Director: Simon McQuoid
Date: April 23, 2021
R | 1 hour 50 minutes
There’s a possibility the “Mortal Kombat” universe serves as both a great idea for a video game series and a truly terrible idea for a movie franchise. The newest adaptation “Mortal Kombat” is better than its predecessors but remains a cluttered, unappealing movie with little justification for its existence.
Originally developed in 1992, “Mortal Kombat” is a series of fantasy combat games that revolutionized the genre by introducing unlockable hidden characters and the series’ vaunted “fatalities,” powerful moves that result in spectacular, bloody deaths for in-game opponents.
The video game series, which is still going strong, blends martial arts with magical elements, allowing players to decimate their friends in a number of creative ways.
A heightened tone and convoluted origin stories involving familial drama and ancient rivalries serve as a backdrop to the series’ brutal interdimensional fighting gameplay, which is clearly the draw here.
Why this formula — which is admittedly perfect for a combat-based video game series — has led to a series of increasingly ill-advised film adaptations is unclear.
The film serves as a reboot of the film series (which includes 1995’s “Mortal Kombat and 1997’s “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation”), introducing the ancient tournament known as Mortal Kombat and the dimension known as Outerworld, a world outside of what the movie calls Earthrealm. Outerworld seeks to defeat Earthrealm in Mortal Kombat for the 10th straight time, which would give them the ability to conquer Earthrealm.
Enter former MMA champion Cole Young (Lewis Tan). Young doesn’t know it, but it’s his destiny to save Earthrealm from Outerworld via Mortal Kombat. What follows is simultaneously childlike in its simplicity yet as intricately and exhaustively mechanized as a designer wristwatch.
Franchise staples Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Shang Tsung (Chin Han), Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) and Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) are all here, along with the subsequent exposition each requires — and that’s on top of the added exposition to get the movie off the ground.
There are dragon marks and arcana (magical powers each person with a dragon mark gets), then there are a dozen more characters to meet along the way. It might be unfair to characterize a movie’s entire plot as exposition, but that’s how it feels here, which gets to the core of the movie’s problem.
The entire movie feels like added dead weight because that’s what it is — the dead weight of a multiplayer fighting game, palatable only in the service of playing a really fun video game while absorbing it.
This is a top-heavy structure for a movie to imitate, but it’s possible — plenty of films live and die on the back of their action, but it only works if your action is worth waiting for.
This action isn’t worth the wait. The mediocre visual effects and busy staging obscure what mild thrills the film’s hybrid martial arts-fantasy choreography might provide.
Adding more blood, gore and overall brutality does bring the movie closer in line with its video game ancestors but does little to distinguish the film’s action. There’s impressive moments throughout, but the overall impact of the action is negligible.
Add in the mediocre turns from the film’s key cast members and an uninspired debut for director Simon McQuoid, and the movie is left with little ground to stand on.
It’s not all the fault of the creative team. The grand scope of the series’ list of characters is a tough match for the games’ iconic one-on-one fighting style. That being said, departing from that style leaves the filmmakers to glean aesthetic appeal in the universe’s character designs and worldbuilding, both of which become ungainly under too much scrutiny.
It’s a chicken-or-the-egg situation, yet it’s one with a simple solution — don’t make another one of these movies. Let “Mortal Kombat” be a video game series. The grass always looks greener on the other side, but we now have proof across multiple decades that this series works better as a video game than as a movie.
Overall, “Mortal Kombat” functions better as a scarecrow than a movie. It’s less of an entertaining adaptation and more of a garish reminder of the risks of video game movies, and that’s less than ideal.
“Mortal Kombat,” rated R, released in theaters April 16 and is available on HBO Max.