‘Mortal Kombat’ is the Champion of Mortal Kombat Films
But is that really saying much?
I was eight years old when I first played the original Mortal Kombat game in 1992. I’ve since played every Mortal Kombat game, not counting spin-offs—who has time for that?—and am always ready for the next one. You might say I’m the target audience for a new Mortal Kombat movie.
Strangely, I don’t consider myself a dedicated fan of the game franchise, though it obviously is part of my gamer DNA. Don’t get me wrong. I will most assuredly not hesitate to fatality a fool. But maybe my disavowed fandom is why I’m so torn about deciding whether Mortal Kombat finally delivers a respectable live-action feature film some 30 years after the cultural phenomenon began.
★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Simon McQuoid
Written by: Greg Russo and David Callaham
Starring: Lewis Tan, Joe Taslim, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Mechad Brooks, and Hiroyuki Sanada
Running time: 110 min
As a service to fans, it certainly checks the boxes. It creates flesh-and-blood, lived-in characters out of digital fan favorites and recreates classic fatalities in all their bloody glory. Somebody actually utters “flawless victory” after winning a fight. But is that good enough?
First-time feature director Simon McQuoid delivers an eye-popping, faithful love letter to a fighting game franchise that has seen a strong resurgence in the last ten years. It’s somewhat unfair to fault him or writers Greg Russo and David Callaham for also delivering a nonsensical story full of silly one-liners that don’t always land. That’s just Mortal Kombat: the game.
If you know anything about Mortal Kombat, then you know it’s always the same simple story in every iteration: A once-in-a-generation fighting tournament pulls together kombatants with a “K” from all over different dimensions for fights to the death to determine the fate of the universe.
In this version, we follow an entirely new character, not from the games, named Cole Young (Lewis Tan). Clearly, the studio and filmmakers intended to make their protagonist into an audience stand-in. The other characters throw so much exposition at this poor guy for the entire movie.
Cole bears the mark of the dragon, which for some unexplained reason means that he’s destined for the tournament. Every fighter has this mark and can even transfer it to another person—by, I don’t know, dragon magic?—if someone bests them in kombat. This sort of convolution to get to the dang fighting is pretty much par for the course in the games.
And that’s the rub with video game adaptations, which studios haven’t solved in the way that they have comic book films over the last couple decades. The key difference between gamers and comic book readers is that gamers often fall in love with dumb, bad things about games. In being faithful to a video game, often that means allowing for ridiculous stories, one-dimensional characters, and/or quirks of execution that just haven’t translated well to the big screen.
It ends up being one jumbled mess. After the elation of seeing your favorite things from your favorite game subsides, you realize that the movie you just watched didn’t even have a Mortal Kombat tournament in it.
We may be at a crossroads with video game adaptations, where we must decide if these films need to be walled gardens for the fandoms that demand them, or if it really is possible to translate beloved subcultures with decades of history and references into something for the masses. If Marvel can do it, maybe there’s still hope for the Marios and Pac-mans of the world.
I’ve said before that gamers almost expect movies to burn them, with few exceptions to the rule, but Mortal Kombat certainly knocks on the door of a breakthrough, threatening to end the specter that hangs over game adaptations. It just fumbled the controls a bit and couldn’t finish him.