Beware of spoilers for Mortal Kombat. Be sure to read Paste’s full review by Jacob Oller.
When Mortal Kombat, the 1992 videogame and moral panic katalyst, first hit arcades, it was notable mostly for the absurd gore and brutality and the story a bit less so: You pick a fighter and smack around the other colorful kombatants for a shot at saving Earthrealm from the insidious shapeshifting sorcerer Shang Tsung. The story had a measure of Shaw Brothers-style window dressing to it, but you were really there to see Sub Zero rip a dude’s spine out.
Mortal Kombat is one of the videogame franchises that actually has a very deep catalog of film and TV adaptations: Numerous animated films, an animated TV show, a (very bad) live action show, and the two other theatrical live action films from 1995 (fuckin’ rules) and 1997 (fuckin’ sucks) are just a start. What’s striking when you hold up the newest movie to all of these other adaptations is just how much more Asian it is, something you wouldn’t think would be so surprising in a series based on ice ninjas and Japanese thunder gods.
How an adaptation handles stuff like the character designs tells you a lot about it, and so it’s fitting that even Scorpion’s signature rope dart—the cool chain-spear that he uses to GET his opponents OVER HERE—reflects what’s different. In the movie, it’s a kunai, which ninja movies and anime love to portray as a sort of throwing weapon. Historians have documented its use in Japan as a gardening tool—the story goes that shinobi used it as an improvised weapon. And that’s how Scorpion comes by it in the first scene, grabbing it up in a moment of desperation before he’s rushed by a ton of ninjas.
There are plenty of other much more noticeable changes: The ninja who will become the undead revenant Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) is actually an honest-to-goodness shinobi during the Edo Period. His idyllic family life is, of course, doomed to violent murder inside the first five minutes of the movie. His nemesis, Sub Zero (Joe Taslim), shows up, kills everybody, and the two fight to the death—Scorpion’s death, as fans of the game can see coming.
In a move that’s nearly a first for the franchise, this live-action adaptation actually casts Asians to play the two rivals. In the other live-action portrayals, only Mortal Kombat: Annihilation featured an actor of Asian descent portraying Sub Zero or Scorpion, whose backstories have always explicitly stated that they are Chinese and Japanese, respectively.
And thankfully, the movie lets Sanada and Taslim—two actors with plenty of badass movie bona fides that I hope the audience will be inspired to familiarize themselves with—face off against one another speaking entirely in subtitled Japanese and Chinese. I watched it on HBO Max, and the subtitles the streaming service provided even specified which language they were speaking: Sub Zero slips in between Chinese and Japanese, and it adds nuance to scenes where he menaces Scorpion’s terrified family or insults Scorpion in a language the ninja doesn’t understand. It is smart, it is intentional, it is true to these 30-year-old characters (god, I’m old) and it treats its audience like adults who won’t tune out because they need to read subtitles.
After their deadly bout, the movie introduces us to another first: an Asian in the role of Raiden (Tadanobu Asano, another veteran of Japanese productions). This is something the damn videogames haven’t done, even in the last two heavily performance-captured entries. You wonder why it took so long to get a Japanese actor to play this Japanese thunder god. (I’m kidding. I don’t wonder.)
Mortal Kombat, the game series, is probably one of the most unexpected things in the very slim category of franchises birthed in the ’90s that are still well-regarded. (Frasier might be the least.) What’s most striking about its latter successes over the past decade, since the 2011 reboot, is that it has somehow both become more mature and more utterly puerile in ways that have only further endeared it to fans. 2015’s Mortal Kombat X (the letter “X,” not a Roman numeral for 10, the creators were sure to clarify) and 2019’s Mortal Kombat 11 were wildly successful and as violent as the series has ever been, but they also contain barely a hint of regressive bullshit: The game’s kast has gone from containing one woman to a bunch, and even its snarling baddies now belong to cultures with sociopolitical reasons for being on the wrong side. All of this somehow works in a world in which the equivalent of Jean Claude Van Damme is a high-ranking military advisor because he knows how to glow green and kick ninjas, and a good deal of plot revolves around a sensitive portrayal of his failed marriage.
What’s interesting about all of that, and about 2021’s Mortal Kombat film adaptation, is that nobody’s ever really held the series’ feet to the fire on things like representation or respectful portrayal. I can’t recall anybody seriously taking the series to task for any sort of inherent, underlying racism, in part because even at its least polished, the series’ default good guy and its first baddie have always been Asian from the beginning. The creators (two white dudes from Chicago) have mostly avoided any Orientalism from the start—even in defining the villainous Shang Tsung—which in retrospect seems a minor miracle. And even if the sneering baddie is Asian, default good guy Liu Kang (ably portrayed by Ludi Lin in the new film) always has been, too. If anything, expanding the Asian cast around those two in this movie almost feels as if the series is finally presenting itself, for the first time, as true to the influences that have always animated the series.
Like a lot of stuff in this movie, though, it doesn’t quite form a complete thought: Besides the underbaked lore about “arcanas” being the source of the heroes’ powers (I thought training like a beast was all you needed to do?), there are other grasping hints of interesting ideas that aren’t elaborated upon. Liu Kang and Kung Lao (Max Huang) are the haughty heroes who have already mastered their kung fu super moves, and it looks like they might need to show some humility as they get the white folks up to speed, but it never really coalesces into a theme.
The only racial tension occurs in a somewhat baffling scene involving John Lawson’s Kano, in fact, and I’m not even sure it’s intentional: Your “arcana” is supposed to be tied to a personal revelation, and Kano unlocks his laser eye beam at the end of a borderline racist rant against Kung Lao that concludes with the line, and I’m not making this up, “GIVE ME AN EGG ROLL!!!”
It also feels like there could’ve been so much more going on between Chin Han’s Shang Tsung and Asano’s Raiden. The former, in this iteration, has extremely strong Chinese fantasy drama vibes, and this is particularly interesting when you put him up against Asano, a Japanese actor playing a character informed by Japanese tradition. The Shinto storm god Lord Raiden (or Raijin) is associated with protecting Japan from invaders, a detail that’s always fit neatly into the character’s role in the games and movies. If anything about those details is supposed to resonate, though, the film doesn’t elaborate, and the two mostly just hurl lofty line readings at each other.
As Paste’s own Jim Vorel put it in our exhaustive ranking of live-action videogame adaptations, Mortal Kombat ’95 just feels like an MK game. I still feel this outing falls frustratingly short of that bar, despite the gnarly fatalities and some unique representations of some of these kharacters of any adaptation I’ve seen.
I will say this, though: The entire film builds from that first scene to an eventual rematch between Scorpion and Sub Zero, which is a good call, because everything about Scorpion and Sub Zero is fuckin’ sick and because there was really no reason to just do a straight retelling of MK1 for the eightieth time. The fight is glorious, and Taslim and Sanada are glorious in it. There’s no reason not to let them and the other kombatants have a go in Round 2 and develop some of these ideas further.
Kenneth Lowe’s domains are well known to him, sorcerer! You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.