2021, R, 110 min. Directed by Simon McQuoid. Starring Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Mehcad Brooks, Max Huang, Ludi Lin, Hiroyuki Sanada, Chin Han.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 30, 2021
Something something destiny something something Outworld something something ancient tournament something something prophesy. OK, so now we have covered the plot of the third and most successful attempt at turning the Mortal Kombat gaming franchise into a film franchise. That "most successful" tag is faint praise indeed for this patience-testing slug fest. Luckily, there's Josh Lawson as Kano, the hard-drinking Australian mercenary who provides a well-needed sense of dismissive comedy in the midst of all this po-faced nonsense.
Unfortunately, he's the sidekick/thorn in the side of Cole Young (Tan), the orphaned descendent of Hanzo Hasashi (Sanada) who has spent the last few years getting his ass handed to him as a cage fighter, only to be dragged into this battle of the realms by future cyborg Jax (Brooks) and Sonya Blade (McNamee). They tell him that they're hunting for chosen ones with a magical birthmark shaped like a dragon, just like he has, but they're mainly around to get him to the next info dump, courtesy of Shaolin monk Liu Kang (Huang), who tells them about the centuries-old, cosmos-spanning plan of evil sorcerer Shang Tsung (Han). For much of the film, all that putative everyman Cole has to do is get punched in the face, then get his ears massacred with another deadly dose of exposition. Honestly, Mortal Kombat spends much of its duration feeling less like a beat 'em up, and more like a point-and-click adventure with too many NPCs delivering key plot points. Without Kano's comedy value, this iteration of the bone-smashing, head-grinding IP would depend on scowling, fast-cut action sequences, and a lot of grisly kills (most of them delivered by Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim, who more than proved his bone-breaking credentials in The Night Comes For Us). After all, what's a Mortal Kombat anything without fatalities?
Sensibly, first-time feature director Simon McQuoid decided to go for an R rating to cover up for the interminable and predictable plot. It's sort of baked into the premise, which was always a derivative take on a stack of martial arts cinema tropes, and Mortal Kombat's fans would likely reject any attempts at a radical Pokémon Detective Pikachu-style revamp. It's all about nods and references ("Hey, look, it's Kung Lao!" "So that's how Jax lost his arms!" "Oo, Kabal got a couple of lines"), and literal deus ex machina Raiden (Asano) appearing just in the nick of time to let the heroes do whatever it is they need to do, while the villains just ... wander off for a while.
It's a good thing McQuoid uses every opportunity to slide in some gore, because the screenplay by Greg Russo (currently hard at work trying to find a story in Space Invaders) and Dave Callaham (partially responsible for 2005's abominable Doom adaptation) doesn't leave him many openings. At least the year's other big game-to-film adaptation, Monster Hunter, had the good grace to avoid most of the console version's world building and mythology, and just throw a bunch of monsters and hunters at the audience. Mortal Kombat commits the unforgivable sin of actually being boring duing the middle hour of training and exposition. Even when it finally gets into full combat mode, there's no tournament, just a 30 minute throw down between a bunch of vaguely recognizable characters.