The latest cinematic adaptation of Mortal Kombat is an ode to the video game films of years past. And by that I mean it’s backed by a nonsensical plot, hammy dialogue, over-the-top action and middling performances. There are times when Mortal Kombat knows exactly what kind of movie it is but more often than not, the janky tone and odd dialogue choices combine to create a lopsided film that rarely knows what it wants to be.
But even still, it’s a bunch of fun.
The idea of movies being “good” or “bad” is, frankly, bullshit. Movies are designed to entertain by nature — the only “bad” movies are ones that fail to do that. So if I said Mortal Kombat was a “good” movie, technically it’s true. If you go in looking for bloody, over-the-top battles, stylish filmography and great special effects, you’re in luck. If you go looking for anything else, you won’t find it.
This is a ‘no thoughts, head empty’ kind of movie. You watch it for the spectacle, not for its nuance — and if you turn your brain off, you’ll mostly like what you see.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way before we dive in with the rest of the film: if you’re looking for the Sub-Zero/Scorpion face-off of your dreams (one that was promised by early trailers and marketing), you won’t get that in Mortal Kombat. Hanzo Hasashi, who ultimately takes on the Scorpion mantle, initially appears to be the protagonist of the film. In the opening scenes, he’s depicted as a kunai-swinging bad-arse as he faces off against Bi-Han (later known as Sub-Zero).
But after a brief introduction for these two, the action switches to the modern day as fighter Cole Young learns of his bloodline inheritance and place in the deadly, realm-spanning Mortal Kombat tournament.
See, Cole has been on a bad losing streak and his family is suffering because of it. But when Sub-Zero tracks him down and attempts to kill him, his entire life changes. He’s ultimately led to Sonya Blade, a woman who badly wants to fight in Mortal Kombat and who’s spent her whole life researching the tournament. It’s never really explained who she is, how she knows what she knows or why she’d want to fight in the tournament in the first place — but she functions as Cole’s guide in the film, and also introduces Kano to the makeshift team who represents Earth’s fighters.
Outside of this, Sonya doesn’t really have much to do in the movie until the final chapter. She’s just there to get the band together, deliver some exposition-heavy dialogue and send Cole, Jax and Kano on to train with Raiden in his temple.
Now, it’s here that a strange split happens in the film — and it’s all down to Kano.
All you really need to know about the character is he’s the typical unhinged Aussie stereotype. (Think Captain Boomerang in Suicide Squad.) He was a military fighter, he’s got a chip on his shoulder, and Sonya initially has him tied up in a shed. When he’s unleashed, he’s a wildly inappropriate, profanity-heavy brawler with major anger issues and a real Aussie sense of humour.
What that means for the film is the entire plot and dialogue crumbles under his weight. He’s a fantastic character, but he consistently makes fun of the film’s plot, its characters and every little thing going on. His attitude undermines the film’s attempt at serious dialogue, throwing the tone so far off it makes Mortal Kombat seem more like a parody.
Take Cole Young. He’s a young fighter looking to prove himself in a deadly tournament with the fate of the world at stake. Kano is an Aussie larrikin just looking to have a good time and make fat cash. He doesn’t care about elder gods or saving the world. He’s just there to mess shit up.
The majority of the film is about the champions of Earth unlocking their hidden superpowers (the aforementioned “arcana”) by testing their bodies and pushing themselves to their limits. For Cole and Jax, their powers come in a time of great and dramatic need. For Kano, they activate when he’s really mad nobody will pass him an egg roll down the table.
It’s a great moment, but it also highlights the film’s extreme tonal inconsistencies. It wants to be a faithful adaptation of the game. It also wants to be a serious fantasy martial arts film. But it also wants to recognise the inherent silliness of Mortal Kombat and poke fun at its fantasy setting.
There are ways to do all of this — and Mortal Kombat occasionally shows some necessary flashes of self-awareness — but these moments are few and far between. Instead, the tonal inconsistencies mean audiences are directed to laugh at Mortal Kombat while also taking its plot and characters seriously. Some actors absolutely got the memo about what this film wanted to be (Josh Lawson is an absolute delight as Kano) but others weigh down the action with bland and too-serious performances.
To be fair to Lewis Tan, who plays Cole Young, this is a fault of the material.
Cole Young is a superfluous character. He exists to be the eyes of the clueless audience. But he’s so bland and forgettable that he might as well not be there at all. Because the film’s so packed with characters, we don’t really get to see much of Cole’s story at all. We know he’s a fighter, and that he has a family he’d die to protect. But he doesn’t really get much of a chance to show who he is or why we should care about him.
It doesn’t help that the film saddles him with the primary motivation of protecting his wife and daughter from danger, either. (The same motivation that sets Hanzo on his path, I might add.) It’s just boring. We’ve seen the story play out a million times before. Sure, the ancient wizards are a nice twist, but his story is nothing new. Nearly everyone else has a more interesting backstory, including Sonya Blade — and we barely get to know her at all. Kano gets a better story than Cole Young, and he’s a minor player at best.
If the pacing or structure was better, the main characters would have had more of a chance to shine. But the plot is a weird mess that’s barely explained outside of hammy, info-packed lines. The basic premise is Earth has been invited to participate in a competition that determines the fate of the universe. It’s unclear if the tournament is meant to be a proper fighting event, or if it just kind of happens when the Netherrealm decides to invade Raiden’s sanctuary.
Everything just kind of happens and audiences are expected to go along with it. Which, again, is fine. It’s entertaining. But it’s hard not to feel like the movie is an empty vessel for fan service and the odd, bloody fight. Things happen, and they continue to happen. There’s winners and losers, and then the movie ends.
The action is beautiful and well-choreographed while it lasts, and there’s plenty of blood and guts to satisfy fans. But it’s hard not to feel like Mortal Kombat could’ve been something more. While it has great action, plenty of laughs and scene-stealing performances from both Josh Lawson as Kano and Hiroyuki Sanada as Hanzo, Mortal Kombat’s confusing plot and lack of self awareness hold it back.
If you just want to be entertained, Mortal Kombat is fun — but don’t go in expecting a coherent narrative or anything resembling an actual plot. You’ll also have to make room in your heart for some truly cringeworthy moments and camp-heavy dialogue.
Mortal Kombat is everything you’d expect from a video game movie, and that says all you need to know about it. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
Mortal Kombat is in Australian cinemas from April 22.