The production of a quality videogame movie has eluded studios for years. We have seen many successful adaptations of stage plays and novels to screen, so why has adapting the most modern form of media and entertainment to the big screen proven to be such a challenge? Sometimes it’s a lack of knowledge on the creative team front surrounding the property; this certainly seemed the case for the dull, mostly grounded in present day Assassin’s Creed (2016). Or perhaps the required familiarity with the game beforehand makes the film exclude potential new fans; I remember how difficult it was for me to follow along with Warcraft(2016). Or maybe the film doesn’t do anything wrong and is simply mediocre. Tomb Raider (2018). There is plenty of opportunity in videogame movies and they’ll continue to be made, but I cannot say Mortal Kombat (2021) is the one to completely buck the trend.
Every generation there is a fighting tournament known as “Mortal Kombat”. After having lost nine tournaments in a row, Earth(realm) must win the next one or else will be invaded by Outworld – another realm of not so nice supernatural beings who want to enslave humanity and suck their souls. An ancient prophecy tells of a group of Earth’s mightiest champions, united by the blood of legendary ninja Hanzo Hasashi, who will prevent Outworld’s invasion. God of Thunder and Protector of Earthrealm, Raiden, must gather these warriors to stop evil sorcerer Shang Tsung and save the world once and for all.
This is not the first-time filmmakers have attempted to adapt the “Mortal Kombat” franchise. As you may know, there were a pair of movies produced in the 90s to mixed critical success (well, the sequel was considered a failure and never finished post-production). The films leaned into the arcade aspect of the games and were overall campy. More than two decades later, some of the same awareness and arcade-feel remain in the newest film, but the visual effects have vastly improved.
For fans of the franchise, as I am one, there is tons of fan service for you. The film utilizes the bulk of the original MK roster, and even more characters not actively present are hinted at existing. Several moves, from combos to fatalities, are stripped directly from the games and should be recognizable to even casual fans. Director Simon McQuoid knows exactly what people want to see and delivers the audacious gore and violence we’ve come to expect from the games. In the opening scene, we watch Scorpion take on several ninjas and limbs fly. He then takes on his rival, Sub-Zero, and loses, but only after putting up an entertaining fight. There is a Raid-like quality to the film I wish McQuoid capitalized on more.
If you’re not already acquainted with the characters and story of the Mortal Kombat games, the film might lose you. Characters are introduced fast and furious, and some come as quickly as they go. There is almost an expectation for you to know who these people are ahead of time, and this characteristic may feel exclusionary for those unfamiliar. This, coupled with a plot dense in exposition, will make it difficult for the movie to pull in new fans. The film also implements many famous lines from the games, including “flawless victory” and “fatality” among others, and the one-liners might seem awkward and out of place to those unaware of their purpose.
Outside of not being beginner friendly, Mortal Kombat has other problems. The new protagonist, MMA fighter Cole Young, is hard to care for. His introduction to the Mortal Kombat universe was controversial, as he took up the spot typically reserved for Hollywood star Johnny Cage (who does not make an appearance in the film). We learn that Young is a descendant of Hanzo Hasashi, better known as Scorpion, and he bears somewhat of a resemblance to Cage; he has charm and actor Lewis Tan has a Hollywood look to him. However, when stacked up against the rest of the supporting characters, Young is kind of lame. Josh Lawson as Kano is a surprising scene-stealer; Lawson appears to know exactly what kind of movie he’s in and what is expected from him and delivers in hilarious fashion. Also, Joe Taslim fails to disappoint as Sub-Zero and is a total badass (Taslim starred in The Raid).
Mortal Kombat looks and feels like a videogame. Fans should be satisfied, but the film is not particularly friendly to newcomers. If you can turn your brain off and stomach the gore, then you should be able to enjoy this fantastical martial arts hybrid.