ST. LOUIS — No one goes into a video game adaptation expecting high art; just the knowing nod that the filmmaker understood the material and delivered the required thrills. It's not an Oscar picture by any means, only another reason to fire up the childhood nostalgia train.
I grew up on "Mortal Kombat." It was something I did with my brother or friends, playing way past midnight. Air-punching, tennis player grunts, and barbaric language set off neighborhood watch beepers and got larger parties started. A video about ancient warriors from different realms and backgrounds doing battle in the ultimate fighting tournament was kettle corn on to the bridge to the end of my innocence. It was like "Street Fighter" meets "The Donnybrook" with a dash of "The Matrix." It didn't take long for Hollywood to take a shot with the 1995 adaptation.
It was a soft take, but a profitable one. Grossing $122 million (pretty solid for a mid-90's release) and delivering a more tongue-in-cheek than serious tone, Paul W.S. Anderson's film wasn't what fans of the game desired. Christopher Lambert sounded like a walking cough medicine commercial and some of the casting choices made it come off half-baked and not as fun as its ambition may have intended.
Thankfully, Simon McQuoid's new version found common ground between both desires, entertaining action audiences and paying homage to the original makers of the game. Carrying some "The Wolverine" DNA with its Japanese/Chinese martial arts structure, McQuoid's new film moves quickly and delivers the goods.
But that's not why you're clicking play tonight. You only watch this movie for carnage, and it better look good. I'm talking about excellent special effects. If you're going to flip the "Mortal Kombat" house again, make sure you fluff those bloody pillows. Beheadings, knife wounds, and any general way of having your arms frozen enough to break off like ice can't be taken lightly. Here, instead of cranking up the camp to a 12, screenwriters Greg Russo and Davis Callaham stick to fight choreography and outstanding CGI-kills. It doesn't have to look real for us to feel the adrenaline.
There's no need to go through all the players. Joe Taslim's Sub-Zero stands out. There are the classic hero types, like Sonya Blade (a great Jessica McNamee) and Jax (Mehcad Brooks wears the part-and arms-well). Josh Lawson's Kano fits the anti-hero measure to a tee, and the actor plays him to the tilt. Each actor, especially the lead Lewis Tan, lean into the 90's action adventure persona. There's no film critic-preening here. McQuoid wanted to make a fine piece of entertainment, something lost on the Academy these days.
This "Mortal Kombat" doesn't play by anyone's rules for its brisk two 110 minutes, proving to be adept at both humor and action. And it gives the eternal cinema Samurai, Hiroyuki Sanada, a good chunk of the spotlight to show off his skills. You can tell the filmmakers took their time in putting this thing together.
Video game adaptations don't have to break the mold. Instead, they merely expand the universe of that particular game, taking the controller out of your hands and creating something worth being nostalgic about. Best of all, this movie will pump you up, big time.
"Mortal Kombat," attempt #2, succeeded. Don't count on it to change the way movies are made. Just turn the brain off and enjoy it. It will stream on HBO Max until May 23.