Review: Mortal Kombat far from a flawless victory but still packs a fun punch

Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), left, and Kung Lao (Max Huang) prepare for battle in the latest movie...
Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), left, and Kung Lao (Max Huang) prepare for battle in the latest movie adaptation of the hit video game series "Mortal Kombat."(Warner Bros. Pictures)
Updated: Apr. 29, 2021 at 10:40 AM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - There has yet to be a truly capital-G Great movie based on a video game. There was hope that the latest stab at “Mortal Kombat” might stand a chance to break that trend. The short answer is a hearty “No,” but that doesn’t mean there isn’t fun to be had here.

If all you know of “Mortal Kombat” is that it’s a video game that, upon its debut in arcades in 1992, swiftly helped spur a national pearl-clutching tour by politicians and parents’ groups over the level of “realistic” gore and violence found within, you might be surprised to learn that the bones of the story and characters are actually pretty fun. It treads heavily from the roots of comic books and classic kung fu movies which inspired series creators John Tobias and Ed Boon. So while there’s nothing terribly original about a secret martial arts tournament where people with extraordinary powers duke it out to decide the fate of the universe, the sort of (mostly) straight-faced sincerity used to bring it all to life fits perfectly well within the cinematic landscape that regularly sees people with godlike powers traipsing across movie screens these days.

And to its credit, this take on “Mortal Kombat” never shies away from any of the incredibly outlandish aspects of the series: Warrior monks who can throw fireballs from their bare hands. Laser eyes. A sorcerer who can (quite literally) suck a man’s soul from his body. Another warrior monk but this one uses a razor-edged hat as a throwing weapon and teleportation device. It’s all here. There’s some nominal explanation as to how or why these characters get superpowers, but for the most part it amounts to “just because, now watch this guy with a New Jersey accent wearing a cyber mask use hook swords and run so fast he can teleport.”

Given the way audiences have simply come to accept comic book heroes and given the movie’s overall embrace of the outlandish, it then becomes somewhat baffling that someone along the line decided it was absolutely essential that we be guided into this world via a brand new character who can act baffled at all this weird stuff happening. It might have made more sense had any questions been truly asked or, more crucially, been answered, but we never even really get an answer as to why exactly a martial arts tournament is what decides the fate of Earth. At the very least it would have been worth it had this character, Cole Young, been played by anyone with even a hint of genuine charisma. Alas, despite his best efforts, Lewis Tan simply doesn’t have the juice to shoulder the weight given him.

Then again, he’s not really helped by Dave Callaham and Greg Russo’s script. It’s clear that there is an abiding affection for the legacy of “Mortal Kombat” and its world and characters. Fans of the games will have no trouble recognizing the likes of Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang), Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) or Kano (Josh Lawson). But the story is so thin and gives the surprisingly large cast very little to do overall.

After losing an underground MMA match, Cole learns that he’s been chosen to take part in a tournament known as, you guessed it, Mortal Kombat. Shang Tsung (Chin Han), an evil, soul-sucking sorcerer, however is bound and determined to make sure a tournament never happens, thus making it that much easier for him to take over Earthrealm. Fights and fatalities ensue.

And that’s...pretty much it. Cole meets up with an eclectic group of other fighters as they attempt to train and prepare for the tournament, but this mostly relegates them and the film to a massive cave temple somewhere in Asia. Not exactly the most dynamic or exciting location, especially given how wild and vibrant so much of the video game’s fight locales have become over the years.

So if the film’s budget (clearly) held back its visual potential and its lead leaves much to be desired, how could I possibly claim there’s fun to be had? This is where checking your expectations at the door helps.

To put it succinctly: “Mortal Kombat” is not “The Raid.” It is not “John Wick.” It doesn’t rise to the fairly high standard that has been set since Paul W.S. Anderson directed the first “Mortal Kombat” in 1995. Simon McQuoid’s 2021 film doesn’t even hit the highs of a lot of Scott Adkins’ direct-to-DVD outings. (Although that’s not an insult to Adkins, as he’s a legitimately great movie martial artist and you should watch his movies.) This “Mortal Kombat” lies somewhere in between. It tries hard. It brings in accomplished martial artists like Taslim and even Tan, whose father, Philip, is an accomplished stunt performer and choreographer.

Could the combat (kombat?) have been better? Without question. But what’s here is fun. The fights are competent and not edited to shreds. But perhaps more importantly, it’s one of the first movies based on a video game to not only nail the iconic visual aspect of the characters, but to truly and fully lean into the fact that these people all do wild and silly things like shoot lasers from their eyes or throw fireballs. It also delivers in spades the games’ trademark, outlandish violence. To save my editor from sternly admonishing me for describing (even mildly) the things certain characters have happen to them, suffice to say it makes the digitized, roughly pixelated violence of the 1992 look positively PG-rated by comparison. No doubt this will turn off more than a few potential viewers, but there’s no denying that fans of the series flock to it in large part for this reason. So if you find entertainment in violence that’s so absurdly over-the-top it swings right around to being comical, this version of “Mortal Kombat” delivers to a satisfying degree.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also single out actor Josh Lawson. His performance as Kano is hands down my favorite part of the film and he fills every scene he’s in with a delightfully smarmy energy, much as the late Trevor Goddard did playing the same character in the 1995 film.

Maybe my enjoyment (or soft judgment) of the film is due more to the fact that it’s just good to see new movies again, and to do so with friends. I got a few (fully vaccinated) buddies to come join me in my backyard, I set up an outdoor screen and projector and streamed “Mortal Kombat” from my laptop (thanks, HBO Max) and we had a blast laughing at and with the movie and generally relishing the absurdity, the competent fights and some fun characters.

It’s entirely possible this movie won’t hold up on repeat viewing as such instances will inevitably be divorced from the context in which it was originally viewed, but that’s OK. This time out I got some very basic enjoyment out of it and had a good time with friends and sometimes that’s more than enough.

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