When the original Mortal Kombat arcade game was released in 1992, it was meant as direct competition to and to raise the stakes against the then-popular Street Fighter series. With its unique style of grotesque fighting, daring parents to object and appealing to what video game makers, Hollywood producers and now audiences alike want (gore), Mortal Kombat quickly created for itself at least a niche following. The fandom endures into the 21st Century, with the 11th sequel to the video game released in 2019, putting even the most ambitious film franchise’s expansive reach into 8th or 9th entries to shame.
Mortal Kombat’s subversively gory approach was and remains its calling card, and what made it popular amongst the audiences needed for console success—teenagers. Where Street Fighter featured cutesy magic powers like little plasma balls that propelled forward or the ability to move legs really fast, Mortal Kombat showed off freezing you or burning you to death, being harpooned with a spear, or being decapitated, all the result of its now classic “Finish Him” call at the end of a battle and the “Fatality” moniker if violent death was caused successfully. And while Street Fighter’s characters’ stories were intriguing (a spy looking into a secret international criminal organization), they seemed quaint next to Mortal Kombat’s, focused on an out-of-this world tournament for the very future of Earth, pitting monstrous “outworld” creatures against human fighters with cosmic powers.
You can see why this translates into catnip for Hollywood producers—special effects, over the top fantasy, dramatic stakes. But you can also see the problem. As subversive as Mortal Kombat may have been in 1992, its somewhat pulpy and cartoonish approach to violence seems somewhat dated in 2021—certainly to fans of, for example, Wan’s own Saw series. In this film, the desire to throw paeans at the trademark graphics of the original game end up turning the movie into an episode of Super Mario Bros. gone bad, and not the daringly original style that spawned the franchise.
But, Wan, McQuoid, and Garner are talented filmmakers who understand that their target is first and foremost a core, devoted set of fans that grew up with or have remained loyal to the video games. For some of us, this made it highly entertaining to watch the new Mortal Kombat. For a lot of you, it may feel like a fatality. Among the film’s other dual-edged problem slash qualities is the forced insertions of phrases that the game also trademark, such as “Get Over Here!” and “Flawless Victory!” Again, this may be amusing to even casual fans, but Greg Russo’s and Dave Callaham’s script’s overreliance on them feels forced and clunky to the uninitiated observer.
The story is also both convoluted and surprisingly empty. The film begins in 17th Century Japan, where the evil warrior Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) hunts down the family of warrior Hanzo Hasahi (Hiroyuki Sanada), before offing Hasahi himself, with the aid of a supernatural power to freeze objects with the touch of his sub-zero arms. Fast forward to today, when the terrifying realm known as “outworld” is on the verge of some form of cosmic victory against our own universe, having won nine consecutive “Mortal Kombat” martial arts tournaments and thus needing just one more to “finish us.” Outworld’s soul-eating leader Shang Tsung (Chin Han) wants to ensure victory, which leads him to hunt down potential Earth warriors that could defeat his evil minions. The good guys, meanwhile, are led by Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), a creature of the “netherrealm” who in the opening sequence helped Hasahi’s bloodline survive.
Although they’re all original characters from the first video game, these players are all stoic martial artists, wearing outdated garbs, and making too many clichéd threats amid grunts, rather than fighting. The real people fans have tuned to see are the younger, cooler characters from the first two video games, including Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), a Special Forces warrior for the U.S. Army seeking to defend Earth’s champions; her partner Jax (Mehcad Brooks), who loses his arms (but later gets groovier, tougher replacements) after an unfortunate battle with Bi-Han, now fully transformed into Sub-Zero; and MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), the movie’s purported protagonist and obvious Hasahi descendant who is the first target of the evil forces in the present day. Other names such as Kung Lao, Malena, Kano, and, eventually, Scorpion pop-up, much to the delight of disciples but, once more, to the confused bewilderment of everyone else. Chaos ensues, battle happens, people’s heads get chopped off or exploded off, among other ghastly dismemberments.
The fundamental problem with Mortal Kombat the film is that what made it unique at the 1992 arcade is simply not so at the 2021 cineplex. The Visual Effects, put together by a cadre of studios that include Method Studios, Slate VFX, and Rising Sun Pictures and led by Production VFX Supervisor Chris Godfrey, are good enough, though, again, they feel cartoonish rather than real—a feature, not a bug of the picture, but something that arguably detracts from it. Cappi Ireland’s costumes are also fun and as varied as her characters. Mortal Kombat has all the trappings of a big-budget studio picture.
Despite all its obvious shortcomings, Mortal Kombat is actually a quietly entertaining movie. None of the characters takes themselves seriously, a subtle but important respite to keep you in “popcorn” mode throughout. Perhaps it’s the dearth of entertainment after a year of gloom that makes slightly ridiculous fantasy appealing. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia of what always seem like simpler times. Or perhaps there really is something fundamentally interesting about these save the world stories, even if this film does not quite get you to care enough about that point. Whatever the reason, this reboot is good enough for this critic.
Do not expect such ten pictures from this franchise reboot, but, do expect a sequel. Did we mention that the video game is up to Mortal Kombat 11?s
Mortal Kombat opens on Friday in theaters nationwide and will also stream on HBO Max for a month.
All pictures courtesy Warner Bros./New Line Cinema. (Click on image for larger version.)