I’m not usually one to look up the MPAA ratings for movies. But there came a point while watching the new Mortal Kombat that I got curious. A point sometime after hearing Kano, the notoriously aggro Australian mercenary, call someone a “fucking idiot” for what felt the like 50th time, but before the part where we see a surge of power bore a hole so cleanly through that someone’s flesh that their spine — dripping with a few gorgeous chunks of meat — is all that remains of their torso in the end. Fatality: an essential term in the Mortal Kombat universe, and a concept that, way back when, got the video games in trouble among certain moralizers, abounds in the 2021 movie. Stabbed with icicles of their own blood, maimed by demon claws, literally disarmed, split in half: What the characters in this Mortal Kombat reboot endure is enough to make the bloodless action of Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1995 movie, and its unfortunate sequel, look like kids’ stuff. Which it was.
But the video games were always notable — for many of us, attractive — for being the opposite. Finish him. Flawless victory. Why wouldn’t you rip an enemy’s heart out of his chest? The game nudged us off a moral cliff and was admittedly, like its market competitor , more addictive for it. The new movie, which was helmed by Simon McQuoid and counts James Wan (creator of the Saw and Conjuring franchises) among its producers, is a bit more moral, but no less violent. Mortal Kombat 2021 apparently came close to earning an NC-17 rating — on purpose. What can I say? In line with the legacy of the game franchise, it’s all the more entertaining, if not great, for it.
Mortal Kombat, which arrives on HBO Max and in U.S. theaters this Friday, also deviates a little from what came before. It adds a bit of emotional weight to its violence; it’s more convincing than its live-action forebears at making the stakes of its central, epic tournament feel high-ish. Nevertheless, it wisely retains a bit of the corniness — the bad jokes, the not-always-great acting, some intentionally (I hope) iffy CGI — that can work to leaven those body blows. The soundtrack is bass dropped half to death, some of the acting ain’t so great, and the fight scenes are more notable for their choreography than for the camerawork deployed to capture it all. But the movie succeeds by finding the balance between playing the hits and carving out a new path — a tantalizing path for, in defiance of the other big studio franchises of the moment, being so squarely aimed at adults.
Fans of the franchise already know the premise. A cosmic tournament between good and evil — Earthrealm and the Outworld — has left humanity on the brink of destruction, one battle away from being overtaken by Shang Tsung (once unforgettably played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, and now played by a black-eyed Chin Han). Cue the yearning of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), and Kung Lao (Max Huang) to get a new gang of chosen fighters together, and the likes of Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and Jax (Mehcad Brooks), Sonya’s mentor and friend, answering the call. And cue the introduction of a family man and former MMA champion named Cole Young, a capable fighter who’s been reduced to getting his ass kicked to make ends meet, a man who’s got a bit of a confidence problem, who’s had a birthmark on his chest resembling a dragon but seems not to have asked himself too many questions about it. (The very good Hiroyuki Sanada plays a key role, too — but the details of his involvement are better left to learn by watching the movie.)
The new Mortal Kombat is the first in what’s clearly been designed to be the opening act of something ongoing. So it does go through the motions, to a degree. But only to a degree. One of the better things about this movie is its awareness of the origin story trap. Cole — whose wife and daughter, Alison and Emily, are played, respectively, by Laura Brent and the spunky Matilda Kimber — has the bright, fresh, emotive face of an unmistakable good guy. Tan makes it work, but, look, good guys are a little boring. It’s the hell-dwelling desire for vengeance at the movie’s core — a centuries-old beef between warriors — that makes it more intriguing than it had to be.
That, and the deviations from the previous movies, in particular. With rebooting comes a little revamping, as has proven true of the game franchise over the years. The new Mortal Kombat liberates Sonya Blade from the special forces-by-way-of-“Rhythm Nation” image that introduced her in 1995, for example, and it frees her somewhat from her single-minded pursuit of Kano (Josh Lawson) and his Black Dragon crew that semi-defined her once upon a time. Kano’s less of a hang-up for her, now, and more of a pure pain in the ass. The 2021 story also displaces Liu Kang, memorably played by Robin Shou, from the center of the story. (Lin makes for a good, sensitive Kang here, but I’ll confess to missing the sight of Shou’s rockstar mane holding its composure — somehow, in defiance of gravity — amid those fight scenes.)
Meanwhile — remember, you’ve got to play the hits — the four-armed, big-headed Goro (as unmistakably bad as Cole is good) is less of tough-talking wise-ass than his previous iteration and, though still physically overwhelming, looms far less than he once did. And the spectral Reptile has gotten a nice face-lift by way of much better CGI — but tellingly, like Goro, still looks a bit unreal, as if looking sorta bad was the point. With a few notable exceptions, the bad guys in this movie stand out more for their cruel power and grotesque looks — check out that Joker-esque devil-grin on Mileena (Sisi Stringer) — than for the overloaded personalities that make them memorable video game foes. Someone whose intro to the franchise comes by way of this new movie might walk away thinking that Goro is just some one-and-done asshole with an extra set of arms. But nor will they be lost; the movie whittles much of the villainy down to a few key players: Shang Tsung, of course, and Sub-Zero, who’s on the poster for a reason.
More surprising is how much time the movie has for Kano. Kano, Kano, Kano: still a roid-ragey asshole, still about as smart as he looks (and looks-wise, Lawson’s facial resemblance to the Kano of 1995, played by the late Trevor Goddard, is a little startling). But Kano’s funnier, this time around — practically conditioned, in the new movie, to be a punchline machine whose bad-guy choices nudge the action forward. Lawson’s antagonizing is entertaining. But Mortal Kombat 2021 is a little less interested in the bad being bad. It’s more interested in the question of origins, bloodlines, prophecies, identities, inner power — oh, and violence. It’s very much of its time, in that regard, in the way that Anderson’s 1995 movie is very (very) much of its time. Where Anderson leaned on camped-up nods to Hong Kong action, the new movie’s got to keep up with a franchise culture besotted with “Who am I?” hand-wringing.
To its credit, it opens with a fight set in 17th-century Japan; it makes the sense of legacy quite literal. And the fights, again, are good: overcut, but coherent and memorably gruesome, closing in on knives as they tear open fresh wounds, giving us a front seat to the bloodiest details of those hard-won fatalities, ebbing with emotion (when appropriate), exhaustion, the occasional well-time punchline. The movie’s not quite a fight-scene masterclass, though compared to much else on offer from studio action of the moment, it sometimes feels like one. It’s solid entertainment — refreshing, even, for finding ways to navigate the familiar pivots on its own terms. Most importantly — to the studio, if not to me — it does what is, ultimately, its main job. It tees us up for the sequel. And plenty of us will be eager to watch it.