Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
There have been many great films based on books, comics, true stories and ancient fables, but video games are yet to have an iconic cinematic adaptation. From the abysmal Super Mario Bros (1993) to the incredibly dull Assassin’s Creed (2016), it’s been a long, hard road for video game adaptations. Even after decades worth of discussion, no one has figured out why it’s apparently so difficult to put video games on film. Despite constant disappointments, filmmakers keep trying to crack the secret code. The most recent attempt to effectively bring the format to life on the big screen is Simon McQuoid’s Mortal Kombat (2021), based on the popular fighting game of the same name. This isn’t the first time Mortal Kombat has been adapted, but this will be the one that matters (should it be successful).
Struggling MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan) slaves away every night in the ring, enduring beating after beating to provide for his wife and daughter. Following a particularly brutal fight, Cole is approached by a mysterious man named Jax (Mehcad Brooks), who draws Cole’s attention to a dragon shaped birthmark they both have. Jax and his associate Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) explain that people bearing the mark are the chosen fighters destined to protect the earth in an ancient battle called Mortal Kombat. Their opponents are a group of powerful beings from a realm known as Outworld, who are intent on taking over the earth. The most formidable of these villains is a man named Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), who’s evil knows no bounds and is virtually unstoppable in a fight.
It must be addressed right up front that Director Simon McQuoid has successfully delivered all the violence Mortal Kombat is known for. Even those who’ve never played a single game in the series (like me) are completely aware of the game’s gory reputation purely through cultural osmosis. While not every fight is a gory extravaganza, you will still feel the force of every broken bone. However, whenever the knives do pierce the skin, McQuoid doesn’t hold back on the pints of blood. Some fans of the series should be satisfied with the brutal fatalities, but others may not be, considering many of the fights employ a little too much unpolished CGI.
It’s good that the action has something to offer, as the narrative is a frustratingly mixed bag. To its credit, each of the heroic characters have easily distinguishable traits, attitudes and motivations. None of it is particularly complex, compelling or nuanced, but you can still remember everyone’s name which at the very least indicates there’s some audience investment. Sadly the same can’t be said for the villains, as you can only tell them apart based on their bland visual designs. Additionally, the villains aren’t explained or properly introduced, even in cases where they definitely should’ve been. Considering that Mortal Kombat is supposed to include an exciting roster of characters, it’s a notable error that half of the principle players aren’t given the attention they deserve.
In the cases where character arcs were given, they seem to oscillate between perfectly functional to embarrassingly out of touch. In the best cases, we are given various subplots involving people learning to unlock their potential. These are serviceable arcs which successfully carry us through the narrative. In the worst cases, we are subjected to arguably problematic storylines involving the only major female character. As such, the heroine is quickly established as being a more than capable asset, but she is inexplicably saddled with a horribly outdated “no girls allowed” journey. Consequently, the audience can easily figure out the mechanics of where it’s all going, thus resulting in no big surprises by the time we get to the climax.
As a result, the film rarely tries to keep consistent pacing, as important moments occur with no significant build up. We go from seeing the first training montage, to immediately seeing our heroes at their lowest point. Additionally, significant details regarding the film’s unique world are either glossed over or barely set up, before suddenly being needed for a big payoff. This may be a result of the film’s breakneck pace, barely allowing for any moments of pause. Obviously there’s a need to prioritise action over anything else, but we can’t get properly invested if we’re not given time to catch our breath. It’s not like the film is incapable of giving us well-paced storytelling, as the prologue is a particular highlight and a phenomenal cinematic achievement all on its own.
Ultimately, very little of the above criticism will mean much, seeing as Mortal Kombat happily revels in its own violent existence. This isn’t to say the built-in fanbase will just accept whatever is given to them, but the film itself doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. It packs the punches, piles on the references, but delivers an original story that’s only concerned with proving how much fun it is. These are all talented actors, but none of this is an example of their best work. The creative team have all made stellar films, yet very little of this piece shows off the extent of their abilities. Despite this, none of that seems to matter as everyone involved is clearly having a great time, and that passion is oddly infectious.
It’s hard to say that Mortal Kombat is a great film, let alone a good one. It’s messy, unfocused, silly and just a little trashy. It doesn’t have the class of the latest Mission Impossible‘s, the resonance of the Marvel films, or the brutal edge of the John Wick franchise, but it does have an enjoyably violent energy. In the end, that might have been the best result considering the source material is a button mashing fighting game. As an added bonus, it’s easily a far superior product to the Mortal Kombat from 1995.
Best way to watch it: While on a sugar high.