MORTAL KOMBAT Review: Mildly Flawed, But Retkonned Victoriously
It’s been a strain waiting so many years to see another live-action iteration of hit fighting game franchise, Mortal Kombat, on the big screen. To add, it’s possible that the varying expectations from fans would’ve added some considerable pressure unto anyone trying to do right by the brand, though you have to give it to the powers that be for attempting something different – a move often haplessly applied with other filmic attempts on the genre that usually draws ire from the masses. And rightfully so, in some ways.
Look at all pre-existing examples from Steven de Souza’s Street Fighter (1994) and Andrzej Bartkowiak’s Street Fighter: The Legend Of Chun Li (2009) to Gordon Chan’s ill-conceived take on King Of Fighters (2009), and even Tekken (2010) and its hackeneyed direct-to-DVD sequel. The bright spots within many of these films, and areas of massive potential to world-build in ways that could accommodate their respective fandoms and moviegoers alike, are imminently outweighed by the perpetual failures of their overseers to fully understand the source material enough to conjure solid narratives and better stories.
Even the prospects of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat – a production diluted from comme il faut violence per the games in place of show-stopping martial arts action sequences by Pat Johnson and starring actor Robin Shou to provide a somewhat cohesive and suitable welcome into the universe on the big screen – reportedly fell to studio machinations with an even gaudier sequel, thanks in part to an ill-informed test screening audience, that is, if film historian Brad F. Henderson’s tweets posted back in February are any hint.
With any movements onto a third film in any sort of capacity boding with no real results for the next seventeen years, it’s not hard to wonder why any chance for a new film felt like a hopeless one. Personally, I never gave up, no matter how many people told me that a movie was NEVER going to happen, and even if they might’ve been right – and should a new film actually move forward, the lingering question always remained if whether or not it would have been done right.
For all intents and purposes, director Joey Ansah’s Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist (2014), a long and hard-earned effort by a team that managed to craft and cohese a solid webseries/narrative feature film within five years of its own three-minute proof pitch, stood as proof that it was possible to flesh out a meaningful and layered story and a tactful presentation of fighting action that magnifies the characters involved. For me, it was, and remains the high mark of tournament fighting game adaptation for movies.
Does that mean that commercial director Simon McQuoid’s own feature filmmaking studio debut with Mortal Kombat should be a similar beast? To answer that question, you would have to look at the history of the franchise, and all the necessary details to conceive what might have been possible on a scale beyond one’s own individual perceptions. As inane as it might sound, Tancharoen’s own empassioned contributions to the franchise in 2011 and 2013 still generate my own curiosity as a filmgoer, his two-season webseries was an impressive feat to achieve in many areas, and aside from the unreleased third film, it might’ve been amazing to experience what he could have done on the very movie he was supposed to direct.
Similarly, I would even say the same thing if McQuoid were in his predecessor’s shoes at the time, and for that, there is a huge air of gratitude on my end that he and his people paid attention to this franchise, enough to spot the likes of actor and martial artist Lewis Tan who himself had a role in the unreleased and otherwise scrapped third season in Mortal Kombat Legacy. Barring any suggestions of him playing an already-prevalent game character for that matter, it’s important that we had screenwriters in Greg Russo and Dave Callahan to provide a new story template for McQuoid to allow Tan to build on as an actor genuinely capable on multiple fronts for a film of this caliber, and so looking at the role he plays in McQuoid’s Mortal Kombat as he evolves and transitions from Cole, a mere downtrodden cagefighter to an armored warrior battling some of the universe’s most powerful killers, you’re invited with enough leeway into a treatment of Mortal Kombat that not only avoids saturating you by playing with the same pieces and parts, but instead reallocates its characters and thematic attributions to foundate its broader, more ambitious scope.
As far as technical aspects go, the action and spectacle deliver some impressive moments with plenty of gore to whet the average Mortal Kombat fan’s appetite for brimming violence and gore, with some characters meeting their end far worse than others. Each character gets their time to shine with an arc to bring their growth full circle from the moment they appear on screen going forward, including the role of Jax (Mehcad Brooks) in his stoic, introspective recovery from his near-death battle with Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) (as teased in the first red-band trailer), and even Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) as she balances between her dauntless quest to confront Outworld’s enemies and keeping incorrigible criminal overlord and otherwise “chosen” fighter, Kano (Josh Lawson) at bay.
Earthrealm protector and Elder God, Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) is not without his share of chiding demeanor and wit as he struggles to cope with the underdog champions he’ll have to train with the help of studious Shaolin warriors Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang). We also get a feasible introduction of meaty Shokan half-human dragon, Prince Goro, CG-rendered in his exchange with Cole; Frankly, there isn’t a huge difference in graphics from the initial trailer, and so the visuals here may be a bit of disappointment to those expecting better, although it doesn’t distract too much from the pacing and importance of the fight, and Tan’s performance in it as a key sequence that stands pertinent to the rest of the story.
The climactic melee between our heroes and villians later in the second hour comes across as more abridged than preferred, and lacks the kind of paced, extravagant and brill showing of our characters fighting one another scenes in Anderson’s film. Rather, it plays off of a similar approach in John Leonetti’s 1997 film, done in a way that, in line with other areas of the film, brings gravitas and a sense of course-correction that fittingly feels like a righting of past wrongs. The editing does seem flawed and questionable in some areas, but the cinematography does takes ample care of what needs to be seen and lensed, especially when it comes to much action and set-pieces.
Perhaps the biggest and most essential element to the story in Mortal Kombat here comes in part with getting to know the roles of Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Sub-Zero, and their bloody and dark history as taught and revisited time and again throughout the franchise’s multimedia attributions. Some things are left as only suggestive and implied, as we begin to connect Cole with the rest of the world of Mortal Kombat that looms around him, and it serves less so as a stumbling point in Russo and McQuoid’s storytelling than a setup to build interest in learning more about the Hisashi bloodline, and the people that co-exist who can possibly help further culminate this particular cinematic reboot into franchise fruition.
For better or worse, McQuoid’s Mortal Kombat works in the same way that some remakes and reboots are able to function, and though my own list of such films is of a limited variety, it still bodes as significant proof that it is possible to establish a cinematic, live-action avenue for adapt video properties. The red-band trailer for this movie sells it accordingly, and so while the film still endures its share of minor corporate shortcomings, it doesn’t mean the film is a failure.
If you’re asking on a one-to-ten star scale what my final opinion is, I give it an eight. A lot of what may irk some viewers about this film doesn’t faze me as much (especially given all the indies I’ve watched all these years), but where there are filmmaking faux pas, there is room for improvement. Sans certain character familiars in conjunction with the many easter eggs seen in this film notwithstanding, I nonetheless fully support what this film accomplishes in establishing a fresh, nascent and compelling story on ground familiar enough that it easily invites everyone, both new and common to the Mortal Kombat franchise, a seat at the arena.
Mortal Kombat is now playing in theaters and IMAX, and is available for the next 31 days on HBO Max at no extra cost.
DIRECTOR: Simon McQuoid
CAST: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin, Chin Han, Joe Taslim, and Hiroyuki Sanada, Max Huang, Sisi Stringer, Daniel Nelson, Mel Jarnson, Matilda Kimber, Laura Brent and Nathan Jones SCREENPLAY: Greg Russo and Dave Callaham
STORY: Oren Uziel and Greg Russo.
PRODUCERS: James Wan, Todd Garner (p.g.a.), Simon McQuoid and E. Bennett Walsh
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Richard Brener, Dave Neustadter, Victoria Palmeri, Michael Clear, Jeremy Stein and Larry Kasanoff.
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY: Germain McMicking
PRODUCTION DESIGNER: Naaman Marshall
STUNT COORDINATOR: Kyle Gardiner
FIGHT COORDINATORS: Chan Griffin and Anthony Rinna
EDITORS: Dan Lebental and Scott Gray
VFX SUPERVISOR: Chris Godfrey
COSTUME DESIGNER: Cappi Ireland
COMPOSER: Benjamin Wallfisch
From New Line Cinema, an Atomic Monster/Broken Road Production
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.
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