Mortal Kombat Review: Fists, Knives, and Good Mask Hygiene

No one’s getting COVID from Scorpion.

After a decade of development hell, we’ve finally got our Mortal Kombat revival, and it kicks exactly as much ass as I need it to.

I probably should say that the only personal familiarity I have with the games are the references you’re naturally exposed to when you’re into genre fiction, your “get over here”’s and your “finish him”’s. And I don’t think you really need much else to get what’s happening here. There’s a bunch of warriors from different realms, good guys and bad guys, and we’re gonna smash them together like action figures because it’s fun to see what everyone’s superpowers and skills look like when they fight each other. “But where did Sub-Zero come from? Why is any of this happening?” God, who cares? That is simply not the point.

However, this isn’t to say there aren’t things that could be improved upon. Characterization in particular is thin here. I know I just said that story takes a back seat to style in a movie like this, but since the movie includes an apparent effort to build a character arc, whether it’s done successfully has to be addressed. Our ostensive main character is Cole Young (Lewis Tan), who, as a character made for the movie and who doesn’t appear in the games, is asked to pull a lot more weight than he should. His I-need-to-protect-my-family and greatness-has-been-thrust-upon-me beats are fine, but his narrative role as Relatable Everyman is a challenge to care about among all the purposefully outrageous characters he’s surrounded by.

More often than not, Cole is overshadowed by Sonya Blade, who does appear in the games and who accidentally turns out to be a more strongly written character in every way. Cole needs to be here so there can be narrative symmetry between Scorpion’s family trauma in the beginning and Cole’s family trauma later on—I don’t think fans would have cared to see Sonya Blade retconned as Scorpion’s descendant instead— but it represents another moving part that a movie like this doesn’t have much internal patience for. It’s a challenge built into the nature of how this story works in a video game vs. how it works in a movie that the filmmakers weren’t quite up to the task of solving in a satisfying way.

Also, Hollywood needs to have a serious talk with itself about how it shoots action scenes. I understand it’s difficult to convincingly shoot a fight sequence when your actors aren’t actual martial artists, but if that’s the point of your movie, maybe you just need to hire more martial artists. The editing in Mortal Kombat is too often cut around the non-martial artist actors to allow for stunt work, which hides the fight choreography and is a huge shame. All the performances are solid, but the difference in action is noticeable when Sub-Zero, played by actual MMA fighter Joe Taslim, is onscreen, compared to some of the other actors.

Other aspects of adapting this to film, though, get to expand on characterization that from what I understand is only hinted at in the games. Our heroes don’t have superpowers from the beginning, they have to gain them, and all superpowers are poetically reflective of the characters’ inner turmoil and weaknesses (Jax only gets his bionic arms after he loses his arms fighting Sub-Zero, Cole’s magic energy-absorbing armor reflects the beatings he regularly takes in his MMA fights, Kano gets his laser eye because he’s an angry insecure meanypants, etc.).

Yes, I did just say there’s poetry in Mortal Kombat. This belongs to a genre that Westworld aptly called “artful violence.” There’s something kind of sublime about this world Mortal Kombat has created, where everyone’s relationship to each other revolves around one big, never-ending fistfight, where the stakes are always as high as possible, and yet are never allowed to resolve. Martial arts movies are their own point, and this movie is a perfectly serviceable example of what’s cool about them. Joe Taslim has signed on for four more of these movies if this one does well enough. Watch it, please, so they’ll make more.

7/10, 5 for action beats that consistently made me do the “:D” face, 1 for performances that overall transcend weak writing, and 1 for Kabal’s hilarious New York accent. Minus 3 for the various difficulties involved in adapting a video game to screen, which this movie can’t quite overcome.

About the author

Mariana has a lot of opinions about media. She has so many opinions about media that a university in the Midwest lets her research film and the media industry full time instead of making her get a real job. She does film and cultural analysis on YouTube at The Morbid Zoo. | Twitter