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Mortal Kombat review: Glorious action and fatalities, but shallow characters

The movie reboot will satisfy fans looking for gory cinematic battles, not those hoping for a deep dive into the game series' rich history.

Sean Keane Former Senior Writer
Sean knows far too much about Marvel, DC and Star Wars, and poured this knowledge into recaps and explainers on CNET. He also worked on breaking news, with a passion for tech, video game and culture.
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Gael Cooper
CNET editor Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." She's been a journalist since 1989, working at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Twin Cities Sidewalk, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NBC News Digital. She's Gen X in birthdate, word and deed. If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
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Sean Keane
Gael Cooper
4 min read

Scorpion is one of the 2021 Mortal Kombat movie's best elements.

Warner Bros.

Mortal Kombat is all about awesome fights, gory fatalities, a colorful cast of characters and rich lore. The game series has hit all of those elements beautifully for nearly three decades, but movie adaptations have ranged from deliciously cheesy to truly atrocious. So director Simon McQuoid's 2021 movie reboot feels like a fresh start. 

The movie hit US theaters and Max Friday. It's already out in Australia, and will be available in the UK on Amazon Prime at a later date.

We kick off with an engaging 17th century prologue giving birth to a rivalry between iconic ninjas Scorpion and Sub-Zero (Hiroyuki Sanada and Joe Taslim). It's an intense, emotional opening and sets up the adventure nicely -- the movie is at its best when it leans into their conflict.

Jumping to modern times, we meet series newbie Cole Young (Lewis Tan). This luckless-but-likable MMA fighter just keeps losing, but his dragon-shaped birthmark and strange fiery hallucinations hint at a fate beyond getting beaten up in cage matches. I won't spoil the details of his heritage, but game fans will likely figure it out pretty fast.

Destiny comes calling for Cole as Sub-Zero hunts him like a chilly Terminator, forcing him to team up with klassic characters Sonya Blade, Jax and Kano (Jessica McNamee, Mehcad Brooks and Josh Lawson). In the grand tradition of the Mortal Kombat series, they must battle for Earthrealm as it faces the threat of invasion from another world.

The first hour of the movie is mostly setup, as the universe is established and our heroes figure out their destinies. The fights and choreography are excellent, but there are long stretches without any action and it starts to feel a little dull -- fans want to these guys testing their might, not talking. 


Kano gets all the best lines.

Warner Bros.

Captive criminal Kano injects some fun with pop culture references and quips, but the one-liners come so thick and fast they start to grate. Lawson's delivery can't be faulted, it's just a shame his co-stars didn't get to stretch their comedic muscles alongside their actual muscles.

On the dark side, sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) and his goons are so underdeveloped they feel like a group of one-dimensional baddies -- several of whom are dispatched before they can do much of anything.  Anyone who recalls Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa's gleeful scenery chewing as Shang Tsung in the 1995 movie (a take so iconic they brought the actor back in Mortal Kombat 11) will be disappointed, but Chin Han does the best he can with an underwritten character.

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All that said, you don't come to Mortal Kombat expecting deep character studies or epic narratives, you're here for the combat (sorry, kombat). The fighting really kicks off in the movie's second half, and it instantly becomes much more engaging. 

We flip into a constant (konstant?) barrage of battling, with iconic special moves, fun matchups and delightfully gory fatalities that let the actors show off their action chops. Their physicality makes it utterly believable and each fight is a joy to watch. The film builds to a glorious final confrontation, with choreography and camerawork coming together beautifully -- you'll want to scream "Finish him!" as it draws to a close.


Sub-Zero gets some incredible moments.

Warner Bros.

It's unlikely anyone will be seeing this movie without at least a grounding in Mortal Kombat history, but the video game has a fun backstory.  Original plans were to create a fighting game based on action star Jean-Claude Van Damme, aka The Muscles from Brussels, but JCVD said no thanks. His loss, and perhaps the game's gain, as it gave the designers freedom to blend in elements of Chinese mythology for a fuller experience. The game earned notoriety for its graphic violence, especially its gruesome finishing moves, especially those in which a character's spine is ripped out, and another in which a still-beating heart is torn out and held up.

The game saga is up to Mortal Kombat 11 now, and is still regularly banned in certain countries. But that hasn't slowed down the Kombat. A new downloadable Kombat Pack for Mortal Kombat 11 came out in November, and Sylvester Stallone voices his iconic John Rambo character.

McQuoid's movie is by far the best live-action cinematic Mortal Kombat adaptation we've ever seen. It doesn't make enough use of its characters or tap into the lore nearly enough (hopefully a sequel will draw more from that incredible history) but it nails the fights and fatalities. Shao Kahn himself would be proud.

This reboot isn't quite the flawless victory fans were hoping for, but it's an encouraging way to kick off a new era of Mortal Kombat movies.

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