Will dumb and any sensation of “fun” ever connect? Or is it just too much ask? To be fair, a directorial tightrope is sort of needed to blend those two attributes. Looking back at Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1995 adaptation of the fighting game series Mortal Kombat, you see that he sure as hell attempted to be both: from the fast-paced, no-logic plotting, to the goofy dialogue, to the campy performances. And while that film still heartily failed, this new adaptation of the same title, directed by first-timer Simon McQuoid, barely qualifies as entertainment. It’s more a laborious patience-testing exercise that centers around repetitiously pacing through a small handful of locations while the audience waits for something sustainable to happen.
Yet nothing ever really does, even the titular fighting tournament, in which the best fighters of the two dimensions (the “Earthrealm” and the “Outworld”) duke it out, never makes an appearance. Technically speaking, there is no Mortal Kombat in Mortal Kombat. (It’s for the sequel, of course.) There are, however, some unremarkably choreographed and often disastrously edited fights with sporadic VFX gore and digital blood splatter; the days of the good ole’ gnarly prosthetic seemingly out of this film’s vocabulary. Visual effects undoubtedly haven’t made movies any cheaper, but they have made them less interesting visually.
Between such fights are the various character introductions — a lot of them, in fact — followed by stilted pauses for audience reaction. (After a while, it truly gets to the point where there might as well have been an applause track.) The new arrival into the franchise is Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a down-on-his-luck cage fighter who was literally born with the Mortal Kombat logo on his chest. This, as it turns out, is his ticket into the (next films’) Mortal Kombat tournament, to which he was destined as a descendant of Hanzo Hasahi (Hiroyuki Sanada), a.k.a. the undead ninja Scorpion.
Soon he finds himself crossing paths with Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), the supernatural assassin with an ice-cold grip, and the duo of Jax (Mehcad Brooks) and Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee). They are cops or special forces operators — it’s never actually clear what exact jurisdiction they could have, though they are, for some reason, keeping the Australian mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson) as their prisoner. Throughout all that there’s a significant amount of exposition to be dumped through the film’s risible dialogue that’s done no favors by the rather charmless cast — and that’s even before we’re taken off to a desert temple with Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), the thunder god and unsuccessful defender of the Earthrealm.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the rocky, quarry-like environments of the Outworld, the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) is walking around with his armored minions, contributing to the film’s overall “R-rated Power Rangers” vibe. McQuoid’s sense of style and pacing approximates to that of an anonymously hacked together TV pilot, a dull combination of the “dark and gritty” and the overlit and flat. This is supposed to be a world of fighters with bizarre outfits and combat abilities, but a lot of the time, you find yourself staring at a screen that’s mostly filled with rocks. Will Cole discover his “arcana,” the secret power unique to every champion? Will Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) do his leg sweep? Will Kung Lao (Max Huang) throw his sharp hat? These are the questions that presumably to be burning in the mind of a Mortal Kombat audience member, who has waited years to hear the catchphrases and spot the references. In theory, this person surely exists. But, for everyone else, why even bother? Even with all its gnarly brutality, Mortal Kombat can’t escape the wooden and dull sensation of the corporate, IP-centric mindset that’s wholeheartedly at its core.
Mortal Kombat is available to stream on HBO Max