As a video game agnostic, once a fighting game fundamentalist, I consider myself a pretty big fan of the games that originated at the height of 90’s martial arts fever. The original adaptation in 1995 is a camp semi-classic that is somehow both a mediocre film and the best the genre has ever offered. That’s how low the bar is for video game adaptations. Somehow they’ve yet to lure the right talent necessary to reach what comic-book adaptations long ago attained, and 2021’s Mortal Kombat continues that infamous tradition, even if it is deliriously entertaining on occasion.
Combine a first-time feature director with a relatively meager $50mil budget and a script that barely tries to elevate the material above the sort of convoluted storytelling that video game cut scenes are famous for, and you have a recipe for yet another juvenile exercise in wannabe-blockbuster plotting. Following a beautifully-made opening salvo that nicely sets up the rivalry between fan favorites Sub-Zero and Scorpion, the film segues into a thin, unearned Chosen One story befitting DTV dreck more than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. New character Cole Young (Lewis Tan) is a poorly-acted wet blanket and failing MMA fighter who eventually dons literal plot armor to defeat a fan favorite boss character in so little time it’s clear there was no effort made to emphasize either personality or relative power in many of these villains. Shang Tsung (Chin Han) and Raiden (Tadanobu Asana) are mere background characters who pop in from time to time to scold their failing henchmen or condescend to their failing students. There’s not even a tournament, only a hastily edited series of moments wherein Outworld’s miscreants attempt to kill or maim Earth’s warriors before a tournament can take place. These shenanigans completely defeat and contradict the purpose of the tournament, which is to prevent Outworld’s invasion. Instead, Outworld is invading via secret ops missions anyways. And the filmmaker’s choices for Shang Tsung’s minions are perhaps the most random of all, including visually dull and unfavorable characters such as Reiko and Nitara, not to mention a Kabal (a character with potential) who, underneath a Vader-style helmet, sounds incongruously like he walked right off a 50’s gangster film. Mileena nearly achieves worthy screen-time, however, her relegation to henchmen status reminds one of Bryan Singer’s original X-Men, which took characters as rich as Sabretooth and made them nearly silent enforcers. Without her iconic purple rags and rival sister Kitana involved, she’s just another body. In addition, Scorpion’s would-be arc is abandoned, and Cole Young continues to prove himself a non-starter and an unnecessary addition to the narrative. Sonya Blade earns herself a climactic moment that could’ve been a stand-up-and-cheer moment were it not for Jessica McNamee’s flat, charmless performance rendering her arc mostly uninspiring.
The few characters done justice are Joe Taslim’s Sub-Zero, a mysterious and rather intimidating villain whose penchant for icy power is exploited quite well, and Kano, played by riotously funny Australian comedian Josh Lawson. He’s given all the best dialogue, as if the writers knew how to write for him and no one else. Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) gets a couple of choice minutes to shine, be it his monk-like back-and-forth with brutish Kano or simply his made-for-stardom body of sinewy muscle and agile movement. His character arc though, if you can call it that, feels like all setup and not much payoff. One significant departure from the game is the advent of “arcana,” referring to each character’s latent supernatural powers that must be unearthed (easily, apparently) in the heat of battle. Anyone born with the ‘mark’ of Mortal Kombat is a warrior chosen for the tournament, and anyone with a mark is capable of arcana. This is a cool idea, one that might easily tie together why all of these Earth-bound humans could learn to throw fireballs or teleport or fire laser beams from their eye. It’s the sort of cool idea that works until it doesn’t work, because the writers couldn’t come up with coherent ideas for all of these characters. Take Jax (Mehcad Brooks), a U.S. Special-Forces officer who loses both arms, only to have them replaced by thin robotic transplants. When said arms magically grow thicker and more technologically robust, that’s his arcana, and such a twist seemingly breaks the unspoken rules of magic systems in the 21st century. That being said, his is one of the few fatalities to recall a signature moment from the game, ditto an exceptionally gruesome ending for an opponent of Kung Lao’s. Mortal Kombat is both seriously bloody fun and less gory than you might expect given all of the media hoopla around them finally giving in to fans’ bloodthirsty demands.
For all of my complaints, from everything mentioned above to the rinky-dink effects and sets that are below today’s high standards, Kano and a few well-wrought fight scenes are enough to keep the average viewer, including myself, moderately entertained. Director Simon McQuoid might fail at world-building to the extent at which a sequel under his helm would be a very bad idea, but he’s not entirely incompetent at ringing a few laughs and martial arts fisticuffs out of this, the latest example of Hollywood trying and failing to get video game adaptations just right.