Over the past couple of years, the much maligned genre of video game adaptations has been crawling ever closer to that elusive four star review after nearly a decade of stewing in three star hell. It’s getting damn close though; in fact 2020’s swing at Sonic The Hedgehog bizarrely is still the closest filmmakers have come to putting together a coherent and cohesive story that satisfies both die hard fans while not losing casual viewers in a hurricane of unconnected in-jokes and references. I’ve probably mentioned this elsewhere, but the comic book genre figured out years ago that all you have to do to make this shit work is respect the source material and only change details to neaten things up which brings us to possibly the genres latest great white hope and possibly the most obvious thanks to it’s rich backstory and non-stop action.
I am, of course, referring to *deep breath* MORTAL KOMBAT!!! Can the second go-round deliver the flawless victory this beleaguered genre so richly deserves?
MMA fighter Cole Young already has his best days in the ring behind him and his career now pretty much involves him getting beaten like a dusty rug for the cash he needs to support his family. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the public in general, a secret tournament has been held for generations in order to thwart the brutal armies of Outworld before they swarm across our realm like a terrible form of butt rash. Led by the soul-swallowing sorcerer, Shang Tsung, the forces of evil have managed to score nine straight victories while the thunder-god Raiden tries to gather together the fighters destined to compete thanks to a cool looking birth mark. However, Tsung isn’t about to leave things to chance while being so close to victory, so in a show of loop-hole utilising that would dwarf a U.S. election, the villain has decided to take out earth’s champions before the tournament begins and has enlisted his best assassin for the job; frosty cryomancer Sub-Zero.
Surviving the first attempt on his life thanks to clued-in special forces operatives Sonya Blade and Jax, Cole joins them – and mouthy criminal Kano – on a quest to find Raiden’s temple to sign up for duty and start training with mainstays Liu Kang and Kung Lao in order to unlock superhuman abilities that’ll stop them from getting instantly pulped.
While each of the fighters struggle to unleash their inner fireball flinger, Cole struggles more than most as everyone else starts growing robot arms or shooting Kryptonian laser beams from their eyeballs and after one of their number turns traitor (couldn’t be the murderous criminal in their midst, could it?), Shang Tsung’s gang of murderous cronies move in for the kill. But Cole has an ace in the hole as he discovers that he comes from a bloodline who’s history bloodily entwines with that of Sub-Zero’s murderous past – but will even this be enough to stand against the might of ice powers, super-speed and a big-ass dude with four, frickin’ arms?
So, I’m genuinely sad to report that the second koming of Kombat is yet another, clunky, near miss from a genre of film that’s getting maddeningly close to cracking the code but still seems to be punching distance from greatness. It’s especially frustrating because first time director Simon McQuoid takes steps to do so much right and tet still stumbles when trying to connect it all together.
So let’s start with the victories first and deal with the fatalities later and the first thing the movie manages to nail flawlessly in tapping into some of the game’s extensive backstories, specifically that of the long time feud between fan favourites Sub-Zero and Scorpion. The scenes between two of the game’s most notorious rainbow-coloured ninjas are clearly among the film’s best with an opening sequence set in 1617 laying out a decent slab of character motivation almost perfectly and their final act showdown finally achieves the level of hard edged, bone crunching fantasy we all hoped it would be.
The other thing that the movie scores highly on is that it finally opens itself up to the the particular brand of ultra-violence that put the game on the map in the first place and the frenzied bloodletting mixed with more casual swearing than a toxic online gamer gives this world all the gore and grit this film demands.
You’d truly be surprised at how satisfied you’ll be watching a character’s head get bandsawed down the middle by a razor sharp hat while characters use the f-word in their dialogue like it’s a full stop.
So we’ve covered what works and unfortunately a lot of it is undone by the fact that for all the film’s bravery at trying to act like a prologue for the actual tournament (which we never actually get to), it’s not what you actually wanted to see. Not to mention all the scene-setting dumps a large cast of characters in your lap and chooses to under-utilize them in favor of a brand new character (Lewis Tan’s rather bland Cole Young) that doesn’t really have the charisma required to traverse this world as nimbly as, say, a Johnny Cage would. As it stands, when choosing the most memorable character from the movie, it’s utterly unanimous that – to quote the man himself- Kano wins; as his don’t-give-a-shit attitude gives the film exactly the rich vein of brutal black comedy it needs; “Ya fackin’ beauty!” he rasps in his Aussie drawl after punching out the heart of a lizard monster. Things are even worse for the villains as an entire clutch of colourful psychos with weird abilities are reduced to mere henchmen while Chin Han’s big bad trades weak barbs with Tadanobu Asano’s sparky deity. Fans of Goro, Kitana, Kabal and others are reduced to cardboard cutouts as their gruesome demises draw cheers and groans of disappointment in equal measures.
I also feel like in a time of gloriously brutal martial arts movies like The Raid and The Night Comes For Us (both featuring Sub-Zero actor Joe Taslim) that the actual fights leading up to the much-hyped fatalities could be a little stronger with only the book ending showdowns (also featuring The Wolverine’s Hiroyuki Sanada) proving to be the only legitimately memorable bouts.
Will all that being said, this is still a massive step forward for the franchise (Mortal Kombat: Annihilation makes this look like The fucking Raid) and everything could still be salvaged with a sequel now all the introductions are out the way – after all, if Sonic gets a part two to expand it’s universe, why shouldn’t the denizens of Outworld?
One last thing: the casting for this thing is massively reassuring as it’s yet another shot in the arm when it comes to Hollywood correctly assigning asian actors more leading roles and it goes a long, long way to making these characters feel genuine even when their freezing an opponent’s squirting blood into a dagger in order to stab them with it.
So another K.O. for the video game adaptation then; but by god we’re so close now I can fucking taste it.
Go on then Hollywood, insert another coin and we’ll play one more round… but if you lose that, then it’s gonna have to be game over for good.