“Mortal Kombat” is the 5,287th iteration of a franchise that began with the 1992 video game and has since proceeded through 21 sequels, several comic book runs, an animated series, and two previous films. Also a novel, a stage show, five music albums, and two sets of collectible cards. If you are a fan or a follower, you know all the “Mortal Kombat” characters, their interrelationships, their special powers, and their bloody “finishing moves.” If not, then . . . not. Personally, I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it, but my job is to assay the object in front of me and judge whether it is, in fact, the “Mortal Kombat” that it wants to be.
What this “Mortal Kombat” wants to be is a heavily digitized fantasy-action rumble with an overlay of mystical-Asian-martial-arts jive hooey and generous spurts of blood. In fact, the opening sequence, set in medieval Japan, has a balletic sense of violence that briefly calls to mind the gorier samurai classics of the 1960s. That’s where the influences stop, though.
In the present day, Cole (Lewis Tan) is a lanky, mopey MMA fighter with an unimpressive scorecard but a mysterious dragon-shaped birthmark that points him toward greater things. (In “MK” parlance, it means he’s one of the chosen fighters to defend Earthrealm from the other realms like . . . oh, never mind.) Cole falls in with tough ex-Special Forces warriors Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and Jax (Mehcad Brooks), who, with wisecracking macho dirtbag Kano (Josh Lawson), bring him to the Temple of Raiden somewhere in the South Australian desert, where he trains to go up against the unpleasant folk of Outworld, led by Lord Shang Tsung (Chin Han).
The plot, of course, is a frayed string on which to hang a series of punch-fests — there are 15 or so; I lost count — which are frenetic and overedited in the popular style. (Like dancing in musicals, fight choreography is always more impressive when you can see it in its totality, in long shot, but apparently that’s boring.) Most of the major characters have a superpower, referred to as their “arcana”: flame-throwing, laser-eyes, that sort of thing. The chief villain, Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), freezes stuff — handy at a picnic, deadly here. Cole’s job is to locate his arcana, but Tan, the actor playing him, would have to locate a personality first, and that, I’m sorry to say, is a losing battle.
McNamee gives her role some needed presence, and the duo of Ludi Lin and Max Huang have real charisma as Earthrealm fighters Liu Kang and Kung Lao. (Do you have a headache by now? Me too.) The latter has a nifty Oddjob hat he uses as a lethal boomerang and that, in one eww-gross-but-cool scene, doubles as a buzzsaw. You take what you can get.
The dialogue? It’s straight out of the video game and good for a few horselaughs. (“Send in the reptilian Syzoth!” is a line I might use if I’m stuck in line at the grocery store.) “Mortal Kombat,” which is arriving simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max, is mostly an exercise in the care and feeding of intellectual property, which is the main order of studio business these days. The “MK” universe has earned an estimated $5 billion over the years, which puts it between “Mamma Mia!” and the Care Bears on the list of most profitable media franchises — not chicken feed, but hardly something to write home to Harry Potter about.
This movie, then, opens a new chapter in the story but, more importantly, a new chapter in the IP, and that’s pretty much how it plays. Hardcore fans and gamers will thrill to the contractually required scene where a fighter has his still-beating heart ripped out of his chest. But that’s the only time “Mortal Kombat” shows a pulse.
Directed by Simon McQuoid. Written by Greg Russo, Dave Callahan, and Oren Uziel. Starring Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Ludi Lin. At Boston theaters, suburbs, and on HBO Max. 110 minutes. R (strong bloody violence and language throughout, some crude references)