Video game adaptations are notoriously difficult to pull off. Some of the worst films in recent history have found their source material in beloved gaming series: The Max Payne adaptation is an embarrassing Mark Wahlberg action movie with the “Max Payne” title slapped on it, Justin Kurzel’s “Assassin’s Creed” departs from the games in favor of something far more boring and generic and both “Hitman” and “Hitman: Agent 47” fail to understand what makes the Hitman games special.
Within this context, Simon McQuoid’s “Mortal Kombat,” a reboot of the film series based on the highly successful Mortal Kombat video games, is surprisingly refreshing. The Mortal Kombat formula isn’t particularly complex. The original 1992 game sparked widespread controversy due to its depictions of brutal violence, and in the decades since, over-the-top gore and a healthy dose of cheesy fantasy world building have become hallmarks of the Mortal Kombat franchise — and McQuoid wholeheartedly embraces this.
McQuoid’s “Mortal Kombat” is mostly faithful to the games through not only its characters and narrative but also, more importantly, its tone. The film centers on Cole Young (Lewis Tan), an MMA fighter and descendant of ninja warrior Hanzo Hasashi, who is chosen to compete in a martial arts tournament to decide the fate of the world. Pursued by Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), a superhuman assassin who murdered Hanzo centuries ago, Cole must band together with other contestants, including quintessential characters from the Mortal Kombat games, such as U.S. Special Operations Forces agents Jax and Sonya Blade, mercenary and fugitive Kano and martial arts masters Liu Kang and Kung Lao in order to win.
Throughout, McQuoid remains keenly aware of audience expectations for a Mortal Kombat film, and for the most part, he delivers. The film scarcely goes 10 minutes without an action scene, and the martial arts sequences are intricately choreographed, blending computer-generated imagery with practical effects in a completely convincing manner. McQuoid also excels at visual callbacks to the game series in the form of iconic character move sets or spectacular Fatalities, employing such moments of fan service with surprising taste, especially when compared to the nonstop volley in other fan service vehicles such as “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”
Despite McQuoid’s obvious enthusiasm for and deep understanding of the Mortal Kombat games, however, his direction weakens much of the film’s strengths. A debut director, McQuoid handles tonal shifts with little elegance, awkwardly switching from comedy — which mostly misfires — to cliche melodrama. Further, though the cinematography imbues each set piece with an otherworldly atmosphere, many of the elaborate fight sequences are hampered by haphazard staging and sloppy editing.
Though, like Warner Bros.’ previous blockbuster “Godzilla vs. Kong,” the narrative mainly serves to carry viewers from one action set piece to another, and “Mortal Kombat” weaves the story into the action far more successfully. The film’s bigger offense is its lack of characterization — aside from the backstories established in the games, characters such as Jax, Sonya Blade and the lightning god Raiden remain underdeveloped, though superficially engaging. Worse, the film’s chosen protagonist, Cole, one of the few original characters, is utterly bland and passive, and Tan is rarely compelling in the role, leaving audiences to identify more with side characters Liu Kang and Kung Lao, played by standouts Ludi Lin and Max Huang, respectively.
Still, “Mortal Kombat” is a far more engaging, passionately crafted film than the last big-budget video game adaptation released, Paul W.S. Anderson’s incoherent “Monster Hunter.” It also greatly outdoes the original 1995 “Mortal Kombat” film, directed by Anderson as well. Though Anderson’s film has developed a cult following as of late, any classification of the original “Mortal Kombat” as “so bad it’s good” is completely erroneous — the film is just garden-variety awful
McQuoid’s “Mortal Kombat,” however, strikes closer to the big-budget, B-movie tone viewers wish they found in Anderson’s, and the film more accurately captures the essence of the Mortal Kombat games. There is one metric by which Anderson’s film succeeds over McQuoid’s, however — the new theme song pales in comparison to its heart-pumping ‘90s counterpart.
Mortal Kombat is now streaming on HBO Max.
Neil Haeems is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].