Mortal Kombat is so engrained in my childhood that just hearing the phrase is enough to perk me up. My earliest memories of the series are playing the Mortal Kombat Trilogy cartridge for the N64, where my favorite characters to play were Kung Lao, Kitana and Sindel. I’ve been following every major installment of the games since and the ridiculously entertaining film adaptations of the 90s. To say I was excited when this long-awaited new addition to the Mortal Kombat lore was finally on the horizon after eternal delays would be an understatement.
I’m thrilled to report that this delivers exactly what I wanted: violent and bloody fatalities, time spent with some of my favorite characters, and gritty, suspenseful action that lovingly displays signature character moves from the video games in a less cheeseball way than 1997’s Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. I honestly believe this is a movie anyone can enjoy if you just embrace the silly popcorn-movie feel and have a good time with it. Like Mortal Kombat as a whole, this isn’t meant to be taken deathly-serious.
Cole (Lewis Tan) is an MMA fighter left in the dark about his past, but when an icy stranger, Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), comes hunting for him, he is forced to confront his past head-on. A strange, dragon-like symbol that Cole believes to be a birthmark may be the key to unlocking everything. Cole finds himself at the temple of Elder God Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), an electric leader who is recruiting everyone who has the symbol to compete on his side in battle for the universe against the downright evil Emperor Shang Tsung (Chin Han). This setup should ring a bell with any fan of the game series, as it is the same basic premise, albeit plus or minus a few key figures.
No doubt fans of the games might be irked that the titular Mortal Kombat tournament isn’t actually part of the narrative this time around, but it’s important to note that only a fraction of the games even feature the tournament itself in a significant way. Furthermore, anyone expecting this to rigorously follow established lore to a T is bound to be disappointed. Like the best remakes, it takes liberties with the material, and frequently goes in a different direction than you’d expect. My only real issue is that the setup is so enticing for a sequel that I almost don’t think this movie will be complete without one. Without a perfect companion compliment to this iteration of Mortal Kombat, I’ll feel cheated from the promising teases hinted at by the ending.
I think it’s important to keep in mind just what kind of movie we’re getting here. It’s a slighty-gritty version of the Mortal Kombat we know and love that sketches its own way with familiar characters. Every single scene with Scorpion and Sub-Zero is 100% perfection, and nearly all of the film’s fatalities are gloriously gory. It is a relief that they didn’t try to go the cheap route and attempt to sell this as PG-13 to appeal to a wider audience. It is a decision to put these kills up on a pedestal which proves more than anything that director Simon McQuoid knows exactly what audiences want from a video game adaptation. It perfectly encapsulates the wanton craving of animated blood that gamers love so much about the now-iconic fatality finishing movie animations.
One thing is certain: if you try get nitpicky about this iteration of Mortal Kombat from a ‘respect of every bit of mythology that exists’ kind of angle, you are bound to be disappointed. Strokes of this 2021 version stay faithful to the source material, and even insert loving winks, nods, and fan service to appease all types of fans. However, some of the characters are definitely far different from their gaming counterparts or are nothing like you expect. Also, don’t expect favorites like Kitana, Johnny Cage or Baraka—those are being held for the sequel, it would seem.
The roster (or character select screen, if you will) who are in this installment are perfectly cast, from movie-exclusive character Cole Young (Lewis Tan), to scene-stealing hilarious trickster Kano (Josh Lawson) and adorable Kung Lao (Max Juang). Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) and Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada), in particular, are perfectly cast. Kano wins! They have the same indescribable energy as their video game counterparts and an absolutely epic showdown. For those interested in a near-flawless victory of a Mortal Kombat reboot, get excited because this action-packed romp has tons of fun in order! FIGHT!
Mortal Kombat serves up gory childhood glee, streaming now on HBO MAX and playing in theaters everywhere.