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'Mortal Kombat' review: For fans only

Ludi Lin portrays Liu Kang, left, and Max

Ludi Lin portrays Liu Kang, left, and Max Huang appears as Kung Lao in a scene from "Mortal Kombat." Credit: New Line Cinema / Warner Bros. Pictures

PLOT A young cage-fighter learns he is destined for an even greater battle.

CAST Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson

RATED R (gore, violence, language)


WHERE In theaters and on HBO Max

BOTTOM LINE Warner Bros.’ video game adaptation is high on bloodshed and low on emotional engagement. For fans only.

What Prince is to popular music, "Mortal Kombat" is to video games — not because of any shared creative brilliance but because they both spawned rating systems designed to mollify worried parents.

Just as Prince’s "Darling Nikki" — a sexually explicit funk-burlesque tune from 1984 — helped drive the creation of the infamous Parental Advisory sticker, so "Mortal Kombat" — a 1992 martial-arts video game with a penchant for bloodshed — helped spur a congressional hearing that resulted in the Entertainment Software Rating Board. Indeed, "Mortal Kombat" was so violent that for years it was banned in many countries.

That means "Mortal Kombat," the third and latest cinematic adaptation of the game, has a reputation to uphold. It must deliver all the skull-crushing, arm-severing, torso-hacking action that fans will demand. This, and nothing else, "Mortal Kombat" manages to do. From the first splatter of blood on rice paper (the film opens in 17th-Century Japan) to the final immolation of a villain, "Mortal Kombat" focuses on gore to the exclusion of all else.

Directed by Simon McQuoid from a script by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham, "Mortal Kombat" tells the story of Cole (Lewis Tan), a cage fighter who discovers that his dragon-like birthmark has a secret meaning: He’s predestined to fight in a cosmic tournament that pits world against world, realm against realm. Transported to a giant temple — one of those vaguely Greco-Cambodian creations rendered in CGI — Cole trains under Kung Lao (Max Huang), who can fling his metal helmet around like James Bond henchman Oddjob, and the fireball-wielding Liu Kang (Ludi Lin, adding a little soul to a film that desperately needs it). Cole’s generic sidekicks include blonde butt-kicker Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), the irritating Australian Kano (Josh Lawson) and a semi-cyborg named Jax (Mehcad Brooks).

Would you believe the movie never even gets to the tournament? "Mortal Kombat" is more concerned with delivering something called "fatalities" — little flourishes in the game that allow you, the player, to kill your enemy in a particularly inventive way. Only the film isn’t all that inventive about it, which is curious considering that one of its producers, James Wan, created the "Saw" horror franchise. In this film, hearts are ripped out, throats cut, foreheads pierced — the usual. Jax’s arms are turned to ice by the villain Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) and then shattered, which has at least a little sadistic flair.

Fans might gush over "Mortal Kombat," but I got bored instantly. That one dude whose brain is reduced to mush? I know the feeling.

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