The Bock’s Office: ‘Mortal Kombat’ a respectable yet repetitive reboot of video game violence
For Craig Press
“Mortal Kombat,” rated R
2.5 out of 4 stars
Starring: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson and Tadanobu Asano
If you’re somewhere between the ages of 30 and 50, we all remember where we were the first time we performed a perfectly executed sequence of joystick and button combos to rip out a man’s heart and show it to him, much to our victim’s horror, as well as that of our parents.
And, for those who had that unique generational milestone, the new version of “Mortal Kombat” will be a welcome recollection of thousands of gleefully wasted video game hours. But, will non-fans feel the same?
The answer may surprise you as much as an uppercut.
Once a respected mixed martial arts star, Cole Young (Lewis Tan) is limited to poor-paying cage fights to pay the bills for his family.
Yet, a desire to return to his former glory may have been a wish he regrets as he becomes the target of a super-powered ninja assassin (Joe Taslim) determined to prevent Cole from reaching his destiny.
He learns that he is part of a lineage of warriors, prophesied to save his world from the invading Outworld in an ancient tradition known as Mortal Kombat, a deadly tournament of champions.
Cole also finds that he is not the only one expected to battle, allying with Special Forces soldiers Sonya and Jax (Jessica McNamee, Mehcad Brooks) and a career criminal named Kano (Josh Lawson) to train under seasoned fighters Liu Kang and Kung Lao (Ludi Lin, Max Huang) for the fate of Earthrealm.
With appearances in “Iron Fist,” “Into the Badlands,” and “Deadpool 2,” Tan finds himself in a larger role in adjacent territory of escapist fantasy. As a whole new presence within the MK family, he doesn’t have any kind of basis for his performance, but he holds his own as a by-the-book, well-meaning, selfless hero — functioning solely as a conduit for the audience — who learns all too quickly that the mysterious birthmark on his chest and recent hallucinatory visions mean much more than he ever expected.
McNamee does her best as longtime fan favorite Sonya Blade, who slowly evolved from a mere pin-up in spandex to a real personality within the video game series, but it’s hard to do much of anything in this universe when most of her story arc is trying to prove herself to the dudes who claim she has no right to be there.
Brooks likewise doesn’t get to do much apart from an early scene that sees the origin of Jax’s defining bodily feature, which he only briefly gets to flex as the story continues.
Lawson, on the other hand, is an utter hoot as Kano, a tough-talking baddie who’s always been the guy everyone loves to hate within the “Mortal Kombat” games. A total 180 from the Aussie actor’s best-known role as the timid corporate sycophant in “House of Lies,” you can’t not laugh at someone who only begins to take the prospect of an interdimensional fight to the death seriously when he discovers he suddenly has a laser eye.
For that matter, you gotta enjoy anyone who draws fan art of themselves eviscerating an opponent immediately after it happens — Finish him!
The reboot of the arcade hit that shocked parents into demanding a video game rating system in reaction to its blood-and-guts design — only to get increasingly more disturbing — pulls no punches in its new incarnation with better visual effects than ever for a crowd that’s all but desensitized 30 years later.
We don’t get much of an explanation of why a fighting tournament determines the balance of good and evil, much less why certain folks suddenly develop godlike powers out of nowhere, but since most players didn’t bother to read the backstory in 1992, why bother now?
A plethora of franchise characters appear in various capacities, whether in speaking parts or background Easter eggs, perhaps to the movie’s detriment since there’s only so much time to include everyone and everything. As little as the heroes are developed, we get even less information on classic villains Shang Tsung and Goro, since what could possibly be interesting about a soul-sucking sorcerer and a six-limbed giant?
Also, for all the superb fight choreography that harkens back to the days of button-mashing, do we really need characters announcing their own awesome finishing moves? There’s nothing wrong with someone on the sidelines saying, “Fatality!” or “Flawless Victory!” but guys, it kind of detracts from your achievement when you brag about it…
But, for all the stupidity of this popcorn flick that revels in a hard R atmosphere, there’s plenty of human pathos in a storyline that gamers and cinephiles will be more than satisfied with in the form of one of the most enduring rivalries of our time between passionate fire and emotionless ice, captured in a 17th century-set prologue so well done you might mistake it as a short film collaboration between Akira Kurosawa and Quentin Tarantino.
Even casual viewers will be drawn in by this opening, though it’s anyone’s guess how much nostalgia you’ll feel by the time a familiar voice growls, “Get over here!”
Smart enough to comment on its own shortcomings and dumb enough to keep zipping along in spite of them, “Mortal Kombat” might be better than its source material intends it to be. Odds are, you’re not watching it for anything other than thrills, but you might actually appreciate it beyond its surface more than you expect.
Just remember, kids: Winners don’t rely on leg sweeps.
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