Producers: James Wan, Todd Garner, Simon McQuoid and E. Bennett Walsh   Director: Simon McQuoid   Screenplay: Greg Russo and Dave Callaham   Cast: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Joe Taslim, Mehcad Brooks, Matila Kimber, Laura Brent, Tadanobu Asano, Hiroyuki Sanada, Chin Han, Ludi Lin, Max Huang, Sisi Stringer, Mel Jarnson, Nathan Jones, Daniel Nelson, Ian Streetz and Yukiko Shinohara   Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures/New Line Cinema

Grade: C

For nearly four decades the video game Mortal Kombat, about teams of chosen champions from Earthrealm facing off against those from Otherworld to save their planet from subjugation, has maintained a persistent—though for some perplexing—popularity.  Moving from arcades to home screens and encompassing an array of formats, the concept has become a part of popular culture, not least because it now carries a nostalgia factor for those who remember playing the game, or reading stories written around it, in their youth. 

One thing that’s always eluded it, though, has been major movie success.  The first live-action “Mortal Kombat,” directed by Paul Anderson in 1995, got critical brickbats and was at most a modest hit at the box office.  John Leonetti’s 1997 sequel bore the subtitle “Annihilation,” which accurately reflected reaction to it.  It was a total flop, derided by both reviewers and fans. 

Now Warner Bros., still hunting for a franchise after the end of the “Harry Potter” series, has dusted off the property owned by their New Line subsidiary and bankrolled this reboot, which is really a sort of prequel to what’s hoped will  be a long-term cash cow. 

The script begins with the idea, understandable enough if the movie is to appeal to people beyond committed gamers, that it must explain the mythology behind the rather nutty concept.  It does so by structuring the plot around Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a seemingly washed-up mixed martial arts fighter who’s unaware that his dragon tattoo marks him as one of earth’s champions.

He learns its significance—and his descent from the Hasashi clan, whose patriarch (Hiroyuki Sanada) is the target of the villainous Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) in an opening prologue—when he’s threatened by one of the Otherworld champions controlled by the evil Shang Tsung (Chin Han), who intends to eliminate earth’s team before the contest even begins.  Fortunately Cole is saved by the intervention of Jax (Mehcad Brooks), and introduced to Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), who is assembling earth’s team and overseeing their training. 

It would be tedious to describe all the other players in this stable of characters, many of whom will be very familiar to fans of the game.  But among those to be found on the side of earth are Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang) and, for a while at least, the rough and untrustworthy Kano (Josh Lawson).  The other side features an equally varied collection of fighters, but the most significant is certainly Bi-Han, who now calls himself Sub-Zero for his ability to turn things—and people—to ice. 

There’s dialogue in “Mortal Kombat,” but it’s generally at the level of the silliest comic book, and the attempts at humor are particularly flat.  None of it matters much anyway; the meat of the movie lies in the splashy battle scenes, which are full of CGI effects of pretty good quality and lots of violence and blood.  Bodies are sawed in two, incinerated, frozen and smashed, and dissolved, and when one considers that—and the fact that the characters often resort to nasty language—it’s clear that the makers have made every effort to earn their R rating. 

Acting barely exists in a picture like this, but the performers are every bit as convincing as the figures in a video game—that is, not very.  What matters is the choreography of the fight scenes, and in that respect director Simon McQuoid and his collaborators do a job that should satisfy those looking for mindless action and gore.  Production designer Naaman Marshall’s gloomy interiors, as well as the more handsome exteriors, are well captured by cinematographer Germain McMicking, though it’s hard to tell where his work ends and that of the effects team begins; while Benjamin Wallfisch’s bombastic score certainly complements the flashiness of the visuals.

Cappi Ireland’s costumes are also an important ingredient, since too much deviation in that regard can turn off longtime devotees.  Whenever the characters speak, there are inevitable longueurs, but as long as they are smashing one another editors Dan Lebental and Scott Gray handle matters ably.

Anyone looking for even a smidgen of intelligence in a film will dismiss “Mortal Kombat” out of hand.  But for lovers of the game, it will be pretty much impervious to criticism.  And others who enjoy brainless action for its own sake may be willing to set aside the inanity of the plot and simply revel in the mayhem. What the coda makes clear is that it’s designed to be the start of a series.  Whether it will last longer than the first attempt in the nineties only time will tell.