“Why are you trying to fix what isn’t broken?”
That sentiment echoed throughout my mind repeatedly as I watched Simon McQuoid’s take on Mortal Kombat. A Mortal Kombat film is such an easy thing to get right, it’s almost admirable just how wrong McQuoid and Co. got it in this latest outing. Ostensibly, the game series is about a fighting tournament of cosmic proportions that determine whether Earth is conquered by another realm or not. Throughout its run, the series has almost always been about Shaolin monk Liu Kang and his quest to save the world. Surrounding him are a wild cast of characters like undead ninjas, Special Forces soldiers, Hollywood actors, mutants with knives in their arms and literal gods. It’s the kind of fantastical lore that would be perfect as a television series wherein you can elaborate on the many characters and focus in on their lives, loves and death(s). For whatever reason, Hollywood is committed to trying to cram all of this into a two-hour movie but that doesn’t mean you can’t get the bare bones onscreen: Liu Kang fighting his way to the top and saving the world. That’s it. That’s your story. It’s an easy buy-in and something that feels so effectively simple.
But we live in a post-MCU world where every film needs to exist as a trailer for fifteen upcoming films. Nothing is allowed to exist as its own, self-contained piece of art. One of the many things that holds Mortal Kombat back is that it feels like playing the tutorial before you play the game but here, once you’re ready to dive into the game, the credits are already rolling. Bizarrely focusing on a created-for-the-film character, washed out MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), the film dumps all of its lore onto you via him and devotes the majority of its run time into training him for the big tournament. Only, like a tutorial, he never gets to play. Because the tournament never happens. Instead, Mortal Kombat spins its wheels for two hours explaining things to Cole so he can sarcastically remark on how weird it all is, drops familiar faces in and out for him to fight and then sputters to an end without anything ever happening. Tan does what he can with Cole Young and his performance isn’t without merit but there’s nothing to him. He’s a cypher through which to see the film with no meat on the bone. In a franchise full of interesting characters with all kinds of motivation, the choice to go this route is baffling. Aren’t we past the point of needing a character like this to filter fantastical settings? The biggest franchise on earth is centered around magic rocks that wipe out reality. I think it’s not too much to ask an audience to buy in to a magical fighting tournament.
That this feels like a first draft full of things that may or may not be explained in later sequels and spinoffs isn’t a killer though. When you go into a film like this, the bare minimum of expectation is that the fights are going to be something special. In fact, McQuoid touted this early and often in the press leading up to the film. He had reason to as the film was stacked with solid stunt performers and fight choreographers like Kyle Gardiner and Chan Griffin. Throw genre veterans Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada and Ludi Lin into the mix and you’ve got a damn good recipe. At the very least, if the film itself wasn’t great, at least the action was going to be top notch. Or so you’d think. When you can see the action, it’s spellbinding. Again, like the half-baked script, McQuoid’s direction and editors Dan Lebental and Scott Gray butcher this thing to high hell. There’s almost no interesting framing to speak of and nothing lands with the sort of impact you’d expect because it’s cut in all the wrong places. It’s maddening because you can see excellent work being done through the veil of bad filmmaking and you just want to reach through the screen and shake somebody.
This is what’s most inexcusable about Mortal Kombat. A boring protagonist and a nothing script are certainly issues but a big budget movie with the backing of Warner Bros. should not be this irreparably lazy when it comes to the *Kombat.* In the wake of its release, I saw so many people over the moon for the action and calling it a “face melter” or “ass whipper” but like the great Angelica Jade Bastién asked in her review over at Vulture, “dont we deserve better?” I think we do! Action cinema is at its best when you can stare in awe at what the human body can do. In the West, this is best observed in DTV action where guys like Jesse V. Johnson, Liam O’Donnell and Isaac Floretine shoot and frame their stars doing things that no human being should be able to do. You want to feel the impact of a face being smashed in. You want to see a guy like Scott Adkins defy physics and kick some chump’s lights out. There’s no sense of any of that in Mortal Kombat and I find that borderline criminal. That this much money and effort went into something so lifeless and uninspired hurts. Especially as someone who adores the craft put into it. Frequent contributor to this site and host of the essential podcast Adkins Undisputed, Mike Scott, had an all timer of Twitter thread that goes into this on a granular level that you should absolutely read here. It’s possibly the most defining bit of writing on how to frame, shoot and edit action.
So what, if anything, works in Mortal Kombat? For one, the cast. Save for a lifeless Raiden and Shang Tsung (once again, baffling when you consider their importance to proceedings), each and every member brings their A-game to a film that struggles around them. Particular standouts being a hilarious Josh Lawson as Kano and a great Jessica McNamee as Sonya Blade. Joe Taslim and Hiroyuki Sanada play Sub Zero and Scorpion respectively. They’re by far the most interesting and exciting aspects to the film. Both men are genre legends and deserve far better than the admittedly terrific opening devoted to them. If you’re familiar with the games, you already know how important the lifelong rivalry between Bi-Han (Sub Zero) and Hanzo Hasashi (Scorpion) is. It’s maybe the most tragic storyline in a series full of them. It’s a hard thing to screw up and thankfully, aside from not using either man nearly enough, the film acquits them well.
Otherwise, Mortal Kombat is a heartbreaker to this lifelong fan of the series and lover of action. It gets almost nothing right about what you love about the games, almost going out of its way to upend that. Source material accuracy is something that means very little to me if what you’ve done in place of it works. This doesn’t. Cole Young is a pathetic attempt to try something new. The lack of any meaningful story structure and the primary setting being a hideous, gray/brown cave leaves the film a meandering mess. With a few bright spots of recognition here and there designed to wake up your lizard brain like “Oh wow that’s Nitara!” there are five moments of utter incompetence that follow. It’s a real shame. In a series where you’re often asked to “Test Your Might”, Mortal Kombat is a real test of patience.
Mortal Kombat is currently playing in theaters and is streaming on HBO Max.