanked between activities in Earth and Outworld, leaving no mystery or build-up.
The heroes are gathered haphazardly, with characters (on either side) thrown in with little backstory and inconsistent story progression and pacing. All of this culminates in a final fight that does not involve a tournament.
You read that correctly – Mortal Kombat has one-on-one battles between characters and constantly mentions the event but does not have an actual fight for Earthrealm. Instead, we’re given a coda that requires a sequel if we want the real thing.
This failure should come as no shock, given the film was primarily written by Greg Russo, who has no writing credits whatsoever. Dave Callaham was involved in the screenplay, but, despite some stinkers, he’s a known action/martial arts writer often brought in to assist or rewrite.
Mortal Kombat also fails with its performances, with actors given some witty lines and game references clumsily shoved into their mouths. While there are little moments of amusement, the humor felt out-of-place (and juvenile) while made worse by the exaggerated, ham-fisted acting.
We could blame this on the actors, like the fact that Max Huang (Kung Lao) is a stuntman with minimal acting experience. The majority, however, are performers with significant résumés; Mehcad Brooks (Jax), Jessica McNamee (Sonya), and even Ludi Lin (Liu Kang) should not have performed like their ’90s counterparts.
The best performances came from Hiroyuki Sanada (Scorpion), Tadanobu Asano (Raiden), and Chin Han (Shang Tsung), although Lewis Tan (Cole Young) and Joe Taslim (Sub-Zero) were decent. Like the Star Wars prequels, this suggests to me that the more experienced artists merely ignored bad direction.
Like the primary writer, we were given someone who had no experience in the director’s chair: Simon McQuoid. McQuoid’s resume solely involves writing commercials and probably should not have been handed the reins to such a massive franchise.
There’s also a severe failure in lore and setting, akin to the ’90s films. I’ve said it so many times that I wrote an entire article on it: stick to the plot and characters of the video games!
I don’t mind some deviations or bringing in certain characters from later games. However, at some point, this is no longer a Mortal Kombat movie and instead something loosely based on that franchise.
Why the writers chose to explain the heroes’ abilities, from fireballs to frisbee hats to laser eyes, as “arcana” unlocked as “chosen ones” (instead of magic, chi, technology, etc.), is beyond me. You heard that right: Kano’s laser eye and Jax’s arms weren’t cybernetic replacements but manifestations of their “inner abilities.”
This horrible mistake was most evident in the protagonist Cole Young. A brand new character, his abilities feel shoehorned in and look awful, like one of those dreadful characters shoved into the games for no reason other than “we need a new character.”
This seems par for the course, considering one of the characters included in the film is consistently ranked among those same awful additions.
Was there any redeeming grace to this film?
Overall, the martial arts are miles ahead of the original, feeling less like a ’90s Van Damme movie and more like Into the Badlands or Ninja Assassin. The abilities of characters are also upgraded by modern special effects, making ridiculous powers seem more realistic (and gritty).
The use of CGI was wise rather than the outdated practical effects of previous adaptations, although they’re not perfect. Characters like Goro feel like early MCU Hulk, while the backgrounds of some scenes are on par with the Star Wars prequels.
However, the most disappointing effect was in a random character thrown in from later in the franchise: Kabal. Theorized initially to be a cybernetic ninja in the trailer, his suit in this film feels like it was somehow worse than the ’90s Cyrax or Sektor and felt like something you’d see in an Uwe Boll film.
The main other positive to draw from the movie is that it was at least a step away from the ’90s orientalism of the franchise.
Mortal Kombat has long drawn on a mish-mash of Asian designs, names, etc., since the first arcade game and was notoriously white-washed (even in the original video game). The 1995 film starred French actor Christopher Lambert as the Shinto god Raiden while casting white martial artists as the masked ninja’s “Hanzo Hashashi” and “Bi-Han.”
For the first time, the cast is primarily Asian, and I appreciated that a few actors used their first languages, adding more depth and cultural recognition. Even the culturally correct Japanese and Chinese-descent actors in Japanese and Chinese roles (respectively) were appreciated.
With Black performers like Brooks and Sisi Stringer, this was a step forward for a franchise marred by appropriation and white-washing.
I had such high hopes for Mortal Kombat, but the best parts were mainly in the trailer. Instead, we were given something on par with the 1995 film, but with better fight scenes and effects, plus more gore and foul language.
It’s a shame that the progress they made in casting was setback by such a questionable film. Not to mention the disappointment that we weren’t going to see an actual tournament unless the producers make a sequel.
If they move forward, they need to get rid of the director and writer and hire people who know what they’re doing. Sadly, this may put the live-action adaptations on the back burner again until somebody tries once more a decade or two later.
I give Mortal Kombat a sad 2.5 Mokaps out of 5.