The majority of the story revolves around a new character, Cole Young (Lewis Tan), an amateur MMA fighter and family man who gets swept up in a supernatural war of the worlds when he’s informed by special ops badass Jax (Mehcad Brooks) that he’s been chosen as one of Earth’s champions to face the challengers of Outworld in an interdimensional fight for survival and dominance. He’s shocked, hilariously, to learn that the dragon-shaped “birthmark” on his chest is actually a brand given to anointed champions of Earth.
The movie introduces a lot of the classic characters from the games in the context of recruitment for the impending tournament, and it’s impressive that the filmmakers were able to incorporate such a wide variety of characters and still keep the story coherent, especially for a movie that clocks in at just 1 hour 50 minutes.
On the Earth side of the battle, we meet Jax’s partner, the virtuous Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee); her captive, Earth champion-murdering maniac, Kano (Josh Lawson); honorable martial arts masters and cousins Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang); and stoic thunder god Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano). The outworlders include the soul-devouring Shang Tsung (Chin Han); fanged fatale Mileena (Sisi Stringer); fast-footed psychopath Kabal (Daniel Nelson); winged warrior Nitara (Mel Jarnson); the sledgehammer-swinging General Reiko (Nathan Jones); and the legendary four-armed beast, Goro.
Each character gets at least a few minutes of shine, and some make bigger impressions than others. Kano is the clear standout, with Lawson offering up some genuinely funny banter and one-liners throughout. He truly steals the show. And while he’s essentially only seen in an epic one-on-one with Cole, Goro is absolutely spectacular-looking and is one of the highlights of the movie. Other characters like Liu Kang, Kung Lao, and Mileena, feel underserved. One even wonders if the story would’ve worked better as a limited series, giving the minor characters more room to breathe.
While some of the characters are less compelling than others, the good news is that they all look terrific. The designs stay completely faithful to the games while also making the characters look embedded in reality and not at all cartoonish. And in a greater sense, the movie captures the ethereal brutality of the games’ environments (some classic levels make fun cameos) but renders them in a way that looks tactile and believable.
Still, Mortal Kombat’s bread and butter is, of course, the combat, and in this respect the movie over-delivers. The intricately choreographed hand-to-hand fight scenes are at times breathtakingly good (the standoffs between Scorpion and Sub-Zero that bookend the movie are freaking unbelievable). The cast is stacked with experienced martial artists, and all of the physicality looks as legit as it gets. The more supernatural encounters look equally amazing: From Kano’s laser eye to Sonya’s pulse rings, to Sub-Zero’s ice storms, all of the visual effects-based action looks incredibly cool and is integrated perfectly into the martial arts choreography.