Mortal Kombat, review: a repellent example of Hollywood’s artistic bankruptcy

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Mortal sinners: the various warriors of Mortal Kombat are locked in an eternally dull battle - Mark Rogers
Mortal sinners: the various warriors of Mortal Kombat are locked in an eternally dull battle - Mark Rogers
  • Dir: Simon McQuoid. Starring: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ludi Lin, Max Huang, Mehcad Brooks, Tadanobu Asano, Chin Lan. 15 cert, 110 mins

“In Mortal Kombat,” warns Kung Lao (Max Huang), a warrior monk with an Oddjob-ish razor-rimmed hat, “talent will only get you so far.” That’s certainly one way of putting it. The largely unknown cast of this video-game adaptation seem like a nice bunch, but if the next Tom Hardy or Charlize Theron happens to be among them, you would struggle to pick them out on the basis of anything here.

The first instalment in the Mortal Kombat beat ’em up series arrived in amusement arcades in 1992, and soon became celebrated for its charming “fatality” feature, which allowed players to murder their on-screen rivals in various ornately gruesome ways. The series always leaned into its B-movie roots: one character was inspired by Jean-Claude Van Damme, another by the China O’Brien star Cynthia Rothrock, and many more by the heroes and villains of the forbidden-seeming Hong Kong action films only viewable in the West on bootleg VHS cassettes.

But it was all so grottily derivative that, when converted back into actual flesh-and-blood cinema, everything about it seemed infantile and laughable: see 1995’s Mortal Kombat and its 1997 sequel for further evidence of that (or, better still, don’t).

The new version is every bit as bad, and a lot more expensive. It centres on a new hero, Lewis Tan’s Cole Young, a mixed-martial-arts fighter whose dragon-shaped birthmark identifies him as one of Earth’s chosen warriors in an impending battle with the denizens of Outworld – “the most brutal and murderous of all the realms,” of all the lousy luck. His teammates include two former special-forces types, Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and Jax Briggs (Mehcad Brooks), plus a foul-mouthed Australian mercenary called Kano (Josh Lawson), whose main purpose is to puncture the script’s unbearable pomposity with even more unbearable humorous asides.

The band descends on a desert temple where they train with Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), a Bruce Lee type who can summon fireballs with his fists – though “training” here boils down to fighting each other in every possible configuration. Then eventually the bad guys arrive, and they fight them instead. Occasionally a familiar face from Asian cinema – Hiroyuki Sanada, Tadanobu Asano – will drop by in the guise of an immortal ninja, growl something subtitled, and lob a lightning bolt or harpoon into the fray.

Devotees settling down to watch with a checklist of names on their lap may be enraptured by all of this, but this methodical plod through the games’ core characters makes for the opposite of lively storytelling. Worse still, the same dutiful treatment of the game’s fatalities means we’re asked to cheer on heroes who don’t just vanquish their opponents but disembowel them with zeal, before shooting a wisecrack or proverb at the gory remains.

Yet to call the film “repellent” would do it too much credit. The combat itself (sorry, kombat) is so clumsily shot and edited that the fights have no discernible dramatic shape or flow, while the fatalities are rendered in bland, businesslike computer graphics that have you yearning for the honest, artisanal gloop-by-the-bucket of a Hellraiser or Nightmare on Elm Street.

Here, then, is the killer blow. We no longer live in the 1990s. The films that inspired Mortal Kombat in the first place – the transcendently violent, witty and graceful kung fu classics made by Shaw Brothers in Singapore and Golden Harvest in Hong Kong, plus early Western imitators such as Sworn to Justice and Bloodsport – no longer languish in a cinematic twilight zone, but are freely available to stream on Amazon Prime and Netflix.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Five Deadly Venoms, Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, The Mystery of Chess Boxing: a five-minute chunk from any of the above will yield more spectacle and style than $55 million of present-day Hollywood capital can apparently buy. Why waste your time and money on a knock-off of a knock-off when the glorious originals are right there?

Available on Amazon Prime Video and other digital platforms now