Mortal Kombat Just Might Finish Off Videogame Action Movies’ Bad Reputation

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Mortal Kombat Just Might Finish Off Videogame Action Movies’ Bad Reputation

The 1995 Mortal Kombat film is still one of the better live-action videogame movies and one of the most faithful cinematic adaptations of a game, yet it still couldn’t quite represent the bloody depths of MK’s depravity under the restrictions of a PG-13 rating. (And the less said about Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, the better.) A quarter of a century later, director Simon McQuoid’s feature debut gives the supernatural fighting franchise a facelift and that coveted R-rating, with blood geysers that’d leave Quentin Tarantino and Sam Peckinpah envious. It’s not just added in for some adolescent awesomeness factor, though it punctuates already delightful choreography with bright-red visual exclamation points. It’s a grounding element that keeps the fights from feeling plastic, fake or ethereal. People lose arms, get cut, take damage. They feel necessarily mortal, in part because we’re constantly reminded of their bloody biology. While the gore level might feel like a small component of a film, it’s indicative of this Mortal Kombat’s understanding and ability to be over-the-top without being out of control.

Like many movies of its ilk, Mortal Kombat anchors its flashy ass-kicking with a simple martial artist that turns out to have hidden potential. Here, it’s pro fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a family man whose career and ability seem to have taken a recent dive. Tan’s softness (sweeter than your usual strong-and-silent type) provides an endearing balance to Cole, adding charm to an otherwise 2D vanilla lead alongside his daughter (Matilda Kimber) and wife (Laura Brent, who devours her few choice lines). But hey, it’s one of those superpowered fantasy movies and Cole’s got “Chosen One” written all over his malleable protagonist face. More specifically, it’s emblazoned on his skin: The Mortal Kombat logo signifies that he, like a select few around the world, is a champion of Earth in an ongoing multidimensional conflict. C’mon, we all know the score: There’s a tournament coming up between the evil otherworlders and the good people of Earth and dammit, it’s time to choose a fighter.

Thankfully, we get a taste of the good stuff up front and the film dispenses with too much stage-setting backstory with a simple title card and a nicely contained revenge-establishing opener. From that point forward, it all clicks thanks to McQuoid’s great sense of visual tone. His environments possess a heightened, fairy-tale color and set design that can feel cheesy in a good way—like the curated chaos of a fighting game’s stages. The barren majesty of the Australian desert becomes a believable bridge between the human and inhuman; the lushness of other realms proclaim their own alien aesthetic. The director also has a solid sense of action, finding smart angles to show both squirming, desperate martial arts and superpowered precision—all of which cinematographer Germain McMicking (who shot the third season of True Detective) makes not just legible, but inviting.

But fights are only as good as their kombatants, and Mortal Kombat’s selection screen is star-studded and pitch perfect. In addition to Tan, the cast is of predominantly Asian heritage, a welcome development that allows veterans like Hiroyuki Sanada and Chin Han to steal scenes (the imposing haughtiness of Han’s soul-sucking Shang Tsung pairs perfectly with the quiet show of deadly magic from Joe Taslim’s supervillainous Sub-Zero) and rising stars like Ludi Lin and Max Huang to make the case that they’ve always belonged in the spotlight. Lin’s fire-blasting Liu Kang is particularly charismatic, able to balance deadpan and mystical seriousness on top of the physical requirements of the role…and it doesn’t hurt that he’s absolutely diesel.

But Cole’s welcome party into this fantastical society are less impressive, more human characters like ex-military Sonya (Jessica McNamee) and Jax (Mehcad Brooks). Both are saddled with heavier plot-lifting duties that make their characters’ bareness feel a bit more exposed than those that just get to pop up for the fights. But even Jax’s lightly sketched Wounded Warrior metaphor allows Brooks room for some particularly empathetic expressions; Sonya’s barely there despite McNamee’s efforts. Perhaps that’s because the one thread she seems to have—she isn’t initially branded as one of the chosen because she hasn’t killed someone who was, but any kind of moral line that represents unfortunately remains unexplored in this hyper-macho murder-world—flaps loose and fraying in the whirlwind of punches, blasts and slices.

But these are quibbles for characters that are usually reduced to opening lines and either a victory quip or a bloody gurgle on the floor. That so many are introduced is a roll of the dice by McQuoid and team as they attempt to toe the line between hardcore fan service and a movie that actually holds together. Sometimes these gambles can get cringey, which is to be expected from something that so unabashedly loves its source material. For example, Kano (Josh Lawson)—a snarky punching bag—is only sometimes as amusing as the Aussie bad-boy’s profane shouts want to be. But even these foibles contribute to the unself-conscious tone that makes MK work. It’s not self-serious, but it respects its source and its audience. If it takes some low points to emphasize this fact, well, most of us will gladly accept them.

Sure, the unbalanced script is still alternatingly light or overstuffed with happenings—its tag-team of writers not quite reined in by the first-time director—and the resultantly erratic pace can jar you out of its schlocky groove. The transition into the third act is filled with particularly nebulous shorthand that many other videogame movies use: Let’s all stand around in an arbitrary place and talk for a bit about the fights we’re about to have. Thankfully these hiccups don’t derail things for too long, nor do they take up too much of the film, which is intelligent and generous with its action.

More than that though, and this might be why it clicks so well, the effects supporting said action finally look good enough to exist alongside its fighters. Knowingly campy effects, practical mastery and best-at-the-time tech will always have their charm, but as CGI becomes increasingly photorealistic, it can be wielded with just as much flash and awe as a weapon. The well-lit powers look fantastic—never in danger of being undersold by cowardly editing or shadow—especially the icy death brandished by Sub-Zero. The big bad snowman needs a certain level of brutality to avoid being too silly, and yes, Mortal Kombat is brutal as hell. But in a fun way! It’s the kind of nasty, action figure imagination that Zack Snyder thinks he’s bringing to superheroes. Really, if these kinds of spectacular FX and this level of tonal understanding is what’s being brought to the table, I’d rather see the Simon McQuoid Cut any day of the week.

In fact, Mortal Kombat has taken most of its biggest lessons from the modern superhero blockbuster while avoiding some of their worst action pitfalls. No faceless, shadowy mobs of antagonists (AKA every Marvel entry’s hordes of ‘bots, bugs, or aliens). Just a colorful group of weird villains who can be immolated to crisps without worrying about how it’ll impact corporate strategy. It’s blockbuster filmmaking that manages to be a satisfying action film, thanks to tactile and intimate one-on-one fights—and a “kid with a blank check” carnival ride for those who love the franchise. It might not fix videogame movies overnight, but Mortal Kombat might finally deliver their sweepingly bad reputation a devastating fatality. And yes, it has a “Get over here!” moment so good it’ll give anyone who’s spent time with the arcade fighter goosebumps.

Directors: Simon McQuoid
Writers: Greg Russo, Dave Callaham, Oren Uziel
Stars: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Joe Taslim, Mehcad Brooks, Tadanobu Asano
Release Date: April 23, 2021

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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