Anyone grudgingly, voluntarily or even enthusiastically watching a feature film based on a video game knows what they’re getting themselves into. From 1993’s Super Mario Bros. to 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog, video game movies have occupied an echelon of the movie industry slightly closer to motel cable edits of porn movies than to Oscar-winning Shakespeare adaptations. Something, let’s say, in the “high school stoner comedy” range. Often 1997’s Mortal Kombat: Annihilation—based on the popular string of of arcade fighting games launched in 1992—is listed as the worst example of this much-maligned sub-genre. (Although virtually any of German director Uwe Boll video game-inspired outings—House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, Postal, BloodRayne, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, Far Cry—would give it a solid fight for the title.) As a result, anyone punching up the 2021 reboot of Mortal Kombat on HBO Max (or hunting it down in an actual movie theater) will end up more or less getting their money’s worth. Is it dumb? Yes. Is it fun? Yes. Is it dumb fun? Now you’re catching on.
Calling this new Mortal Kombat a “reboot” is giving it more credit than it needs. The video game series (14 games and counting) has already inspired two live-action films, two animated features, two live-action TV shows and one animated series. The plot, setting and characters in each of them have barely wavered so much as a pixel from the original video game. Basically, a bunch of superpowered martial artists pair off in a tournament and beat one another up. Which is precisely what happens in this newest iteration.
Mortal Kombat starts out, encouragingly enough, with a jolt of adrenaline. Back in 17th century Japan, legendary ninja Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is attacked by rival bad guy assassin Bi-Han (Joe Taslim). Seems that (as anyone who’s played the games knows) champions of various “realms” are tasked with battling one another to the death in a tournament known as “Mortal Kombat.” Win 10 times in a row and your dimension gets to conquer one of the others. (Also, a free sub!) Seems that the “Outworld,” ruled by soul-stealing sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han), doesn’t much like playing by the rules. So they’ve sent Bi-Han to the “Earthrealm” to wipe out the competition. Sanada has a 50-year background in marital arts cinema (G.I. Samurai, Samurai Reincarnation, Ninja Wars, The Twilight Samurai), and Taslim starred alongside Iko Uwais the the Indonesian martial arts masterpiece The Raid before moving to Hollywood for Fast & Furious 6. Their toe-to-toe opening battle is a heart-pumper and sets the pace for the rest of the film. When it comes to fighting, Mortal Kombat is legit. When we’re stuck dealing with plot and character … well, thankfully there’s very little of that.
Bi-Han kills off Hanzo and his family, but misses a newborn baby, which allows Hanzo’s bloodline to continue. Some 400 years later, we meet Cole Young (Lewis Tan from Netflix’s “Iron Fist” and AMC’s “Into the Badlands”). Young is a down-on-his-luck MMA fighter trying to earn enough cash to support his wife and daughter. But evil Bi-Han (now going by the cooler nom de guerre of Sub-Zero) shows up and tries to ice the guy with his magical freezing powers. Your see, Young is the latest descendant of Hanzo Hasashi and the inheritor of his place in the Mortal Kombat tournament. (How Sub-Zero failed to find any other Hasashi offspring in the last four centuries is left conveniently unexplained.) Weirdly, Cole isn’t one of the fighters from any of the various Mortal Kombat games. Why the screenwriters felt the need to invent a new “dude who can punch really good” when there are already so many to choose from is a mystery.
Anyway. It seems that it’s almost time for another tournament. Sub-Zero and his supernatural master Shang Tsung are still trying to “cheat” at Mortal Kombat. Instead of facing the champions of the various realms one-on-one in the tournament, they’ll hunt them down and … fight them one-on-one before the tournament. It’s not a very complicated or well-though-out plan. But here we are.
Our befuddled hero Cole is rescued in the nick of time from Sub-Zero’s icy grip by Jax (Mechad Brooks) and Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee). They soon team up with Lui Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang) and Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano from Ichi the Killer, Zatoichi and the Thor films). And throughout the rest of the film, they’re all obliged to trade punches, kicks, fireballs, lightning bolts, etc. with various other opponents from the game (Kano, Mileena and Goro among them). If you’re not familiar with the games, these names are meaningless. If you grew up pumping quarters in them, you’ll get a mild thrill when they pop up on screen.
One of Mortal Kombat the game’s most notorious elements was its “fatalities,” nasty finishing moves in which heads were sliced off, spines were removed and hearts were snatched from rib cages. Mortal Kombat the movie follows suit, delivering a surprisingly gory fight flick with loads of R-rated carnage. Again, it’s a touch that will delight game fans. Director Simon McQuoid—who directed a 1-minute video short seven years ago and … yup, that’s it for his resume—at least knows what kind of movie he’s been tasked with delivering. And it ain’t Shakespeare.
BOX: Mortal Kombat is available now for streaming on HBO Max and is screening in select theaters.