Throughout the past few decades, the video game film genre has gained a notorious reputation. Popularized in the 90’s by bombastic adaptations like the original Mortal Kombat series, Super Mario Bros, Street Fighter, that all became known as notable misfires, it was clear that crafting a film that was faithful to the original product yet still worked on its own was a seemingly impossible task. However, in recent years, it seems as if studios had finally cracked the code. With solidly-received box-office hits like Sonic: The Hedgehog and Detective Pikachu compellingly balancing their source material’s heightened environment with a coherent sense of storytelling, many have been looking to Simon McQuaid’s Mortal Kombat to continue this upwards trend of the genre’s reputation. Unfortunately, while it’s sure to appeal to fans of the game, Mortal Kombat suffers from the video game film genre’s worst flaws to become a generic product that is far more reminiscent of its 90’s predecessors than the genre’s superior offerings of today.
Opening in feudal Japan with a stunning one-on-one combat sequence between Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) that attempts to set the tone, the film quickly jumps to the present day and remains there for the duration of the runtime. There, Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a former MMA champion, participates in small-town fights to provide for his family. However, when Sub-Zero returns and attempts to attack him and his family, his entire life changes. After being rescued by Jax (Mehcad Brooks), a mysterious ally, Cole learns that otherworldly “champions” such as Sub-Zero from have been sent down by the sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) to challenge their equivalents on earth to a final deathmatch known as “Mortal Kombat” to conquer the earth. With a goal to counteract them in mind, Cole and Jax set off to recruit and train in hopes of defeating the Sub-Zero and the rest of the Outworld champions for good.
Aptly targeted towards its passionate fanbase, Mortal Kombat does feature the action-driven thrills that it sets out to deliver. Boosted by inventive choreography and ingenious setups, the film brandishes its highly publicized R-rating at full force with the same gusty gore and shocking killing methods that turned the original game into the pop-culture behemoth it is known as today. The film’s sound design and original score from Zimmer protege Ben Walfisch also shine here, building off of the game’s digitized soundscapes and imbuing them with a far more cinematic feel while still preserving their core integrity. Most importantly to avid players, the film is filled to the brim with the source material’s rich mythology. Packed from start to finish with obscure easter eggs, more overt references, and a variety of locations and character dynamics that were first birthed on now-obsolete consoles, Mortal Kombat enthusiasts will be foaming at the mouth with the opportunity to bathe in the games glory once more on the big screen.
However, while its need for authenticity will please those familiar with the source material, for all others, it results in the root of the film’s problems. Overstuffed with unexplained lore and incomprehensible jargon that serve to inform key plot developments, many will fall prey to a recipe for confusion heightened by a quick-moving story. While it’s inaccessible mythology wouldn’t be as big of an issue if the film itself was at least decent, the rote nature of the overall film (even by blockbuster standards) does no one any favors. Simon McQuaid’s direction, along with Greg Russo and Dave Callaham’s screenplay, mindlessly repeats the motions of the team-up films of recent years (The Avengers and Guardians of The Galaxy are some of the few that will come to mind), without harvesting the passion and fresh voice that brought success to the aforementioned films. Attempting to extract any semblance of heart from the screenplay, the majority of the performances, specifically Lewis Tan’s, fall flat, cutting off a crucial connection to the vessel that the audience is meant to experience the film through. Editors Dan Lebental and Scott Gray, perhaps wanting to infuse the film with the necessary energy to save it, cut the film in choppy quick bursts. While only lessening the impact of the superbly choreographed fight sequences, the downbeats suffer tremendously from their touch. Shockingly, despite its blockbuster budget, Mortal Kombat’s overall production value looks surprisingly cheap for its gargantuan scale. Monstruos creatures, robotic arms, and pivotal weapons of battle look more at home in older direct-to-video sequels rather than being carried by the state-of-the-art visual effects that one would expect from a studio film like this one.
In Mortal Kombat’s quest to please die hard fans of the original property, it seems to forget the necessary components that are needed to create a compelling film. Despite featuring impressive action sequences and a commendable sense of world-building, its generic screenplay, incoherent editing and disappointing production value, result in a film that doesn’t rise enough above its decades old cohorts to make an impact on the future of the genre.
Mortal Kombat debuts in theaters and on HBO Max April 23.