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[Review] ‘Mortal Kombat’ Tests Its Might With Fan Service and Crowd-Pleasing Spectacle

Tackling a new adaptation of a beloved video game franchise still going strong since 1992 sounds like a Herculean task. With a little over twenty games across platforms, nearly one hundred characters, decades of mythology, and a cherished 1995 feature adaptation, the intersection to appease both longtime fans and brand new gets blurred quickly. Mortal Kombat ambitiously attempts to do it all, a conventional monomyth packed to the gills with fan service flair and thrilling fight scenes. While densely packed and less serious than it takes itself, Mortal Kombat succeeds in soaring spectacle and gory fun that fully whets your appetite for more.

An opening 17th-century sequence establishes the emotional stakes, core theme, and narrative trajectory. The enduring grudge match between Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) and Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) ends in a bloodbath meant to end Hanzo’s lineage for good. Bi-Han misses Hanzo’s hidden baby, but elder god Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) whisks her away before anyone is the wiser. Cut to the present, where we meet MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), an unaware descendant of Hanzo that gets drawn into a high-stakes battle for the universe thanks to a dragon-shaped birthmark designating him an Earthrealm champion. Cole teams up with experienced warriors to ward off the Outworld assassins and save their world.

Mortal Kombat hits the ground running and rarely pauses for even a moment to breathe. In an almost two-hour runtime, viewers are hurled through impressive set pieces and exquisite fight choreography as Team Good Guys embark on a hero’s journey. It’s a martial arts heavy feature, and very few of the ensemble cast of characters get fleshed out. Depending on pre-set fan favorites going in, that may or may not disappoint. Of course, Cole fairs the best as the lead, but Taslim’s Bi-Han turned Sub-Zero makes for a magnetic villain, and Josh Lawson‘s Kano steals every scene. It also helps that Kano gets more screentime than expected for the sake of plot, but also as needed comedic relief. Saving the world is serious business, and Kano’s the only one wanting to have fun with it.  

Blood has always been a crucial component of the franchise, and while the red stuff splatters the screen aplenty, it takes on a more poignant context here with the central theme of family bonds. Familial love drives many plot threads, offering a grounding anchor to the dizzying level of storytelling. There’s a lot of ground to cover, physically and narratively, and it can be a lot to digest so quickly. The middle sags a bit as the groundwork sets up the final act, but it’s worth it. The back half offers a thrilling glut of fan service moments, carnage, fist-pumping energy, and nonstop action.

Director Simon McQuoid and screenwriters Greg Russo and Dave Callaham weave exhilarating set pieces around an often-silly storyline, but it works. It also helps how much inside baseball they lob at longtime fans. Any fan growing up with the early ’90s games likely spent an entire battle defeating their opponent solely through an endless barrage of low leg sweeps. McQuoid plants tongue firmly in cheek with an in-joke to that gameplay move. An even deeper cut is how Sonya Blade’s (Jessica McNamee) arc gets primarily defined by being the outlier among the heroes without the dragon mark. This necessary symbol grants its bearer special powers that allow them to participate in Mortal Kombat. The arc reads as a nod to her video game origins, in which she was a very late addition to the lineup when developers decided they needed a female fighter.  

It’s not a flawless victory, but McQuoid succeeds in checking off nearly every major box for a Mortal Kombat adaptation. It’s gory with satisfying fatalities and game callback moments, including dialogue. The fight sequences are well executed and thought out, and most of the emotional beats resonate. It’s a simple story prone to some silliness, but more to the point, it’s an origin story. Mortal Kombat feels like only a warm-up for the main event. Between the easter eggs, teases, and highly entertaining spectacle of it all, McQuoid’s going to need to “get over here” with those sequels.

Mortal Kombat releases in theaters and on HBO Max on April 23.