Dir: Simon McQuoid. Starring: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin, Chin Han, Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada. Cert 15, 110 mins
There’s a ghoulish pleasure in adapting Mortal Kombat, the series of fighting games first unleashed in 1992. Here’s an opportunity to have someone’s spine be ripped right out of their body and call it art. That particular finishing move, arguably the most famous in the game, does not appear in this latest big-screen iteration, although there’s still a generous helping of gore to be found. What’s more frustrating is how dramatically dull the lengthy spaces in between the blood fountains are.
Director Simon McQuoid, in his directorial debut, shuns the aesthetics of Paul WS Anderson’s 1995 film – tacky, but at least imaginative – and instead commits an all-too-familiar sin: he assumes this is simply the first instalment of a massive and self-important franchise. This may be hard to believe, but there’s no actual Mortal Kombat in Mortal Kombat – the name used to describe an interdimensional tournament where the Earthrealm and nefarious Outworld both battle for domination.
This film instead wastes its runtime prepping its heroes for Mortal Kombat, as champions gather from across the Earthrealm to train under the watchful eye of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano). Among them is “human punching bag” Cole Young, an MMA fighter who seems to have no discernable character traits beyond loving his family – despite being played by the ever-charismatic Lewis Tan. Being evil, Sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) is a natural cheat – he wants to wipe out Earthrealm’s champions before they even step into the ring.
McQuoid’s film has a line-up of classic characters swipe, kick and rip organs out of each other, including Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Kano (Josh Lawson) and Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim). The catchphrases “Flawless victory!” and “Get over here!” are appropriately bellowed. There’s even a joke aimed at players guilty of only ever using the low kick move.
But why hire skilled martial artists like Tan and Taslim, only to have the camera gaze at them with absolutely no sense of wonder? There’s no beauty or poetry to how their limbs are framed, while Dan Lebental and Scott Gray’s choppy editing style fractures their movements and robs them of their clarity.
Beyond the climactic fight and an intriguing prologue set in 17th-century Japan, Mortal Kombat is stuffed with nothing but unnecessary lore and destiny talk – the cinematic equivalent of sawdust, as each of Earthrealm’s champions discover how to unlock their superpowers. Mainstream cinema is now so under the thumb of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that every intellectual property-based film now has to carry the same delusions of grandeur.
But franchises are built around their characters. And there’s little that Greg Russo and Dave Callaham’s script does to build up these fighters beyond any base-level nostalgic attachment. And so Mortal Kombat ends up with a room of very serious exposition deliverers, plus one loud Australian – as Kano is tasked with delivering quips about “Harry Potter” and “Magic Mike”. It’s a bold gamble to create a film that feels like the homework you have to do before the fun – and the actual Mortal Kombat – begins. And with a sequel yet to be announced, it’s unclear whether the risk was worth it.