Any sober analysis of “Mortal Kombat” already risks overthinking it, but even taking this adaptation of the game on its decidedly R-rated terms, the movie offers few of the visceral thrills that might produce a collective audience response, which makes its consumption on HBO Max perfectly adequate. Of course, in that setting, chuckling at the clunky dialogue will also be a less communal event.
Coming roughly a quarter-century after an earlier version and sequel, the movie marks the feature debut of Australian commercial director Simon McQuoid, with “Aquaman” director James Wan among the producers. The clear hope is to turn this into another franchise, while leaving enough scattered limbs and gore to satisfy those who simply can’t wait to hear someone bellow “Finish him!”
For the uninitiated (and thanks for coming this far), the minimal plot involves a newly introduced character, mixed-martial artists fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), who is recruited to fight on behalf of Earthrealm against the evil forces of Outworld’s Emperor Shang Tsung (Chin Han).
Cole, it turns out, bears what he thought was a birthmark, which actually identifies him as one of the chosen to protect his world, with a storied heritage of which he’s unaware. He’s set on that path by Jax (Mehcad Brooks), after an out-of-nowhere attack by the ice-spraying Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim).
“Mortal Kombat” is a tolerable exercise in mythology and world building up to that point, but then the movie devolves into an extended training sequence, and the story, such as it is, sort of grinds to a halt. It rebounds with a series of battles as the defenders must discover and put into use their unique talents, leaving buckets of blood and crude anatomy lessons in their wake.
The mix of martial-arts-style combat and special effects, such as a hulking four-armed opponent, give the movie a distinctive visual flair, but perhaps reading the audience, there’s no effort to bring any dimension to the characters.
Instead, the primary mission seems to be rectifying the earlier version’s watered-down violence. All that’s left, then, is the hunt for “wow” moments during the battles, generating two or three that feel gruesome enough to produce the desired effect.
“Mortal Kombat” is within its rights taking the material semi-seriously, but does so by taking itself a little too seriously, given the rote nature of translating the game — whatever its ongoing popularity in that form — to the screen. (The movie’s being released by Warner Bros., like CNN, a unit of WarnerMedia.)
Nothing will probably dissuade those excited about the film from seeing it, and the better-than-expected debut of Warner Bros.’s “Godzilla vs. Kong” suggests there’s an understandable appetite right now for big, dumb action. For those on the fence, though, “Mortal Kombat” is hardly worth starting, much less finishing,
“Mortal Kombat” premieres April 23 in theaters and on HBO Max. It’s rated R.