I came of age at the height of the moral panic over Mortal Kombat, though it didn’t effect my gaming habits much as I was the sort who preferred PC’s and RPGs to arcades and fighting games. Despite this, I still played it a few times – ironically while babysitting a tween boy whose parents were less strict about what games he got than mine were. I mention this because Mortal Kombat has always been a franchise best enjoyed by teenagers who thought they were getting away with something just by experiencing it.
The concept behind Mortal Kombat is born of a thousand Hong Kong action movies. For thousands of years, a fighting tournament has been held once every generation, across various dimensions. If one realm’s champion can win the tournament for 10 straight tournaments, their realm earns the right to invade the losing realm. The game series is based around the champions of Earth fighting to save our world from being invaded by the hellish Outworld.
The new Mortal Kombat movie broadly touches upon this mythology, but there isn’t a fighting tournament to be seen. Instead, the plot is focused around a prophecy which says that bloodline of the legendary ninja Hanzo Hasashi will unite a new group of champions who will prevent Outworld from winning their 10th tournament. The forces of Outworld, led by the soul-devouring sorcerer Shang Tsung, have decided not to take any chances (even after killing Hasashi and his family) and are trying to kill off all of Earth”s champions before the next Mortal Kombat tournament takes place.
Enter cage-fighter Cole Young, who suddenly finds his family being threatened by a mysterious ice-wielding warrior. He is brought up to speed about the Mortal Kombat tournament by Jax and Sonya Blade – two Special Forces soldiers who have been trying to track down the chosen heroes of Earth and find the hidden Temple of Raiden so they can start training everyone to save the world.
Mortal Kombat is at its best when it embraces the inherit goofiness of its setup and just lets it characters beat each other senseless in a variety of creative ways. The more seriously it tries to present itself, the duller it becomes. Unfortunately, the script by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham devotes far more time to Cole Young’s worries about his career and providing for his family than it does developing the setting or the other characters, apart from the 13 minute opening scene depicting Hanzo Hasashi’s battle with a rival ninja clan in the service of Outworld. This is a fantastic scene, but it feels like it was made for an entirely different movie.
This is the damnable paradox of this movie; it devotes a lot of time to trying to make us care about Cole and Hasashi and their families, yet it gives such short shrift to defining the rest of the cast. It’s not as if there isn’t plenty of drama to be found in the Mortal Kombat setting, but much of it (like the classic Kano/Sonya rivalry) wasn’t included in this take on the characters. As a result, fans of the games will be upset by the details that were left out of the narrative and newcomers will have little reason to care about the rest of the cast.
The best thing I can say about the new Mortal Kombat movie is that it gave me an appreciation for everything the 1995 Mortal Kombat did right. As cheesy as the first Mortal Kombat movie was, it was true to the source material and wasn’t afraid to go over-the-top in the right ways. (If nothing else, it had an actual tournament in it!) Apart from a few moments here and there, this new Mortal Kombat seems to be afraid to embrace its roots, no matter how CGI blood it spills.