What is a fighting game, really? Isn’t it just the most thrilling parts of a martial arts action movie strung together and made into something playable?
That’s the question Mortal Kombat looked at in 1995 as a big-screen adaptation of the universally known series from Midway Games. It was a successful movie that offered a less-than-satisfying answer, so now we have the Mortal Kombat of 2021 trying again, a little harder this time.
You know what? I’m into it.
Make no mistake, Mortal Kombat is deeply stupid in a way that makes you cackle, especially if you’re familiar with the games. When Kano yanks out someone’s heart and puts on a goofy grin as he goes sailing through the fourth wall on the wings of a hammy “Kano wins!” one-liner, we’re right there with him, loving every second of this silly and endlessly self-referential ride.
Mortal Kombat is like the movie version of the “pointing Leonardo DiCaprio” meme. For 110 minutes, I found myself scouring every frame and every action sequence for nods back to the source. It’s not a normal way to watch a movie, but this one puts out the vibe that it’s an expectation, even a demand. Sometimes you get a movie that’s for the fans. This one is really just for the fans.
That’s OK. There’s work Mortal Kombat has to do. The 1995 movie, for all its over-the-top acting, dated computer graphics (even for the time!), and excess of one-liners, fell short. It was a box office success but a creative disappointment. Mortal Kombat is the blood-and-guts fighting game, but the 1995 movie, with its PG-13 rating that assumed all fans of games were kids, left all that stuff out.
Forget profanity; there was barely any blood, even. And perish the thought of seeing a big screen Fatality, the brutal and stomach-churningly gory end-of-match finishing moves that are so central to pretty much anyone’s awareness of the game. In 1995, a Mortal Kombat movie couldn’t get away with such a bold approach.
Make no mistake, Mortal Kombat is deeply stupid in a way that makes you cackle.
Well, it’s 2021 now. Audiences are used to blood. But more importantly, video games, and mainstream perceptions of the same, have grown up. Warner Bros. gifted fans an R-rating for this new Mortal Kombat, and boy oh boy is it earned. We’re not quite at the level of torture porn, but death sequences worthy of (and ripped from) Fatalities are a common sight.
More than that, it’s just plain brutal in general. I’d like to know what the blood budget was for this movie, and just how they got all that arterial spray to look so vibrantly red (computers were probably involved). There are deep cuts and gashes, gaping puncture wounds, dismemberments, beheadings, and even a gratuitous disemboweling. The level of violence is amped up to a level that definitely justifies the rating.
I haven’t mentioned the story. Do you care? Does anyone care? Fans, sit down. You know the setup already.
In Mortal Kombat terms, our world is “Earthrealm,” one of the multiple realms that all participate in a multiversal fighting tournament for dominance. Earthrealm’s chief adversary is Outworld, a land of monsters and cheaters ruled over by Shang Tsung (Chin Han), a god-like mage who has the power to devour souls. Earthrealm has been a perennial loser for some time when the movie opens, with one more loss opening the doors to an Outworld invasion and spelling the end for good old Earth.
Shang Tsung, jerk that he is, seeks to tilt the scales entirely in Outworld’s favor. So he dispatches a gang of hunters, led by the fearsome ice-flinging zombie ninja Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), to exterminate Earthrealm’s chosen warriors. See, only a select few can fight in the tournament — those who are marked with a magical tattoo that looks mysteriously similar to the game’s iconic logo. Also, hey, if you kill a warrior who has the mark, that mark then transfers to you. Very Highlander.
That’s all you need to know. The story is really just set dressing for beautifully designed environments such as Raiden’s (Tadanobu Asano) temple or Cole Young’s (Lewis Tan) iced-over gym. Cole is new to the Mortal Kombat universe here, though it’s not a spoiler to say he’s directly connected to the tournament and the eternal struggle between realms. He just doesn’t know it right off the bat.
Cole’s journey is our journey, and this is where a picky viewer might say Mortal Kombat stumbles. His wife and daughter, Alison (Laura Brent) and Emily (Matilda Kimber), are our anchor to a world that’s more familiar. They’re also the source of Cole’s strength in ways that he has yet to realize. If this were a serious movie to be taken seriously, the two women might be seen as an extension of the tired damsels-in-distress trope.
But this is Mortal Kombat. It eats tired tropes for breakfast and swallows every bone. Anything that’s not a fight scene simply needs to be a vehicle to more fight scenes. Alison and Emily provide on that count. Their scenes are brief and usually function as a bridge to the stuff we’re here to see. I have no complaints about these pauses for breath.
I do, however, have a real grumble to voice. The fight choreography could be better. Mortal Kombat is one of those action movies that lean on the more modern approach of close-in shots and quick cuts. I think it’s supposed to be gritty and in-your-face, but it mostly just makes the action hard to follow at times.
This shortcoming isn’t as egregious as it could be. There are plenty of fight moments that pull out and give us a clear look at the action. But for a movie based on a game that’s primarily seen in profile, and from a medium-long shot perspective, Mortal Kombat opts to get in close just a bit too often. It’s a surprising choice given how the latest games in the series offer a master class in how to give eye-catching fight moments a truly cinematic feel.
But it’s OK, I’m OK. Really. Mortal Kombat does enough to keep things fun. For every fight that’s hard to follow, there’s an inexplicable moment where a character declares “Fatality!” At one point, someone who’s been dead for hundreds of years and who shouldn’t speak or understand a word of English bellows “Get over here!” Does it matter that this makes no sense? Of course not!
Mortal Kombat does a great job of riffing on the game that inspired it in ways large and small, violent and comedic. As much as fights fail to sizzle at times, the Fatality moments, dark sense of humor, and general abundance of blood-letting are just what any fan would want to see. This is Mortal Kombat the way it always should have been as a movie. I can’t wait for Round 2. (Yes, we are definitely set up for a sequel.)