starring Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Tadanobu Asano, Hiroyuki Sanada
screenplay by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham
directed by Simon McQuoid
by Walter Chaw I saw Paul W.S. Anderson's 1995 Mortal Kombat movie on opening night at a two-screen strip-mall theatre in Seattle with my friends Keith, Sam, and Dan. We knew the catchphrases from endless nights playing the game on a Sega Genesis, and we shouted them in jubilant concert like a Catholic callout and response. Since we were also fans of Highlander, the casting of Christopher Lambert as another ageless super-being felt exactly right. We were assholes. It was the best time of our lives. They were my groomsmen when I got married a few years later. Time has scattered us; Sam killed himself a couple of years ago. It all starts feeling like the framing story for Stand by Me. What's left are memories like this, which seem the easiest way now to get a movie project off the ground--a strip-mining of nostalgia that speaks more to a generational experience of loss than to a real paucity of imagination. If it didn't work, it wouldn't keep happening, and our deathless hunger for polyglot mosaics in pursuit of personal white rabbits is symptomatic of our despair.
Simon McQuoid's Mortal Kombat is a good martial arts movie of the kind Asia has been making for decades now, paired with a nice, simple game of spot-the-source material as it spends a little over half its runtime introducing the live-action version of toons you could choose as your videogame avatar back in the day. Robin Shou (Liu Kang in Anderson's version), one of the very few Asians on the creative side of this endeavour, is on board as fight choreographer and the film's secret weapon. If martial arts movies are like old Hollywood musicals, they live and die by their song-and-dance sequences, and Mortal Kombat has a few cool ones. The premise, for what it's worth, involves the journey of self-discovery undertaken by failed MMA fighter Cole (Lewis Tan) after he learns that his dragon birthmark is more than a mere birthmark--that it is, in fact, his destiny, The Last Starfighter-like, to defend the earth from alien invaders. A tournament, you might have guessed, in which representatives of various realms are gathered to engage in, yep, mortal combat. It's like Bloodsport with a budget and an enormous mainframe, so who's complaining?
Cole falls in with a band of Earth's champions. Rather than go on a parade triumphal listing names that will only mean something to people who grew up with the game, suffice to say the one who makes an impact is comic relief Kano (Josh Lawson), who fulfills the Han Solo requirements of the thing by cracking wise and saying terrible things to special forces fighter/Mortal Kombat researcher Sonya (Jessica McNamee) before he's hilariously battered. He even gets to slow clap. For the rest, expect a lot of hushed-tone serio-mythic mumbo-jumbo about origins in secret Wu-Shu societies and such that, far from being a great leap forward in terms of Asian representation in American cinema, is ultimately just more of how Asians have always been represented in American cinema. We're mystical, get it? And we know kung fu and are heavily into honour. This seems like a good thing until you're an Asian-American child in the United States, whereupon you're asked if you know karate and could show off some moves in between fending off questions about where you're really from and whether you speak your native language, English.
Mortal Kombat panders to any number of familiar properties and tropes: the orphan who turns out to be the descendant of "one of the greatest ninjas to ever walk the earth"; the training montages that unlock the power of a dynastic bloodline; the progressive Enter the Dragon tournament for the fate of the world; the thirsty yellow fever. Drink deep, my friends. It delivers the goods--if by "goods" you mean everything you wanted from a hard-R Mortal Kombat. (Frankly, I'm not sure you're all that discerning if you desperately wanted a "Mortal Kombat" movie in the first place. (Another one, I mean.)) Also, Tadanobu Asano and Hiroyuki Sanada are in this, for fuck's sake. What I like best, though, is how Cole's special powers appear at least in part to be how much of a beating he can endure--and how he turns all that abuse back on his tormentors eventually. That's what I choose to call "a metaphor," and if super-narratives aren't metaphors for overcoming the suffering of individuals and groups, what good are they?