Recent release in theaters and on HBO Max is the new “Mortal Kombat”, bringing the supremely violent and bloody video game series back to the big screen. Build-up for the film was high, even during the pandemic, and I was excited by the trailers. Later I would learn of the concentrated effort to include as many Asian and Asian-American stunt performers and martial artists as possible, both for authenticity and representation. And while it took me almost four months to the day to watch it (the wife had zero interest in watching it), I don’t understand why it received mixed to negative reviews upon its premiere. It’s a movie about a game where people get their souls sucked out and a four-armed monster rips foes in half. What were you expecting?
Round One – FIGHT!
For the uninitiated, “Mortal Kombat” begins in feudal Japan with Hanzo Hasashi, a ronan, and his family of four. When a warrior attacks and murders his family with some sort of ice powers, they battle to the (his) death with his foe, Bi-Han, leaving battered but victorious. Suddenly a bolt of lightning teleports a man with glowing white eyes to the house where he retrieves Hanzo’s infant daughter from a hiding place and takes her away with him. Hanzo also disappears in a swirl of fire.
Hundreds of years later, we meet Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a washed-up Mixed Martial Arts fighter now scrounging for $200-a-pop cage matches because it’s known he can take a punch. In attendance of his latest fight is Jax (Mehcad Brooks, known for playing James Olson/Guardian on “Supergirl”), a special forces Major interested in a dragon marking they share that Cole claims to be a birthmark. Cole and his wife and daughter are later attacked by a mysterious man who seems to be able to create and manipulate cold and ice. Jax fights off this warrior to allow Cole and fam to escape, directing them to get to Gary, Ind. and find Sonia Blade. The warrior identifies himself as Sub-Zero, the new identity of Bi-Han, and defeats Jax in hand-to-hand combat by freezing off his arms (yikes) and dropping him several stories into an abandoned building.
Co-op Mod Activated
Cole finds Sonia and learns of their years-long search for the truth about an epic tournament between worlds called Mortal Kombat. Cole jokes that she must have made it up because, “They spelled it wrong.” Also with Sonia is a toilet-mouthed Assie mercenary named Kano. They’re attacked by a seemingly invisible reptilian creature (guess what his name in the game is), but they survive and Kano takes them out into the desert to find a hidden temple. After wandering due to Kano’s lack of innate direction (and cheap GPS), they meet Liu Kang, a monk warrior who takes them to the temple to meet Lord Raiden, a god-like man who can control lightning. They also meet Kung Lao, a fighter with a razor-edged hat he can throw and retrieve like Captain America’s shield (one of my favorite characters from the game series). Jax is also there, recovering from his fight with Sub-Zero and having new cybernetic arms grafted onto his body.
The new recruits must learn to channel their arcana, their magical super power they can use during combat. Liu Kang can harness fire and create fireballs, Kung Lao can do amazing things with his sharp hat, Kano learns to fire a laser from his eye, but Cole can’t find his power. Not yet anyway. This allows him to be the audience proxy for the film while we learn what they’re fighting for and who against, namely a supreme being called Shang Tsung from Outworld who wants to defeat the champions of Earthrealm and rule all the realms. Oh, and he can suck out souls. He’s a bad mamajama.
GET OVER HERE!
This film is as violent as violent gets. And gorey for days. But why wouldn’t it be? It’s “Mortal Kombat”, the game that invented the Entertainment Software Ratings Board. The fight choreography is some of the best I’ve ever seen and the direction thereof is pretty seamless (there’s really only one fight where it looks a bit clunky, but who cares). Iconic lines from the game made their way into the script and while this usually elicits massive eye-rolls from me, watching Kung Lao kill somebody with his hat in a particularly gruesome fashion only have him follow it up with, “Flawless victory” would have gotten a cheer from me in the theater. In fact, my wife kept asking what I was saying from the other room as I whispered cheers to myself.
So why the hate? For real though; I’m asking, because I don’t know. I’ve watched a lot of bad movies in my day (I used to have a podcast dedicated to them) but this isn’t a bad movie. It’s surprisingly great. As the kid who never had a game system and only played at friends’ houses (shout-out to Adam Millage, Sergio Pena, and Rick Dominguez for always having the latest MK games), I loved the lore around these characters and spent hours reading the supplemental materials and later taking deep dives on Wikipedia. One friend who’s also a film critic said it wasn’t what he expected and I can’t fathom what that would have been.
They’re clearly setting up a franchise of films (yes more please) and my only hope is that they adhere to the groundwork established in this film. Please please please don’t go the route of the 90s films. Make more honest, grounded films about super-human killing machines who have to protect our planet. And for the haters out there, please see the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I rest my case.
When the next film comes out, I’ll take two tickets, please.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Snack Packs.
Lincoln L. Hayes is an actor and writer in NYC. Film and TV have begun again now that restrictions are easing, so please follow his work at www.lincolnlhayes.com and who knows; maybe he’ll be in a “Mortal Kombat” film someday as a wise-cracking sidekick who gets punched a lot.