Every gamer has that one game, that one series, which truly sucked you into the hobby. Most of us end up having quite a few of these – those games which took over your life for a time and which felt like more than just another thing to play. For me, as someone who has been gaming since the Spectrum days, I have a tonne of formative favourites but Mortal Kombat is one of those which went beyond purely gaming. I was obsessed with games 1-3, learning the moves and fatalities for each character, reading the lore and imagining each character’s lives beyond the games. I loved the first movie and bought the VHS, I was excited for and disappointed by its sequel, and I even enjoyed the short lived TV show. Somewhere along the way I moved on to other things, the games rarely came to my console of choice, but I still hoped for more movies and shows based on the franchise.
Mortal Kombat is the latest in the long line of franchise reboots. Given the enduring popularity of the videogames, and a recent resurgence in its popularity, a reboot seemed inevitable. What’s interesting and commendable about the reboot, is the lack of a big name cast. Outside of Hiroyuki Sanada and Tadanobu Asano, the cast are lesser known stalwarts of TV and Cinema and convincing in their martial arts abilities. Several of the guys have a history in martial arts which helps the film feel less Hollywood and more authentic. The level of gore isn’t quite on terms with the ridiculous nature of the games, but there are plenty of visceral kills and moments which are apt given the game’s history, and not the sort of thing you tend to see much in a mainstream release these days. In terms of being authentic to the games, we have a roster of familiar characters to prop up the new character of Cole Young – essentially your Build A Character guy. It’s expectedly cheesy when people say things like ‘flawless victory’ and ‘get over here’, but that’s the nature of the beast.
With a world so messy and involved as this, it’s difficult to pick a single strand and run with it, while avoiding too much exposition. The writers know that most of the people watching this will have a background in the lore, but just in case, they have to do a little back story and world building. Opening with a fairly brutal scene set in rural Japan a number of centuries ago, a famous fighter’s home is attacked by a group of warriors. His family is slain and he has a final showdown with the group’s leader. It’s a bloody battle, but the fighter is killed. One infant was stashed away in an attempt to secure his bloodline. Flash forward to present day and we learn that one of the fighter’s descendants is an American, down on his luck MMA type. He also happens to have a birthmark which, we later learn, is mystical in nature and highlights him as one of Earth’s warrior champions. Every generation there is an intergalactic martial arts tournament known as Mortal Kombat, in which the best fighters from every realm, fight to the death, for glory, and for the protection of their worlds. Earth is on a 9 tournament losing streak, and if they lose a tenth, then all of the evil of the worlds beyond will have free reign on Earth and likely turn humanity into slaves.
This is one of the points at which the film fragments a little. The entire film, unlike the original, is set pre-tournament. Shang Tsung, the leader of the bad guys, decides to take out Earth Realms champions before they get a chance to compete, thereby giving the bad guys a drastic advantage. It’s a little like The Terminator, and is an idea which would have been cool to truly delve into. If they had focused on Cole and a smaller group of fighters, with no knowledge of why they are being hunting down by these supernatural warriors, I could have got behind that idea. Instead, Sonja and Jax already suspect Mortal Kombat and have been researching for years, Liu Kang and Kung Lao are veterans, and some of the good guys even know the bad guys. It feels like the writers wanted to tell a story, but knew they had to keep the fandom happy by throwing as many game characters on the screen. Kano is fully fleshed out and is a lot of fun, but the likes of Kabal, Mileena, Reiko, Nitara, are mostly there for fighting and killing purposes. Cole is a family man too, which I understand and lends him an emotional connection to the audience and to Scorpion, but if we were following the Terminator idea, it would have suited the plot better to simply have Cole as a seemingly random guy thrown into this world of stretchy mouthed woman and stalactite botherers.
The more crucial point, for me, is why Shang Tsung even goes through with any of this. If I was on a nine tournament streak, I’d be pretty confident that I was going to win the next one. The best of Earth’s warriors have clearly been beaten for many generations, so why would I assume they would be so tough this time? I get that there’s this prophecy about Scorpion’s offspring preventing the bad guys from winning, but if you’re aware of this prophecy, why not simply go full T2 and kill them when they’re kids? It feels a little clunky, and I think they could have introduced the world and characters without having to go down this route. I’d maybe have preferred the story to simply follow Scorpion’s journey without having the character of Cole whatsoever. In addition, the film almost ends feeling unfinished with Shang Tsung promising he’ll be back with armies. The final fights are good, but feel somewhat anti-climactic, and clearly prepped for a host of sequels.
It’s likely fair to say that most people are not coming to Mortal Kombat for the story. Most people will want the peripherals, a few familiar names, and then let them behead, punch, kick, stab, and uppercut each other into spike pits. As mentioned, there is plenty of gore which evokes some of the series fatalities and the fights feel swift and visceral, and are more akin to the Eastern action movies such as The Raid rather than a Marvel movie. Even with the fantastical elements, it still feels grounded in using your body and your physical ability to overcome your enemy. In that respect, it’s a very traditional martial arts film which just happens to include four-armed monsters, thunder gods, and resurrected fire ninjas.
Let us know in the comments what you think of Mortal Kombat!