The Mortal Kombat franchise holds an important, and controversial, place in the history of video game culture. KHOL film critic Jeff Counts weighs in on whether the latest movie version helps or harms the legacy of such an iconic brand.
Video game movies have attempted to bridge the gap between active and passive entertainment for many years. The films in this growing catalogue have little in common, save for how disappointing they are. Nobody has ever gotten it right. From the Bob Hoskins “Super Mario Bros.” in 1993 to Michael Fassbender’s 2016 “Assassin’s Creed,” video game adaptations almost always fall short of expectations. Or, perhaps more accurately, they succeed in confirming the low hopes established by their many failed predecessors.
“Mortal Kombat” has been attempted once before. That was back in 1995, with a sequel two years later. Neither holds up very well, I’m afraid, which leaves the 2021 iteration in strange but familiar territory. It has nothing to live up to as a movie, but so much to overcome as a game movie.
The one thing everybody knows about Mortal Kombat, even non-gamers, is that it’s violent. Violent enough, in fact, to maintain regular attention from lawmakers and the media since it hit the scene in 1992. Any time the “bad influence” theory of video gaming is trotted out, Mortal Kombat is at the center of the debate. This new movie version understands that reputation and leans into it fully. There is plenty of gore to be had. And I’m not talking about the green blood or gray sweat various gaming consoles have used in the past to mask the graphic nature of Mortal Kombat’s finishing moves. This is a true 21st century realization of the game’s dark style in all its red-blooded glory.
“Mortal Kombat,” the movie, is R-rated for good reason. Even when the gore veers towards the cartoonish end of the spectrum, it looks pretty real. Nobody with a weak stomach should watch it. For fans, however, I suspect this fidelity to the game’s aggressive tone was intended to help it succeed as a two-hour distraction.
It may be true to its source but, as a film, “Mortal Kombat” has issues. The story is incredibly thin and the acting is worse. The “fate of the universe” stakes that are supposed to inform the action and drama have no resonance whatsoever in the plot. The performers themselves seem at a loss to explain any of it to each other, much less us, so their motivations lack fuel and ring very hollow. I’m sure a person with more knowledge of Mortal Kombat lore could flesh things out for me, but I don’t think it would help. More information would not make the world of this film more interesting. Even the fight choreography, something I was sure I’d be able to count on, is inconsistent and dull.
I know how all this sounds. I’m talking about a video game movie, a Mortal Kombat movie. What did I expect? Well, I expected a decent script. A story I could invest in. At the very least, I was looking for an imaginative perspective on a brand known for challenging our morality as a global entertainment-loving culture. What I got instead was empty fan service. Alicia Vikander’s 2018 “Tomb Raider” film was not perfect, but it did prove you can take care of a game’s hardcore devotees while still offering a cohesive, reasonably well-told story on screen. The famous one-liners and blunt callbacks are important, I get it, but they don’t carry “Mortal Kombat” very far.
I love video games. And like most of my cohort, I’m dying to see great a cinematic adaptation of one of my favorites. It hasn’t happened yet. The good news, if it is good news, is that people will never stop trying. So, maybe there’s still hope?