What to Watch Verdict
'Mortal Kombat' is a Fatality-first showcase of fantasy deathmatch brutality, and while the story may come second, all the reasons your tuning into this live-action reboot are honored on repeat.
🐉 Fatalities are all worthy finishers.
🐉 The production design is fantastical and rich.
🐉 Gore effects are 98% out-of-this-world good.
🐉 The story, as expected, takes a seat.
🐉 Focused on building a franchise.
🐉 Some CGI blood isn't as clean.
Does Mortal Kombat break the “Video Game Adaptation Curse” some say exists? No. It pulverizes, mangles, skewers, and disembowels such a stigma. Maybe not flawlessly. I am, after all, about to be the loser who suggests flimsier writing hampers the fantasy death-match. (Action spectacles can be fun and well written!) That said, fans of Mortal Kombat needn’t fret about their favorite chosen warriors and immortal overlords leaping to screen once again. Fatalities are forthcoming with liquified gore, and characters quip one-liners galore before slamming their knuckles through someone’s rib cage.
If you’re one of those “I watch Godzilla vs. Kong for the kaiju destruction, who cares about the human characters” types, Mortal Kombat should demonstrate even further captivation.
Lewis Tan stars as a new-to-franchise protagonist named Cole Young, an MMA fighter who competes for $200 paydays in grungy gymnasiums and cares about family as much as Dominic Toretto. A dragon birthmark catches the eye of military strongman Jax (Mehcad Brooks), who reveals the symbol is a signifier of Earthrealm’s fabled protectors. That’s when Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) attacks Cole and his family on behalf of Outworld in an attempt to thin Earthrealm’s competitors for an upcoming tournament called “Mortal Kombat.” If Outworld wins one more event, Shang Tsung (Chin Han) will enslave Earth under his rule—Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) vows not to let this happen and begins training Cole alongside a few other fresh recruits who can stand against Shang Tsung’s merciless champions.
In Mortal Kombat terms—especially those animation fans who already saw this film's introduction executed with a heap more oomph in Mortal Kombat Legacy: Scorpion’s Revenge—screenwriters Greg Russo and Dave Callaham are sticking to Midway heritage scripts.
Debut director Simon McQuoid favors the video game approach of sticking to button mashing with a cheeky sensibility to indulge fan servicing from iconic lines to graphic, crimson-sticky Fatalities. You might notice Hollywood playboy Johnny Cage is absent from martial artistry—his nut shots aren’t—but the roster elsewhere is crammed with selection-screen favorites. Jessica McNamee brings tactical wits to Sonya Blade, Josh Lawson subs in Kano’s sardonic smart-assery for an unexpected Johnny Cage stand-in, Max Huang whips Kung Lao's razor-edged hat around as to showcase its sharpness—the list scrolls onward. You’ll get your Scorpion versus Sub-Zero subplot rivalry along with landscape rotations that recreate levels whether bridged over spike pits or within more traditional temple enclosures ready to be doused in warrior leftovers. McQuoid pushes hard-R in the same way Mortal Kombat once tested gamer stomachs.
Introducing Cole Young as an original character opens the door for world-building and ownership of heroism, albeit through means that play fast and loose based on established rules. Tan’s expert training makes him a secure fit against Joe Taslim’s Cryomancer assassin or alongside Ludi Lin’s flame-fistin’ Liu Kang in terms of painful choreography, even if his character motivations are torn from every underdog story imaginable. We’re also introduced to “arcana” abilities, essentially superpowers hidden within marked combatants—markings that transfer if said combatants are defeated—such as Kano’s eye laser or Liu Kang’s fireballs mentioned above. These elements attribute agency and development to characters who’d otherwise plainly be trained brawlers and speak to more—um—wholesome themes as per the situational motivations when Jax reclaims his strength or Cole unlocks his ninja lineage? They also are underbaked most times and hit hallmark emotional beats, as Lord Raiden shoos Shang Tsung away whenever there’s more story to tell. McQuoid's is a franchise-first movie, after all—don’t worry, the script’s inefficiencies won’t let you forget that tidbit in the oddest of choices (if not distracted by constant pop-culture references from Harry Potter to Magic Mike).
But, yes. I won’t fight it. You’re here for undefeatable Prince Goro. You’re here for someone uttering, “Test your might.” You’re here for Benjamin Wallfisch’s speedbag score punctuated with hidden Mortal Kombat theme notes that resonate through pump-up soundtracks. Hell, you're even here for meta-humor like shade thrown at players who overuse leg-sweep moves—and most certainly blood icicle blades. Maybe most of all.
Where Mortal Kombat shines is as its gruesomest, most unabashedly video game centric. McQuoid’s desire to push limits with Fatalities executes violent, gloriously repugnant examples of bodily mutilation that only ever ace recreations of arcade combos. Special effects are insanely detailed, impressing through dismemberment bone shards or hand-clap cranial explosions, or see-through abdomen portholes. I say this as a horror fan who raves about practical commitment to kill sequences—Mortal Kombat undoubtedly features some of the year’s best on-screen deaths. How sweet when accompanied by “Kano Wins!” as the Australian hardass clutches a still-beating heart in victory pose—which sounds cheesy, but I promise plays gangbusters given how McQuoid exerts maximum effort when punching home exactly what franchise fans desire to behold.
Mortal Kombat may not be as focused as a Shaolin Monk but it's fast to aggression outbursts like a Black Dragon mercenary. No Babalities in sight. Costume design replicates trademark outfits with elegance, CGI-heavy creatures like Goro or Nitara stand proudly, and production design transports audiences from Earthrealm hideaways to Outworld palaces with ease. Simon McQuoid is a confident stager of fist-foot-furious brutality. That confidence translates into unflinching grotesqueries as the camera lingers on unforgettable eliminations that rightfully overshadow wisecracks or sincerity that wavers so often. In short? Mortal Kombat understands how fans like to be serviced—picking bone fragments and membrane chunks off their person after one barbarous and at-times comical launch into faction wars I hope are explored with the same extremity, if not doubled, next time around.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.