Mortal Kombat: A Relatively Enjoyable Return To The Gory Series
Screening provided by Universal Pictures
Words By Arnel Duracak
“Mortal Kombat is at its best when it goes into full fatality mode, though its journey isn’t a smooth sailing one”
Video game adaptations have had a tumultuous history when it comes to being adapted for the big screen. From the Resident Evil series to the likes of Street Fighter (1994), Doom (2005), Warcraft (2016), Sonic the Hedgehog (2020), and countless others; these films have either gone beyond their fanbase to appease the wider viewing community, have been left in the dustbin of cinematic history, or they have found a shelf life as cult classics.
Mortal Kombat is one of those series of games that has become etched in cult cinema mainly due to the campiness of the first two Mortal Kombat films from the 90s which had so much going on that you’d be forgiven for thinking they had a narrative in the first place. Simon McQuoid’s rendition of the beloved fighting game, Mortal Kombat (2021), still embodies some of the aspects of those 90s versions, however it’s a lot more enjoyable this time around.
What makes Mortal Kombat work is its ability to lean into the chaos that comes with its premise. That premise is one where the fate of the world rests in the hands of a select few Earth dwellers who happen to be the target of the ‘Outerworld’ or anything beyond Earth really. Each of these individuals can best be described as martial artists with superpowers (“arcana”), and it is their responsibility to take part in this ancient, galactic tournament known as Mortal Kombat in order to save Earth.
For those familiar with the Mortal Kombat franchise, it is one that is comprised of gory gameplay and a large selection of characters to choose from. Adapting something like a fighting game that is only concerned with the beatdown of an opponent is no easy feat given that the backstory of Mortal Kombat doesn’t go much further beyond that. What McQuoid has managed to do in his rendition is to tap into the nonsensicalness of the Mortal Kombat story and produce an all out fighting frenzy. Much like the 90s Mortal Kombat films, McQuoid’s version isn’t too concerned with working on its character arcs or exploring the lore behind Mortal Kombat. From the outset, McQuoid works towards the bloody action that characterises the series and does so through a relatively inexperienced cast.
Ludi Lin and Max Huang in Mortal Kombat
When it comes to the large ensemble, there isn’t really any A list stars to anchor the film save for Hiroyuki Sanada as Scorpion. This isn’t necessarily a problem given the fact that building an emotional connection through performance isn’t the name of the game, however it can leave you wanting more in the way of a reason to want to care for the stakes that are in play. Josh Lawson is easily the most memorable character as Kano — if not for his witty lines then for his larrikinism — while the likes of Lewis Tan as Cole Young or even Jessica McNamee as Sonya Blade just aren’t given much to work with to warrant an emotional investment in their arcs. Some would argue that it’s the spectacle that matters in a film like this which is true, however many ensembles ease you into who these characters are and why we should want to care for their cause like with the Marvel Cinematic Universe — all you have to do is look at the forgettable Justice League (2017) to know why a foundation is needed.
When the film is past its on-the-nose introductions of characters, it makes for an entertaining 110minutes of screentime. The action is well choreographed — which is only reinforced by the casting of actors who are versed in martial arts — and there are similarities to classic martial arts films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Hero (2002) in terms of how these action sequences play out. I do think that the feudal Japanese style opening sequence could have been a nice direction to take the film given how reminiscent it was of those aforementioned films, and it doesn’t really do the trailer for the film justice in the way of setting the film up as a Scorpion/Sub-Zero slug fest.
My biggest problem with a film of this size, much like with most of the Marvel films for instance, is that it never settles on a coherent tone. While Kano is a memorable character, he often breaks the flow of the film from the type of fantasy, martial arts epic it is trying to be. The problem here is that it leads to a self-awareness in the film that pokes fun at the very seriousness it tries to convey. For instance, if we take a line from Hawkeye in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), “the city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots…. and I have a bow and arrow… none of this makes sense”, that is the type of dialogue we get from Kano (though it is more in reference to pop culture). What is even more astounding by this is that it is often those moments from Kano that are the most memorable, but it makes taking anything serious about this film, less serious.
Mortal Kombat is at its best when it goes into full fatality mode, though its journey isn’t a smooth sailing one. It’s a film that has remnants of classics like Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it also has remnants of cheesy blockbusters like the Avengers films. With more video game adaptations like Uncharted and Resident Evil: Welcome To Raccoon City just over the horizon, Mortal Kombat’s arrival and revival will provide the first insight into how the next wave of video game films will be received.
Mortal Kombat opens nationally from the 22nd of April 2021