Mortal Kombat: Kill Screen, by David Bax
Of the many, many parts of Simon McQuoid’s Mortal Kombat that are awkward and clumsy, perhaps the worst are those times when the movie tries too hard to make sense. We start with a tragic prologue set 400 years in the past that leads directly into some explanatory text that raises more questions than it answers (Earthrealm? Outworld?). Finally, Jessica McNamee–as Sonya Blade–is saddled with the unfortunate chore of unloading the rest of the backstory on us in a supremely inelegant, densely worded exposition dump. It wouldn’t have been too egregious to just leave some of this stuff unsaid given that Mortal Kombat seems to be almost entirely made with the existing fanbase in mind and they don’t need to be caught up.
So there’s not really anything you need to know about the film’s plot. But here’s the baseline anyway. Lewis Tan plays our standard issue Hero’s Journey protagonist, Cole Young, a washed up MMA fighter with a birthmark in the shape of a dragon that he very quickly learns means he is chosen to participate in a deadly, interdimensional martial arts tournament that will decide the fate of the planet. Got it?
Even the dialogue that isn’t an attempt to make us care about the nonsensical plot is thoroughly terrible. Whether it’s using way too many syllables to sound tough in the middle of an urgent, life-or-death situation (“You want your family on a fucking slab in the morgue?!”) or trotting out a cliché so worn it should only exist in parody now (when Mehcad Brooks’ Jax reminds Cole of a major fight he once won, Cole sniffs and says wistfully, “That was a long time ago…”), almost every line spoken in Mortal Kombat threatens to earn an unintended laugh.
Except, that is, for the ones that are actually supposed to be funny. Not since Gods of Egypt have attempts at quipping sat so painfully alongside slick vomits of CGI. Josh Lawson’s Kano, the movie’s de facto comic relief character, is just an obnoxious jerk. When Sonya rolls her eyes and asks if he ever stops talking, it’s a damned good question.
Kano’s sneering, macho swagger recalls American action films of the 1980s and Mortal Kombat, with its big muscles and bigger weaponry, sometimes seems to fit into that decade’s milieu. But the garish lighting and focus on swordplay and hokum put it more in league with 90s cheapies like the Highlander TV series or, perhaps, the original Mortal Kombat films (I can’t say for sure as I’ve never seen them). So maybe the fact that McQuoid has recaptured a particular kind of 90s badness actually makes this Mortal Kombat a success.
That brings us to the fact that, despite all of the above, I can still offer a very qualified recommendation of this movie to the right kind of person. When the characters shut up and start fighting each other, the choreography and photography of the action is top notch, badass and often gleefully gory. Basically, if you’re someone who was already geeked to see a new, R-rated Mortal Kombat movie, you’re not likely to be disappointed. If you’re anyone else, stay the hell away.