Review: Right, Down, Left, Up, Right: cannonball. Down, Left, High Punch: teleport. Down, Right, Low Punch: lightning. Performing the special fighting moves in the Mortal Kombat video game series, which drew first blood in the early 1990s, required cunning, agility, tactical nous and split-second timing. None of those qualities were evident when the game spilled onto the big screen in 1995 with British director Paul WS Anderson at the helm. The same heavy-handed, gleefully violent mentality blights the 2021 reboot masterminded by director Simon McQuoid. Working from a lumbering screenplay by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham, this bruising introduction to the titular tournament between super-powered fighters from opposing realms lays the groundwork for a sprawling franchise with a pithy parting shot from the chief antagonist (“The next time I see you, I will bring armies!”) and a visual tease of one of the game’s original characters, cocksure Hollywood movie star Johnny Cage.
Digital effects go into overdrive during breathlessly choreographed fight sequences, cranking up the gore with a slow-motion symphony of exploding heads, severed limbs and scorched skin. The on-screen body count reaches double figures in the opening 10 minutes and director McQuoid takes great delight in graphic displays of aggression, which might quicken the pulse if characters weren’t so relentlessly bland, especially reluctant hero Cole Young. A colourful supporting turn from Josh Lawson as foul-mouthed Australian arms dealer Kano provides welcome comic relief between repetitive bouts of bludgeoning.
In 1617 Japan, fearsome warrior Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), leader of the Shirai Ryu clan, is murdered by rival Bi-Han (Joe Taslim). More than 400 years later, Hanzo’s unsuspecting descendant – cage fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan) – is blissfully unaware that a dragon-shaped birth mark on his chest will empower him to fight in Mortal Kombat. Ancient prophecy decrees that the Hasashi bloodline will unite our world, Earthrealm, and inspire victory over duplicitous warriors from Outworld, commanded by soul-sucking sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han).
Cole trains under thunder god Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) alongside our chosen champions: Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang), Jax (Mehcad Brooks) and Kano (Lawson). However, Shang Tsung intends to secure victory before the tournament has begun and he dispatches his demented underlings Sub-Zero (Taslim), Mileena (Sisi Stringer), Kabal (Daniel Nelson, voiced by Damon Herriman) and Goro (voiced by Angus Sampson) to slay Earthrealm’s gladiators.
Mortal Kombat caters to base desires with a miasma of frenetic on-screen carnage. Russo and Callaham’s script neglects to pluck a heartstring when an artery can be cheerfully severed instead. Lawson’s profanity-spewing theatrics aside, performances are uniformly forgettable, blocking any emotional connection to combatants as they brawl for mankind’s survival. Comfortingly, if Earthrealm loses then it’s ‘game over’ for a sequel.
Find Mortal Kombat in the cinemas