There’s something to be said about a movie that knows precisely what it is and delivers what it sets out to do with almost single-minded focus. Case in point: Mortal Kombat, the latest big screen adaptation of the infamously grisly fighting game, an unabashed celebration of onscreen savagery and chaos. The movie wears its violent heart on its sleeve and is all the better for it. But it would have been even more fun had it wholly embraced the games’ silliness and let its freak flag fly.
Fans of the Mortal Kombat franchise don’t expect an intricate plot or deeply complex characters from the movie. They know what it is about: a bunch of fighters from Earth combating demonic forces that want to conquer the planet. All anyone wants out of a movie like that is a gloriously gory bloodbath and a high-octane fight fest. Anything else is just icing on the cake. Committing to the games’ violent and – let’s be honest here – dumb premise was the smart thing to do for its director, Simon McQuoid, who makes his feature directorial debut with Mortal Kombat.
The movie opens with a tour de force of a fight sequence – a sleek, thrilling brawl-to-the-death between Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) and ninjas from a rival clan, including Bi-Han (Joe Taslim). The scene, which establishes the brutal tone for much of the movie, is an economical set-up that swiftly introduces us to several key characters, and then gets them in on the action as soon as possible. There’s no expository throat-clearing, no half-assed justification as to why these characters have to fight. The fight is the justification.
Of course, any movie needs to make some sense, even a video game adaptation. Some basic exposition is unavoidable. But getting too caught up in explaining things can sap the fun out of this type of movie. Just look at 2016’s Assassin’s Creed, which spent so much time trying to make the ludicrous premise of the video game sound plausible, it forgot to emphasise the fun stuff. 2016’s Warcraft suffered from a similar pitfall: it was too bogged down by exposition. Those movies were adapted from sprawling game franchises that took hours of playtime to lay out their lore and story – attempting to condense all that information into two hours of runtime was an exercise doomed to failure.
There’s no expository throat-clearing, no half-assed justification as to why these characters have to fight. The fight is the justification
Mortal Kombat, on the other hand, is based on games which have relatively little plot, so it mostly manages to avoid the failures of the aforementioned video game adaptations. The core premise of the Mortal Kombat franchise is the titular inter-dimensional competition that pits fighters from different realms against one another. Earth’s chosen champions have to fight for the safety of the planet in this pugilistic tournament. The Outworld, a desolate hellscape, has won the first nine out of 10 scheduled tournaments against Earth (or Earthrealm, as the games call it). If Outworld wins a 10th time against earth, the victory will grant them the right to conquer it.
The movie – spoiler alert – changes up events a little. Outworld sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) wants to steal the final victory by killing off all of Earth’s champions, denying them the chance to even take part in the tournament. These champions all bear a dragon mark on their body – they earn it through combat by killing off other bearers of the mark. All except for Cole Young (Lewis Tan), who was born with the dragon mark.
The first 15 to 20 minutes of the movie are predominantly concerned with setting up plot and characters. We’re introduced to Cole, a character new to the movie and franchise. He’s a former MMA champion who can’t seem to find his Bruce Lee mojo anymore, and these days, he picks up cheques by taking part in seedy fight cards. Though a washed-up fighter, he still has a loving wife and daughter. He unwittingly finds himself the target of the sorcerer Shang, who sends Bi-Han, now known as Sub-Zero, after him. Cole soon bumps into Jax (Mehcad Brooks) who, like him, possesses a dragon birthmark, as well as Jax’s friend, Sonya (Jessica McNamee).
It’s likely that McQuoid introduced Cole to serve as an audience surrogate to help franchise neophytes better invest themselves in the movie. Being new to the franchise, though, the character isn’t able to offer what McQuoid so generously serves up in the movie: moments of fan service. Fans are likely going to find his character bland and boring. In the 1995 movie, audiences had a surrogate too, in the form of Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby). But his character is a series regular and a staple of the games, and so his inclusion in the movie never felt forced.
Do audiences really need a surrogate for Mortal Kombat? And if so, why couldn’t it have been any of the other characters, such as Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), who was the protagonist of the 1995 movie? If anything, Cole’s entire character feels like a narrative device shoehorned into the movie. The sections involving his family, rather than deepening our connection to him, come across as a distracting surplus of backstory. It’s clear that his wife and daughter were really only written into the movie to facilitate certain plot developments for Cole – who, unable to unlock his ‘arcana’ (or special ability) for the longest time, manages to finally awaken it when his family are in peril.
The entire concept of the ‘arcana’ also feels like an attempt by McQuoid to explain why human characters have special abilities. As with most fighting games, the characters in Mortal Kombat are capable of unleashing special moves, including finishers called ‘fatalities’. Some of these moves defy reason and human limitation; they range from shooting laser beams through the eye or conjuring fireballs. These are called ‘arcana’ in the movie, and our good guys awaken their arcana by finding their inner warrior, calming their mind or doing one of those new-agey motivational routines you’ve seen in a million other movies like this.
This brings us to the main problem of a movie such as this: trying too hard to make sense. Providing an outlandish (no pun intended) explanation for characters having supernatural powers, in a movie already populated by supernatural characters, seems comically redundant – even gratuitous. No matter how you cut it, a human turning his hat into a razor to maim a demon into two or a Shaolin monk conjuring fireballs with his hand is always going to look ridiculous. All a movie needs to do, really, is to have a consistent internal logic; doing away with all the tedious explanations about ‘arcana’ wouldn’t have hurt the movie.
But Cole’s scenes with his wife and daughter are easily the worst thing about this reboot. They are there to provide narrative cover, supplying character motivation for Cole and ushering in his hero’s transformation towards the end of the film. But because we barely get to know Cole’s family at all, their scenes feel simultaneously superfluous and overly stiff (at least by the standards of Mortal Kombat). The movie would have been leaner and more fun without them, because none of Cole’s character arcs ends up paying off in the end. Also, when the stakes in the movie are literally the survival of Earth itself, Cole doesn’t and shouldn’t need any more motivation to rise to the occasion to save the day. Neither do viewers need any other reason to invest in the movie.
Mortal Kombat does have a lot going for it. It leans into the games’ carnage, and is much bloodier than its PG-rated 1995 predecessor. It bounces from high-octane set piece to high-octane set piece with infectiously violent energy, and seizes upon any opportunity to dish out fan service. Whether it’s Hanzo/Scorpion yelling “Get over here!” or Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) blasting lightning from his hands, the movie’s chock-full of little moments that will send fans cheering. If only the movie had the courage to wholly commit to its outlandish premise, and dispense with the suffocating narrative justifications, it could have been the weird, idiosyncratic adaptation the game truly deserves.