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Can’t fight this feeling anymore – ‘Mortal Kombat’

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If 21st century cinema has taught us anything, it’s that everything old is new again. We’ve watched as IP-driven blockbusters and nostalgia-trip remakes have dominated the box office over the past couple of decades.

Hollywood is a flat circle. We should never be surprised when a property from the past gets a shine-up and gets released onto a new generation of unsuspecting moviegoers.

So it is with “Mortal Kombat,” currently in theaters and available for streaming via HBO Max. Based on the iconic video game series of the same name and directed by first-timer Simon McQuoid, the film tries to breathe new cinematic life into the characters that have proved so popular for nearly three decades.

Tries and … sort of succeeds? But not really?

It’s a good faith effort, to be sure, but while we do get some narrative expansion, it proves to be awfully muddy and convoluted in ways that detract from the fundamental appeal of “Mortal Kombat.” By attempting to graft new characters and situations onto the already-extant foundation, we’re left with a film that can’t seem to get out of its own way. Yes, there’s some first-rate magical martial arts action – and a pleasantly surprising amount of visceral gore – but the clunkiness of the story development effectively caps the film’s potential.

(Quick primer if you’re reading this review yet somehow unfamiliar with “Mortal Kombat” – there’s a magical fighting competition dubbed Mortal Kombat that takes place between champions of our world (Earthrealm) and the sinister evildoers of Outworld. If Outworld’s champions defeat ours 10 times in a row, the dimensional veil is pierced and Outworld’s forces can conquer us. To this point, we’ve lost nine in a row.)

In 17th century Japan, a legendary warrior named Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada, “Minamata”) is ambushed by forces from the Lin Kuei clan led by the powerful Bi-Han (Joe Taslim, TV’s “Warrior”); Bi-Han’s intention is to kill Hanzo and his family in order to destroy the Shirai Ryu clan. However, unbeknownst to Bi-Han, Hanzo’s infant daughter survived the attack; she was rescued and spirited away by the thunder god Raiden (Tadanobu Asano, “Detective Chinatown 3”).

In the present, Outworld’s ruthless leader Shang Tsung (Chin Han, “Skyscraper”) reveals that with one more victory in Mortal Kombat, he and his forces can rule Earth. However, a prophecy stands in his way – one that declares the blood of Hanzo Hasashi will be his downfall. He enlists the apparently-immortal Bi-Han – now known as Sub-Zero – to go to Earth and kill all the champions before the tournament, ensuring his victory.

Cole Young (Lewis Tan, TV’s “Wu Assassins”) is a former champion MMA fighter who has been reduced to taking small-time bouts in an effort to take care of his family. He’s fallen mightily from grace, but does what he can. He is also the bearer of a mark that labels him as a champion of Earth, which means that Sub-Zero is coming for him and the people he loves.

He’s tracked down by former Special Forces operatives/Mortal Kombat conspiracy theorists Jax (Mehcad Brooks, “A Fall from Grace”) and Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee, “Black Water: Abyss”) and brought into the fold. Jax and Sonya have also captured Kano (Josh Lawson, “Long Story Short”), a foul-mouthed amoral arms dealer and mercenary who also happens to bear the mark.

Before you know it, Cole has been thrust into training for the tournament under the watchful eye of Raiden alongside other champions, all in hopes of unleashing his “arcana” – basically, the magic power that comes with being a champion – in time to defeat the evil forces massing against them. But with Shang Tsung, Sub-Zero and the rest being willing to break the rules, what chance can Cole and his friends possibly have?

The funny thing is that while that’s a fairly long synopsis, there’s not a lot of actual story in this movie. There are plenty of nods to the overarching “Mortal Kombat” mythos, but in terms of actual narrative, well … it ain’t much.

(I should note that I am not above getting excited when a direct reference to the video games is made. I’m not going to spoil them, but just know that they’re coming.)

As a fan of both the early editions of the game and the 1995 Paul W.S. Anderson film, I was predisposed to enjoy this movie. And the truth is that I did enjoy myself, though I can in no uncertain terms tell you that this is a good movie. It is not.

If you’re here for martial arts action, well … it sadly falls a bit flat. While there’s no question that we’re looking at some skilled hand-to-hand combatants here, much of that skill is sacrificed on the altar of CGI. There’s just too much digital noise – it undermines the talent of the fighters. However, if you’re a lover of over-the-top blood-and-guts a la early Sam Raimi, then you are going to find plenty to like, because by leaning into the absurd extremity of the game’s fundamentals, the filmmakers give us a bloodbath that is so extra that it is hilarious.

The performances are a bit blah across the board. Too often, the performers are left to lean on the admittedly-deep set of characteristics and qualities dictated by the long histories of the characters. The assumption of familiarity is understandable, though ultimately ill-advised. And with Cole, an original character created for the film, we don’t even get that – there’s a flatness to the portrayal that impacts everything that happens around it. At best, we get some portrayals that aren’t bad enough to remember.

“Mortal Kombat” is a deeply flawed film, one that can’t quite capture the energy that made its source material such a runaway success. However, if you’re a fan of the franchise, you might well find some things to like here. It is bloody, dumb and bloody dumb – but sometimes, isn’t that just what you’re looking for?

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 26 April 2021 10:48

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