Review: Mortal Kombat

There’s a balance that needs to be struck when adapting the work of another medium into the motion-picture format: it needs have a level of faithfulness that will appease fans of the original material, yet be accessible enough for a general audience to enjoy too. It’s a brief many adaptations fail to meet, thereby making this blockbuster a remarkable exception to the norm.

Cole Young (James Tan) is an amateur cage fighter, and the descendant of a legendary Japanese samurai. His lineage is identified by a distinctive, dragon-shaped birthmark on his chest, one which is not unique to is bloodline – it is a symbol carried by many a great warrior past and present. An ancient prophecy states that whoever bears this symbol is destined to compete in a brutal fighting tournament, where Earth’s greatest champions must do battle with the bloodthirsty forces of the Outworld.

That opportunity presents itself sooner than expected for Cole, when his family is terrorised by the preternatural, ice-producing mercenary known as Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) – the very same figure who murdered his ancestors centuries earlier. Cole’s family escapes with the assistance of fellow dragon-bearer Jax (Mechad Brooks) who instructs Cole to meet with one of their allies, Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) in order to fulfil his destiny.

Mortal Kombat takes its name and inspiration from a series of uber-violent video-games first released in the Nineties. The games proved so popular that a feature-length, live-action film based on the series was produced just three years after the franchise’s launch, one which most people would rather forget – fans of the original games bemoaned the lack of blood and gore, while moviegoers were left disappointed by the campy presentation. Happily, the reboot of Mortal Kombat atones for these issues, putting forward a picture that will leave both parties satisfied.

The graphic violence that is a staple of the Mortal Kombat games is one of this picture’s key features. Over the course of the picture, viewers can expect to see limbs being severed, bodies being decapitated, holes made in midriffs, internal organs being exposed, at least one character being sliced in twain, and an appropriate quantity of blood oozing from each victim. And while there’s certainly more bloodshed than in Mortal Kombat films past, the more squeamish viewer will be comforted to know that this kind of butchery is never sadistically employed, nor is it utilised excessively.

It’s not just the brutal fatalities that are entertaining, but the Eastern-influenced action that precedes them. The fight sequences of Mortal Kombat are expertly choreographed, with some hard-hitting punches, ingenious uses of props and impressive visual effects employed to make them all the more spectacular. It’s heartening to know that this reboot isn’t just content with the ostentatious slaughtering of characters – it’s a film that delivers the tense, fast-moving physical combat that audiences crave.

Mortal Kombat’s fan-service extends further still by offering plenty of nods to the franchise’s history, each one more pleasing than the last. Examples include the ultra-gory finishing moves performed by the characters, the iconic catchphrases frequently heard in the games, and the extensive list of characters encountered throughout the plot, which includes the likes of Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang), Shang Tsung (Chin Han) and Goro (Angus Sampson), among many others.

The Aussie mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson) as he appears in Mortal Kombat

Yet the undoubted highlight of the new Mortal Kombat, for fans and newcomers alike, is the muscular, bearded Kano, played with gusto by Josh Lawson. Speaking in a thick Australian accent and uttering constant profanities, Kano is the blockbuster’s most memorable character, providing it with an enormous dose of silliness and energy. Lawson commits to the role wholeheartedly, looking physically imposing and spouting Kano’s ocker quips with perfect timing in a performance that ought to establish him as one of Hollywood’s most sought-after talents.

If there’s one downside to Kano’s presence, it’s that his character makes all others look dull by comparison. There’s very little to differentiate between the personalities found in Mortal Kombat, with Cole being the only fighter that possesses a compelling backstory, and everybody else given almost no time to develop one of their own. Not helping matters is the little-known cast, all of whom perform admirably in their roles yet can’t quite muster the charm necessary to leave an impact on the viewer – Lawson aside, obviously.

The bland, indistinguishable list of characters isn’t the only flaw to be found in Mortal Kombat, either. Efforts to establish the movie’s world are adequate at best, with some mysteries remaining despite the several minutes spent delivering exposition – for instance, it’s never explicitly stated where or when the story takes place. And then there are moments when the film takes itself much too seriously, contrasting heavily with the cartoonish action on display, and the impish behaviour of Kano.

There is an overarching problem to be had with Mortal Kombat though, and that’s how nondescript its screenplay is. What’s been crafted here is a movie carefully tailored for mass-appeal, utilising a narrative that follows some very familiar beats and offering next to no surprises, fearful that the viewer will become alienated by proceedings if there are any. Had the writers taken more risks with their material, they could well have crafted the finest video-game adaptation Hollywood has ever produced.

Mortal Kombat is a serviceable action flick that will please the franchise’s devotees and newcomers alike. Bland characters and an unremarkable script are offset by blood-soaked action sequences, references aplenty and Josh Lawson’s charismatic, scene-stealing turn as Kano, whose efforts alone ensure this blockbuster is anything but a bore.

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