There is really only one thing that the new Mortal Kombat has to accomplish: Dudes must fight. And on that front, the new movie, directed by Simon McQuoid, and out on Friday, absolutely delivers. No, there’s not that much else going on, but there doesn’t need to be. The whole point of a Mortal Kombat movie is to revel in the action—to yell, “Oh, no!” when a combatant suffers a particularly gruesome injury (a fatality, if you will), and to yell, “Oh, yes!” when someone performs a particularly cool move. There are, blessedly, plenty of opportunities for both.
“Hang on,” you might say. “Is there even a story here? Aren’t the Mortal Kombat games just about fighting?” To answer both questions: Yes. The basic premise of the universe in which Mortal Kombat takes place is that there is a competition known as “Mortal Kombat” which pits fighters from Outworld, a hellish expanse, against fighters from Earthrealm, also known as Earth. (The fact that the tournament’s name is spelled with a K is never explained.) Outworld has won the first nine out of 10 scheduled tournaments, and a 10th win will grant them the right to invade and conquer Earth. Outworld sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) plans to steal that 10th victory by killing all of Earth’s chosen champions, who all bear the mark of a circle with a dragon’s silhouette inside, before the tournament can even begin. Enter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a former MMA fighter who, unlike the other champions, has had the mark since he was born, rather than earning it through combat. He’s been living a normal life, unaware of the mark’s significance (as far as he’s concerned, it’s a birthmark), but is dragged into the world of Mortal Kombat as he’s converged upon by both Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), one of Shang Tsung’s henchmen, and the rest of Earth’s champions, who want Cole to join their ranks.
If that all sounds a little silly, that’s because it is, but this backstory is presented in such a way that it’s accessible for anyone unfamiliar with the franchise’s lore, and at any rate, there’s not too much plot to have to comprehend, anyway. Basically every major beat of the film involves a fight. Cole is introduced in a fight, he meets Jax (Mehcad Brooks) in a fight, he’s forced to endure fight after fight in order to become a worthy champion, etc. The editing can admittedly be a little choppy, but that awkwardness is made up for by the fact that the actors are doing most, if not all, of their own stunts, lending a certain tangibility and believability to all the sequences of people whaling on each other. Only one fight feels curiously weightless, as a result of one fighter being a CGI creation rather than a physical actor, but for the most part, the special effects only serve to enhance the fights, especially as the characters tap into their “arcana,” superpowers that range from shooting fireballs to stealing souls.
The cast—with the exception of Josh Lawson as Kano, the film’s comic relief—plays everything with deadly seriousness, which only serves to elevate the ridiculousness happening around them, especially as respected actors like Hiroyuki Sanada (as Scorpion) and Tadanobu Asano (as Raiden) recite lines straight from the games. That said, the film isn’t for the faint of heart. Just as the game became infamous for its violent graphics (spines being pulled out, holes being punched through bodies), the movie adaptation doesn’t shy away from killing its characters in gory ways. (For those who might want a preview of the carnage: There’s a vivisection.) Even the franchise’s theme song, arguably the most iconic thing to come out of the series—even more so than “Fatality!” or “Finish him!”—is expertly deployed. The infamous dah-dun-dah-dun-dah-dun is saved until just the right moment, and when it finally kicks in, reader, I’m not ashamed to admit that I yelled, “Oh, shit!”
It’s moments like this make Mortal Kombat worth the price of admission, and if you subscribe to HBO Max, that’s a price you’ve already paid. (The movie is also out simultaneously in theaters, which, as more and more people get vaccinated, are also incrementally becoming safer.) Though the ending makes it clear that this movie’s purpose is largely to set up future Mortal Kombat movies, it still stands well enough on its own, and it benefits from not looking as cheap or as cheesy as its 1990s predecessors. (It’s also kind of nice to see so many actors of Asian descent in lead roles in an American movie that isn’t specifically about the Asian-American experience. Yes, it’s a movie about dudes punching, but still!) It’s not quite a flawless victory, but after the past year, I’ll take the win.
In my decade at Slate, I’ve worked on everything from investigating how wearing your backpack with two straps became cooler than wearing it with one strap to adapting The Great Gatsby as a video game to inventing a highly scientific systemic for determining whether new movies are too scary for you. The support of Slate Plus members has allowed us to continue to do the kind of ambitious, irreverent, and service-y cultural coverage you won’t find anywhere else. Thank you! —Forrest Wickman, culture editor