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‘Mortal Kombat:’ A(n Almost) Flawless Victory!

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With it being over a year since I had last stepped foot in a movie theater, I was reluctant — but nonetheless excited — to return. Although I have an HBO Max subscription and could have very easily watched this at home, as a huge fan of the video game franchise, I just had to experience director Simon McQuoid’s “Mortal Kombat” in that loud, immersive room that I think many of us have been missing for quite some time. 

“Mortal Kombat” opens in 17th century Japan, where the audience meets Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his family. After being hunted down by Chinese assassin Bi-Han/Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), Hanzo’s family is murdered and what follows is an intense, beautifully bloody battle. Sanada breathes fiery life into the character of Hanzo, both as an actor and as a skilled martial artist. Following a recent film marketing trend, the first seven minutes of the film are up on Youtube, so audiences can have a sneak peek at what they can expect from the adaptation.

The film introduces the audience to the film’s main protagonist, MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), who comes to find out that the dragon symbol birthmark he dawns is actually an invitation to a fighting tournament called Mortal Kombat. Cole joins the other champions of Earth, all of whom are being tracked down by Sorcerer Shang Tsung (Ng Chin Han) and his warrior Sub-Zero. 

Cole Young  is a completely new addition to the world of Mortal Kombat, acting as the vessel for audiences not familiar with the franchise’s lore and world mechanics. Cole essentially acts as a sponge for exposition, which at times is spewed out in awkward blocky lines by Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) or the god of thunder, Raiden (Tadanobu Asano). While it is often very obvious that chunks of dialogue are only there to service world-building, catching new audiences up to speed, it doesn’t drag. Video game film adaptations sometimes run the risk of alienating those who aren’t already invested in the game, so the necessary exposition is just a small bump to get over. For non-Mortal Kombat fans, it can also be pretty difficult to keep track of names and people with so many characters being introduced one after another. 

With characters that range from giant four-armed princes to soul-sucking sorcerers, it would be fatal for a movie like “Mortal Kombat” to take itself too seriously. Hell, even the games take pride in and poke fun of their campy ridiculousness. Fortunately, the film has plenty of self-awareness, most of it taking the form of its Australian bounty hunter Kano (Josh Lawson). Lawson’s strong background in comedy is put to great use in his portrayal of the vulgar, witty bastard king himself. The character of Kano is constantly questioning the eccentric and bizarre revelations rapidly taking place around him, voicing thoughts that the audience might be having too. Lawson gives the audience a chance to laugh at all the madness happening on screen. Kano definitely has a love-hate relationship with his audience, and Lawson does an incredible job at maintaining that balance. 

There are plenty of references and Easter eggs, but they are never shoved in your face. Everybody knows you can’t have a video game movie without fan service. If there is too much of it, it feels insincere, but luckily this film has just as much heart in it as it does blood. “Mortal Kombat” is filled to the brim with gruesome death scenes, brutal violence and blood that mirrors its video game counterpart. An R rating for a movie can be a huge risk, especially for a video game adaptation. Yet it was inevitable if the film wanted to be faithful at all— and it certainly puts it to good use. Signature moves pulled straight out of the game are beautifully recreated through intensive choreography, practical effects and computer graphics. 

In fact, many of the film’s actors also have their own background in martial arts, creating much more fluid, confident, and grounded fight scenes. Unfortunately, some of the fight scenes contain so many cuts that it can be difficult to truly appreciate the stunt work being done.

Transportation to distant places and realms such as Outworld, or even just a frozen over fight club is seamless with the incredible filming locations and set designs. Updated costumes for the characters create a gritty, more realistic world than those found in the original 90s video games. In an interview with ScreenRant, director McQuoid discussed his insistence on reworking costume designs after wanting to avoid a “bad Halloween party” feel: 

“I was just pushing the costume designer every day that we need more layers and we need more texture. It became a running gag with Cappi: “I suppose you want more detail.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’d be kind of nice.”

It’s tempting for a film like “Mortal Kombat” to fall into either the category of laughably goofy by trying to stay rigidly faithful to the original material or estranging diehard fans by changing and compromising too much. The first was a mistake made by Paul W. S. Anderson’s 1995 version of “Mortal Kombat,” that after a quarter decade has become a sort of cult classic. Extremely cheesy and so incredibly 90s, it is hit or miss with MK fans. So it’s a relief to realize that McQuoid and crew were able to not only bring the Mortal Kombat characters and story back to life on the screen after 25 years, but rejuvenate them as well. 

The classic Mortal Kombat fight theme, “Techno Syndrome,” is also given new life by the film’s composer, Benjamin Wallfisch. Character themes range from slick to epic techno beats that support already intense fight scenes. 

It becomes very clear early on that the film’s writers are setting up a cinematic universe for Mortal Kombat. Some may find this blatant foundation laying flimsy or lazy, but with the sheer amount of lore, characters and storylines, “Mortal Kombat” would most definitely require several main series movies to fully explore what it has to offer. It’s easy to look at this and say it’s just another  studio milking a thirty-year-old video game franchise for money and preying off the nostalgia of the now grown up late 80s and 90s kids — and let’s be honest that’s definitely a part of it — but as a fan, it’s difficult not to be excited. Even for those that aren’t fans of the original material, if you like vicious fight scenes or complex world building, you should be excited too. 

“Mortal Kombat” was released on HBO Max and in theaters on April 23. It will be streaming through May 23. 

Hilary Gil is an Entertainment Staff Writer. She can be reached at hsgil@uci.edu.