Mortal Kombat Synopsis: MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan) seeks out Earth’s greatest champions in order to stand against the enemies of Outworld in a high-stakes battle for the universe. Classic Mortal Kombat characters like Sonya (Jessica McNamee), Kano (Josh Lewis), Jax (Mechad Brooks), Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada), and the villainous Subzero (Joe Taslim).
While some may dispute the trend, quality video game movies have arisen from the subgenre’s run of dreadful dumpster fires (from Super Mario Bros to the Uwe Boll catalog, the list goes on). Recent titles like Monster Hunter, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Tomb Raider display a keen understanding of their source material’s allures, crafting colorful popcorn entertainment rifts in the spirit of their interactive predecessor. Even with a few formulaic falterings, these sturdy films still exhibit the type of adoration and understanding adaptations need to succeed.
After a two-decade hiatus on the silver screen, the guilty pleasure gruesomeness of Mortal Kombat is returning in a modernized new package. Director Simon McQuoid’s debut isn’t without formulaic studio handholding, but his infectious embrace of the material’s dopey penchant for violence carries through where it counts.
For those unacquainted with Mortal Kombat’s verbose brutality, this cinematic adaptation won’t generate the best first impression. The studio-friendly script constraints itself from the start within the game’s vast world-building, as the trio of writers(Greg Russo, Dave Callaham, and Oren Uziel) oddly center their narrative around fresh-faced protagonist Cole Young. The character is a blandly-flavored amalgamation of other action protagonists, stealing development from personable fan favorites deserving of more attention (I demand justice for Kung Lao).
I’d say Mortal Kombat has a lingering Cole Young problem (not a discredit to Lewis Tan, who elevates the role as much as possible). This new protagonist stands for the type of needless meddling that executives enact upon these adaptations, trying to force a sense of foundation that the material desperately doesn’t need. Seriously, who needs a contrived character backstory and poorly-written diatribes when daunting foes are performing bone-crushing acrobatics?!?! Both the script and McQuoid’s direction don’t push boundaries enough outside of traditionalist Hollywood formula.
Even after establishing my misgivings, I can’t deny having a blast throughout Mortal Kombat’s runtime. McQuoid’s film may lack in substantive departments, but his spirited effort relishes the game’s adoration for creative carnage. He creates well-staged action setpieces ripped straight from the game’s outrageous choreography (I loved the winking inclusion of the unblockable swing kick and other maneuvers), seasoning each bone-crunching fatality with endless buckets of comical bloodshed. Busy sequences are accented with a melody of framing sensibilities and poised camerawork, with McQuoid expressing his action expertise despite being a newcomer to blockbuster spectacle.
I also credit the director for operating with a sly sense of self-awareness. His frantically-paced film blows past each tired plot beat to throw in as much MK iconography as possible (two characters literally pause their conversation to break out in a battle). It may not please most critics, but I am glad McQuoid never loses focus on what diehard fans want to see. Each clever reference and playful barb imbue enough care to create a loving adaptation for the target audience (although, a little less Kano wouldn’t have hurt things).
Mortal Kombat’s dopey theatrics are on display even when the action isn’t onscreen. Whenever the script drifts away from Cole’s melodrama, the eccentric ensemble flashes their boisterous personas while properly representing their virtual avatars (the over-written dialogue feels like a playful ode to antiquated machismo one-liners). Is the acting going to win any Oscars? Certainly not, but the overt hamminess has a certain appeal within this generally nonsensical universe. Similar to the game, the film achieves a level of low-rent theater that isn’t without charm.
I can’t begrudge anyone for pinpointing Mortal Kombat’s myriad of flaws. This shameless adaptation makes no bearing about its unpretentious approach. For fans of the brand like myself, that strategy scores enough victories to jumpstart a promising new era of brutal fatalities.
Mortal Kombat is available in theaters worldwide alongside a day-and-date HBO Max release domestically.
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