Hollywood is having something of a martial arts moment. America’s huge studio system is finally coming to a long overdue appreciation of the iconic genre of action movies. From Warrior—which was just renewed at HBO Max—to Marvel’s upcoming Shang-Chi, it seems like the industry is finally realizing that there’s a massive audience for authentic martial arts stories. And HBO Max’s new release, Mortal Kombat, is the first of what’ll hopefully be a new wave of big screen Hollywood action movies starring real martial artists in leading roles.
Taking the popular super violent video game and translating it into the ultimate R-rated popcorn fight flick, this is probably the most fun you’ll have watching a movie this year. The story is simple: a young washed-up MMA fighter Cole Young ( Lewis Tan) is inducted into a mythical training academy in order to save the world. He’s accompanied by heroes from around the globe—Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Jax (Mehcad Brooks), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang), and Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano)—he must save Earth from destruction.
While the Mortal Kombat games have a ton of lore, this is very much a beginner’s guide to the world. Cole is our first in-character. Tan does a nice job of giving him some much needed naivete and humility as he comes face-to-face with his new superpowered colleagues. His character is an entirely new invention in the Mortal Kombat universe. It was a choice some fans were less than happy with, but for the most part it works. That’s largely thanks to Greg Russo’s snappy script which builds Cole into the lore in an unexpected way.
Director Simon McQuoid does a great job balancing the more grounded storyline that Cole represents with an over-the-top outrageousness that inherently comes along with the supernatural fighting game franchise. It’s utterly refreshing to see a big blockbuster like this that never tries to “Batman Begins” its source material. This is a film about two elder gods fighting over the fate of the universe with muscled hotties, and that’s what we get. There’s no realism here; instead, relatability comes from the heart these characters have. Whether it’s Cole and his family or Liu Kang’s love for Kung Lao, that’s where we find our connection.
Lin and Huang, stand out among the talented cast. McQuoid allows them to live on almost their own plane as a pair of Shaolin monks burdened with protecting Earthrealm. Huang is nothing short of brilliant and has the best entrance in the movie. It’s the kind of thing you can imagine a packed cinema—remember those?—with viewers going wild. This is all especially impressive as it’s his first major acting role. Lin brings the same charm, power, and thoughtfulness that made him such a hit in Power Rangers. Funny, sweet, and both incredible fighters, this reviewer would love to see a Shaolin spinoff in our future.
Brooks and McNamee are well-suited as our other human in-characters. The former brings humor and heart as Jax. While the latter is surprisingly well-rounded and charming as the conspiracy theorist leader of our Earthrealm crew. In the games, Sonya rarely has much characterization, but McNamee does a great job making her a rounded heroine here. But we can’t mention her without mentioning Josh Lawson’s breakout performance as professional nightmare Kano. Obnoxiously Australian in the best possible way, Lawson offers up the greatest version of comedy relief, making a character so hateable you’ll come away loving him.
Their opponents are the Outworld, lead by Shang Tsung (Chin Han), who has his own little roster of iconic Mortal Kombat baddies in Mileena ( Sisi Stringer), Kabal (Daniel Nelson), Nitara (Elissa Cadwell), and more. They’re all pretty fearsome, and Stringer in particular gives Mileena a ferocity and fearsomeness that will enchant fans new and old. One of the other key parts of Mortal Kombat lore is the gory and grotesque Fatalities. We get those here in abundance with a mix of classic and newer deaths that will have you squirming in your seat. While some of us were hoping for a more hardcore horror martial arts movie like Timo Tjhanto’s notorious The Night Comes For Us, Mortal Kombat is a far more accessible adventure and even with its brutal moments is generally a fun good versus evil romp.
Now it wouldn’t be a Mortal Kombat movie without Sub-Zero and Scorpion. And this iteration of the characters puts two martial arts legends behind their masks. Joe Taslim takes on the role of the icy assassin known as Bi-Han. Hiroyuki Sanada faces off against him as the ninja known as Scorpion. Like any true Mortal Kombat adaption, their story is key. It also blesses us with the best fight in the movie, which also opens the film. Speaking of legends, I must give a shoutout to Tadanobu Asano. The Japanese cinema icon plays Lord Raiden as a cranky grandpa tired of human nonsense, and it’s honestly absolutely perfect.
There’s a lot of fun to be had here as the fights ramp up. The action is always impactful and the crew get to show off their immense talents. This is the kind of mainstream Hollywood action movie we rarely ever get. Talented stunt people like Huang are suddenly center stage. Most of our core cast are people of color. With such a roster of martial arts talent, the action feels fluid and like you’re actually watching the performers fight, because for the most part you are. Superhero movies would be smart to take note from the way the action informs character here. Basically, if you’ve been waiting for a big budget action flick with heart and fights that hurt, you’ve found it.
Whether you’ve never played a Mortal Kombat game before or count yourself as a die hard fan, this is a super fun and ultra-bloody ride which manages to treat its source material with respect and authenticity while never taking itself too seriously. In terms of cinematic action and fun, it’s a Flawless Victory!