Believe it or not, when I think of Mortal Kombat, I think of SpongeBob. When I had baby teeth, Nickelodeon produced more than one fighting-type game in Bikini Bottom’s universe that is undeniably inspired from MK’s algorithm. So even though I’ve never technically played a game with Mortal Kombat in the title, I’ve held the controller and I’ve memorized some key combos. But that’s all I’ve done on this subject. I’ve never seen the previous two Mortal Kombat movies, so as a newcomer to this party, I hope my review can give some justifiable discussion. I’ve done a bit of research, and early reviews have been more positive than this one, so they’re probably doing something right I’m out of touch with.
Turns out, every character who throws a punch, except protagonist Cole Young (Lewis Tan), is a character from the prior video games. Sonya Blade, Lord Raiden, Kano, and I get the impression the fan standouts are Liu Kang and Sub-Zero. The movie opens in 17th century (so, feudal) Japan where a family, with a father, mother, son and infant daughter live in the middle of a thick forest. Some sort of ninja feud outside of our knowledge comes to a boiling point, however, and a group of assassins slaughter the father’s family, minus the daughter, whom the son and mother took care to hide. We see from the father, Hanzo Hasashi (played by Hiroyuki Sanada, and let’s face it, a name like Hanzo Hasashi screams importance. He’s also known as Scorpion), that the son and wife were not only killed, but frozen in ice. And we see the one who did it is Sub-Zero (real name Bi-Han played by Joe Taslim, but that’s all irrelevant), a relentless and powerful warrior who thinks on his feet and must have muscles as tough and unbreakable as the swords and walls of ice he makes.
Just over 400 years later, Cole has a wife and daughter of his own and is accepting short-notice boxing matches for 200 bucks, boxing matches brutal enough for pussies to pay more than that for afterward treatment. We also see he’s got quite the, ahem, dragon tattoo. This is an info-dump of a synopsis, but the movie doesn’t play it any different, so here it is; it’s not a tattoo, it’s a birthmark because he’s a descendant of someone special. And one day when there’s a very strange ice storm Day-After-Tomorrow-esque and a guy is after him, Cole’s friend Jax (Mehcad Brooks) who’s also an MK original, says that birthmark destines him to be a warrior to protect the world from the realm of Outworld. Their (our) realm is Earthworld, and deathmatch tournaments between the two realm’s chosen warriors have a magic regulation that whichever side wins ten tournaments can end up invading the other realm. And the Outworld has won nine matches in a row so far. So you can guess the tournament that decides if they win or if the match will continue is about to take place. And not exactly in a colosseum or anything. The game has already commenced.
I don’t know, I truly don’t know, how much of the Outworld-Earthworld stuff was already in the games. I don’t know if those prior tournaments were their plots; there must be some reason for all the bloodshed and relentless pummeling, right? Probably not, cause that’s not the kind of video game Mortal Kombat is. But the story is one of the thinnest I’ve seen in a long time; barely any info is given about the protagonists we’re supposed to root for as they fight. In fact, we care more about seeing one particular antagonist get killed more than we care about anyone in this movie. I think what the movie is aiming for is for devout fans to know these characters from playing them for years and to therefore not care about informative exposition. You can almost (or just flat-out can) respect the filmmakers for throwing typical movie structure out the window to deliver straight-up hand-to-hand brawls with more blood splatter per sword slice than a ketchup bomb, and warriors more stoic than Harry and Marv.
Yes, the fights are impressive. But, just, what’s the deal with Sonya Blade’s (Jessica McNamee) back story? Friends? Family? Dreams? And as someone who hasn’t grown up with these fighters, they all felt one-note and typical, devoted solely to fighting and surviving. Now, I can understand some of the trauma these people must’ve gone through and continue enduring. They’ve had to have seen quite a few dead bodies in their day and there’s quite a burden on their shoulders. But what are their favourite pastimes? What do they want to do with themselves if they actually win? Never mind that, we’ve got lightning teleportations and laserbeam eyes everywhere. A lot of it done in the pitch-black dark for that matter. And that bad guy’s friend Kabal, is his back story completely only in the games? We learn he has a feud with one of the protagonists, but never on what. He shows promise as a layered character and then is just forgotten about. But hey! The fights are impressive, am I right? Mortal Kombat’s video game counterparts have unrealistically too much blood, and fight moves that are flashy, deadly, and defiant of the laws of gravity. If all that is here, what more would fans want?
The ending is a solid B-level. Even though I found some of its fight choreography unrealistic, even by Mortal Kombat standards (too many times the bad guy is not dealt the finishing blow we know our heroes want, even when he’s vulnerable and even though he’s done so much to hurt them and their families), there were some fun callbacks to the first fight in the movie, some certainly iconic moves from the video games, and a twist I didn’t see coming that puts side characters in a deadly situation and the movie gave no hint of if they’d survive or not. There’s also a character who you thought you knew the direction the movie was taking him, and gives another plain old twist.
In final words, for a movie in development hell since the franchise’s last theatrical release, it does not have the let’s-get-this-out-already feel of last year’s Artemis Fowl, and I can tell it’s sticking to its roots. And I welcome that it had the balls to have a shameless R-rating. But it seems though die-hard fans who will be the main ones seeing this movie anyway will love it, outsiders don’t have much to be welcomed in with, despite a diverse cast of refreshingly unknown actors and a stand-out performance from Josh Lawson as a grungy psychopath. If you want to welcome newcomers into Mortal Kombat, maybe some time to select characters and teach some of their specialties before hitting the Start button is in order. It helps in SpongeBob games, at least.