Note: The writer of this review watched Mortal Kombat on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
Is it too much to ask that a dumb movie also be fun? Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1995 adaptation of the fighting game series Mortal Kombat managed to be both: the fast-paced, kid-logic plotting; the goofy dialogue; the camp performances of Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Christopher Lambert, and Linden Ashby; the pure good-times-ahead energy of the opening seconds, with its yawps of “Mortal Kombat!” over loud techno beats. Compared to that, the new Mortal Kombat, directed by first-timer Simon McQuoid, barely qualifies as entertainment. It is a patience-testing exercise that repetitively paces a small handful of locations (one of which, bizarrely, is Gary, Indiana) while the audience hopes for something, anything to happen. Call it Waiting For Goro.
To be fair, the four-armed extra-dimensional champ does eventually make an appearance. The titular tournament, in which the best fighters of our dimension (referred to as “Earthrealm”) face the bruisers of the evil dimension of Outworld, does not. There is, technically speaking, no Mortal Kombat in Mortal Kombat. (They’re saving it for the sequel.) There are, however, some unremarkably choreographed fights with sporadic VFX gore and digital blood spatter. Whatever happened to the gnarly prosthetic? The fire-hose-strength arterial spray of bright, bright red? Digital effects haven’t made movies any cheaper, but they’ve definitely made them less interesting to look at.
Between the fights are the character introductions, lots of them, followed by stilted pauses for audience reaction. (At this point, these kinds of properties should just come with a whooping, gasping applause track, à la an old three-camera sitcom’s canned laughter.) The new arrival into the larger MK franchise is Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a down-on-his-luck cage fighter who, in a very literal bit of branding, was born with the Mortal Kombat logo on his chest. This, it turns out, is his pass into the upcoming (in the next film) Mortal Kombat tournament, to which he was destined as a descendant of Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), a.k.a. the undead ninja Scorpion.
Soon he finds himself crossing paths with Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), the supernatural assassin with the ice-cold grip, and the duo of Jax (Mehcad Brooks) and Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee). They are cops or special forces operators—it’s never clear what their exact jurisdiction could be, though they are for some reason keeping the Australian mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson, providing “comic relief”) as their prisoner. A significant amount of exposition is dumped via risible dialogue that is done no favors by the uniformly charmless cast—and then it’s off to the inspecifically located desert temple of Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), bored-looking thunder god and ineffectual defender of Earthrealm.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the quarry-esque environs of Outworld, the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) is traipsing around with his armored minions, contributing to an overall “R-rated Power Rangers” vibe. McQuoid’s sense of style and pacing approximates that of an anonymously hacked together TV pilot, a dull combination of dark and gritty (represented by Shang Tsung’s evil band of fetishwear aficionados) and overlit and flat. This is supposed to be a world of fighters with bizarre outfits and combat abilities, but a lot of the time, the viewer will just find themselves staring at a screen that’s mostly rocks.
Will Cole discover his “arcana,” the secret power unique to every champion? Will Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) do his leg sweep? Will Kung Lao (Max Huang) throw his sharp hat? Will Sub-Zero say, “I am Sub-Zero?” These are the questions that are supposed to be burning in the mind of Mortal Kombat’s presumed viewer, who has waited years to hear the catchphrase and spot the reference. In theory, this person exists. As for the rest of us, why bother?