It’s hard to believe that it has been 26 years since the release of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat (1995). While it may seem cheesy in comparison to more modern day actioners, it has stood the test of time, with it being one of the better realized Hollywood martial arts movies of the 90’s.
Additionally it also gave rising Hong Kong action star Robin Shou a chance to headline in a Hollywood feature, with it being a terrific showcase of his talents to a western audience. It really should have been the kickstart to an illustrious career in Hollywood.
Sadly this was not to be. This could partly be put down to the dismal sequel that followed in Mortal Kombat’s success. The dreadful Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997) pretty much stopped the cinematic franchise in its tracks, with plans for a third entry quickly put on hold, although two mediocre television series followed in its wake.
While the cinematic franchise was ground to a halt, the video game franchise which spawned it seemed to go from strength to strength. With each release the world of Mortal Kombat grew larger with refined visuals and cinematics to rival the best of Hollywood. With its continually increasing success it made perfect sense for Hollywood to take another stab in bringing the franchise to the silver screen.
Attempts at an R rated Mortal Kombat had been made previously, with director Kevin Tancharoen’s well realized short Mortal Kombat: Rebirth (2010) being released to critical acclaim. Featuring martial arts fave Michael Jai White as Jax, it was essentially used as a promo to show that a more adult take on the franchise was possible. The success of Rebirth led Tancharoen to develop the web series Mortal Kombat: Legacy (2011).
It was initially planned that Tancharoen would helm the feature length Mortal Kombat movie, but due to a number of delays he eventually decided to quit the production. This brings us to now, with director Simon McQuoid making his feature length debut as director, bringing his vision of the Mortal Kombat universe to the silver screen.
This iteration of the franchise begins centuries ago in the 1600’s where the evil Bi-Han (Joe Taslim leads a group of Lin Kuei assassins to assassinate famed ninja Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his family. Failing to save his wife and son, Hasashi goes on to kill all of the assassins before facing off against Bi-Han.
Bi-Han proves to be a much more powerful opponent with Hasashi eventually dying at his hands. Before Hasashi passes he hears the cries of his infant daughter who has survived Bi-Han and his assassins’ attack. Unable to save her, his soul passes to the netherrealm.
Fortunately, thunder God Raiden (Tadanobo Asano) appears and saves his daughter from an unwelcome fate. From here we fast forward to the present day where we are informed that the realm of Outworld has defeated Earthrealm in nine of ten deathmatch tournaments called “Mortal Kombat”, intending to conquer Earthrealm. If they are to win the tenth they will finally be able to conquer Earthrealm.
However, there is an ancient prophecy which foretells that the “blood of Hanzo Hasashi” can unite a new generation of Earthrealm’s champions in order to stop Outworld from world domination.
Recognizing this threat, deadly sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) sends his fiercest fighters to kill these champions before they are even able to compete in the tournament. Each of the champions are marked with a distinct dragon mark.
One such champion is failed MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan) who must quickly come to terms with these otherworldly events if he is to stand a chance of survival. Teaming up with special forces officers Jax (Mehcad Brooks) and Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), with the shady Kano (Josh Lawson) along for the ride, they must all combine their talents in order to defeat Tsung and his deadly warriors.
The big question is, how does this take on the Mortal Kombat mythos fare in comparison to the 95 original. Unfortunately the answer is poorly. While Anderson’s original is in no way perfect, it has a sense of fun, with terrific visuals, decent production values and some excellent martial arts scenes.
Simon McQuoid does get some things right with this reboot, but the drawbacks are too much to wholeheartedly recommend it. An overall cheap look and some lacklustre performances are just some of the film’s issues.
In some instances an action film can overcome obstacles such as these as long as the spectacle on screen can distract from them, but that isn’t the case here. Although McQuoid’s film does have some well choreographed fight scenes, there is nothing on the scale of the 95 version.
Unlike Anderson’s original, the production values on this version seem to be lacking. The set design is unimaginative, with Outworld looking quite dull. It reminded me of old episodes of Doctor Who, where the production would go film on an old quarry and pretend that it’s an alien planet. I swear they also reused the same warehouse on multiple occasions throughout the film as different locations, although this is just my opinion.
The CGI also varies in quality. The blood effects are surprisingly well done. One of my main issues with modern day action movies is the inclusion of digitally created blood. This is mostly due to how poor it looks, but here it isn’t really an issue with them being well integrated into the fight scenes.
On the other hand the visualization of Goro looks cartoonish. I find it ironic that the prosthetic version used back in the 95 version is more impressive than what is shown here.
Having Goro as a completely digital character leads to another issue, as his fight scene with Lewis Tan appears quite stilted as it is obvious he is fighting against a green screen rather than an actual opponent.
The poor CGI wouldn’t be such an issue if the film didn’t have other drawbacks. Many great films has overcome sub par special effects. What they can’t really overcome however is a poor script.
Oren Uziel and Greg Russo’s script is clearly aimed at fans of the Mortal Kombat franchise, and this is part of the problem. There are many instances in the film where things just happen without much of an explanation and characters just readily accept it.
For instance, when Cole is told that he has been chosen to take part in an alternative dimension fight tournament he just readily accepts it. Sure he has seen Sub Zero being able to control ice, but I’m pretty sure I would still have some questions.
The film progresses like this throughout, with characters appearing with little in the way of introduction, with the hope the audience will recognize them from their game counterparts. It doesn’t help that the majority of the characters are either bland or given such little screen time you don’t even have time to generate an impression.
Characters that should be important to the film are given such little screen time it is a wonder why they were included. Considering Shang Tsung is meant to be the main villain, Chin Han has perhaps ten to fifteen minutes screen time combined.
Other than a brief scene of him sucking out someone’s soul, he makes for an extremely inactive villain. This is extremely disappointing when compared to how physical Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa’s take on the character was in the original film. It is doubly disappointing when taking into consideration how accomplished Chin Han can be at portraying villainous characters, with his turn as Jia Sidao in Netflix’s Marco Polo (2014) being a true scene stealer.
At least Han gets something to do, with the great Tadanobo Asano just being there to give some exposition and do very little else. It would seem that with this and the Thor franchise Hollywood really doesn’t know what to do with this great actor.
Most surprisingly was how underused Ludi Lin’s Liu Kang was. Considering Kang was the franchise’s original lead hero, he is relegated to the sidelines, being our heroes’ trainer, with Lin only getting a small chance to show off his martial arts skills. His part pales considerably in comparison to Robin Shou’s take on the character, although this is more an issue with the writing than with Lin.
Rather than having Liu Kang being our main hero this time, the writers have decided to create a new character for the franchise, with Lewis Tan’s Cole Young being our new lead.
On paper, the idea of creating a new lead makes perfect sense. Lewis Tan’s Cole should have been used as a way of bridging those familiar with the games and newcomers to the franchise. Tan can be both a charismatic actor and a fine martial artist but he is mostly wasted here, with Cole being mostly devoid of any personality.
In matter of fact Josh Lawson’s Kano has much more personality than any of our heroes, being more fun to watch than either Tan or McNamee’s Sonya Blade. Lawson may not be a martial artist like Tan but he easily runs away with the film, giving the best performance and getting all the best lines.
His scenes with McNamee were probably my favourite non action parts of the film, with even their eventual confrontation being memorably done. Anyone impressed with Lawson should check out the excellent documentary Becoming Bond (2017) where he hilariously portrays a young George Lazenby.
Getting back to Tan, the talent he had shown in the likes of Wu Assassins (2019) and Into the Badlands (2015) is mostly squandered here, with the majority of the film having him get his ass kicked. Even when he finally gets a chance to show off his abilities, he is overshadowed by Joe Taslim’s Sub Zero and Hiroyuki Sanada’s Scorpion.
In regards to Sanada and Taslim, the film would probably have fared better if it focused more on them as they feature in the films best action scenes. Their first confrontation during the opening minutes of the film is a fine taster for what’s to come. The only problem is that none of the action that follows matches this, with only Taslim and Sanada’s other confrontation during the finale coming close.
Apparently Taslim has signed on for another 4 films on the chance that this is successful. As much as I was disappointed with the completed film I must say that I would still like to see a sequel, as this first film acts much more as a prologue to the actual main event. In matter of fact, considering all the talk of the tournament, I felt quite let down that we didn’t even get to that part of the story before the credits rolled.
It would be interesting to see where Taslim would take his character. He will be a busy man if this were to happen, not only working on a Mortal Kombat sequel but the recently announced third season of Warrior (2019).
I would also welcome the return of Sanada who always brings a bit of class to proceedings. I must say after growing up and seeing him in the likes of Ninja and the Dragons Den (1982) and Royal Warriors (1986), it was great to see him back in action.
Mortal Kombat fans will be no doubt be disappointed that I didn’t give this film a better review. It is just that I was expecting better than what essentially boils down to a B level martial arts film. I would still urge fans of the franchise to give the film a watch to make up their own minds, and I still hope that it is able to spawn a better sequel, which the ending so clearly alludes to.
Plot: 2.5/5 Acting: 2.5/5 Action: 3/5 Overall: 2.7/5