By Elias Savada.
It’s part origin story and part training film, where some of the warriors have to awaken his or her arcana, the energy within their soul that imbues them with special powers. Players know the term. I didn’t.”
I am not the target audience for this film. Pac-Man, Brick Out, Centipede and a handful of those early arcade games were mere blips in my digital life. Never did I play the underlying game Mortal Kombat that has inspired this big-budget interpretation of it, so I’m clueless as to its fantasy world. This Dolbyized, IMAX supersized screen version (less so if you’re watching it on HBO Max), is overwrought for anyone as ignorant of the game as I have been (and will remain). And if the makers of Mortal Kombat are looking to gain a few new recruits to the video game franchise, it’s going to be an older crowd, even though players already know of the game’s depiction of viciousness. The film is rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout, and some crude references.
When the game first appeared in 1992, I was already in my 40s. As dozens of sequels, updates, compilations, bundles, as well as animated and live-action films and television series followed, all were outside my interest zone. You would think if New Line Cinema (part of the Warner Bros. empire), which controls the extended media rights, would try to fill in some of the gaps for all possible viewers coming in with a blank slate. Instead, screenwriters Greg Russo (first credit) and Dave Callaham (a Bigfoot and Loch Ness Monster enthusiast who has almost a dozen produced films in his filmography, including last year’s Wonder Woman 1984), along with the acclaimed James Wan (one of the producers, whose Atomic Monster company was a co-producer on MK) would have helped craft a more cohesive plot for the purported $95 million undertaking, as well as providing director Simon McQuoid a better entry in his feature debut. McQuoid has garnered success as a commercial director – for Call of Duty, PlayStation, and Halo, among many others – but cramming his short-form talents into a nearly two-hour, way-too-serious adaptation makes for a splattering mess of a movie for anyone but MK enthusiasts. McQuoid stated that his goal “in bringing this story to the screen was to respect the material and service the true fans,” and that is what it does.
The studio formula here doesn’t really care if the film makes much sense to outliers. Good vs. Evil with a bunch of stunt fighting twixt the two. Some subterfuge mixed in, but mostly the film exists to showcase martial arts in several fantasy realms. There an array of international performers meant to bring out their fans to cheer them on, and the bring in corresponding worldwide box office dollars. Asian-American star Lewis Tan is the film’s pretty boy protagonist as cage fighter Cole Young. He’s actually a new character in the franchise, but his backstory brings him into alignment with everyone else. Jessica McNamee (as Special Ops soldier Sonya Blade) and Josh Lawson (rogue mercenary Kano) are two of the Australia actors in the cast. Nothing startling there, as most of the feature was shot in the southern part of that continent. Lawson, also a threat as a producer, writer, and director elsewhere (his short film The Eleven O’Clock was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Live-Action Short category a few years ago), is probably has the most interesting role in the film. His annoying wisecracks and purple dialogue offer what little comic relief the film offers. From Japan, there’s Tadanobu Asano (Lord Raiden, an Elder God), best known to U.S. audiences as the Asgardian warrior Hogun in the Thor films, and Hiroyuki Sanada (legendary ninja Hanzo Hasashi). Other countries in the acting mix: China, with Ludi Lin (Liu Kang), Singapore, with Chun Han (Sorcerer Shang Tsung). Indonesian artist Joe Taslim scored the baddie role of Cryomancer Bi-Han/Sub-Zero, but, like many in the cast, everyone’s in stereotyped roles that director McQuoid has allowed them little wiggle room to impress. Among the Americans, Mehcad Brooks stands out as Jax, the bionically armed warrior.
Frankly, I don’t find any reason to further explain the storyline here or talk about the different fantasy realms. There’s a prophecy involved as well. You’ll marvel at the production design, makeup, and costumes, ogle at the posturing actors, and perhaps be a bit surprised at the ample blood and gore splashed about the frame. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is loud and throbbing, as expected for an action-packed movie like this.
I suspect the weaponry and fighting styles used by the game’s warriors translate well to the screen. Ice scepters and daggers, the Japanese kunai, war hammers, raptor knives, dragon swords, numerous blades, a laser eye, and a metal sombrero that doubles as a boomerang/frizbee. Note for fans: Although Johnny Cage doesn’t appear in the film, there’s an Easter egg afforded him.
It’s part origin story and part training film, where some of the warriors have to awaken his or her arcana, the energy within their soul that imbues them with special powers. Players know the term. I didn’t. Mortal Kombat is a fantasy action flick purely in it for a big buck return on investment. For me, the sooner I forget it, the better. Apparently, my arcana is still asleep.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).