Just shy of 30 years ago, Mortal Kombat exploded gorily onto the video game scene as a cheekily gruesome concept: men, machines, and monsters from different worlds convene to compete in the titular contest of champions. It is a gruesome, no-holds-barred series that built its reputation on the concept of wild powers and the players’ mastery of “fatalities,” power finishers that result in all manner of dismemberment and blood spray. It is a completely silly concept that has spawned more than a dozen games not to mention comic books, films, even a breathtakingly ill-advised television series that was so hilariously bad that it has become legend.
But the franchise sits in an awkward place as it figures out its target audience. Too gory for kids, yet it is also a genre that is beloved by children. This spawned the 1995 film, starring Christopher Lambert, and its sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, both of which are atrocious films, but also cult classics due to their sheer, abject ridiculousness. They were PG-13 affairs that allowed the younger generations to enjoy the universe. Despite the childish goofiness of those films, the games just got darker and bloodier. Eventually, this led to a surprisingly solid short film that was released on the internet that was eventually developed into a mini web series. It’s from that that the current film (titled simply Mortal Kombat) draws its greatest inspiration. Sometimes, that works in its favor. It’s a gritty, surprisingly gory production that leans hard into that “fatality” theme and R-rating, reveling in spraying as much blood onto the screen as possible.
If there is one thing that 2021’s Mortal Kombat does well, it’s violence. Unlike its clunky cinematic predecessors, the combat (no, I will not use that damn K) is fast and fluid and rooted in real martial arts. Several of the actors are actual, skilled martial artists, and that works in its favor. The stunts and fight choreography are excellent, if a bit shakily edited. Like in the games, each character comes with a unique style, skill set, and power. This is of course interspersed with gruesome special effects, and in that sense Mortal Kombat may not be for the faint of heart. It is extremely bloody, really digging into its video game origins. Because of that, combat and fighting are often wildly entertaining.
But here’s the catch: Mortal Kombat is a terrible movie.
Yes, its fight choreography and effects are great, but the film itself is laughably bad. I’m not even sure it’s as ironically bad as its predecessors. I don’t see stoned college kids celebrating when they discover it on cable at 2 AM while they’re elbow-deep in pizza and bad decisions.
The acting is almost uniformly terrible, which is sometimes the consequence of weighing martial arts skill over acting skill. However, the actors themselves give it their all, and some of them - Lewis Tan as Cole Young (a non-canonical addition), Joe Taslim as Sub-Zero, Mehcad Brooks as Jax - manage to come out on top based on effort alone. The winner is easily Josh Lawson as the Australian fighter Kano, who plays murderous comic relief even if he seems like he’s simply channeling Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang. The absolute loser is Jessica McNamee as Sonya Blade, an ex-special forces soldier and partner of Jax, who is a seemingly endless vacuum of terribleness. This is made worse by the fact that McNamee doesn’t appear to have any fighting skills, so she’s lost on both fronts. It’s a puzzling decision. If you’re going to cast a mediocre-at-best actress, pick one who can fight or do better stunts (seriously guys, Ronda Rousey or Zoe Bell were right there).
If you’re wondering why I haven’t talked much about the plot, then… maybe see a doctor because you clearly hit your head on something. Mortal Kombat hews closely to the franchise’s gobbledygook mythos. Despite being focused on one-on-one fights, it’s a universe surprisingly deep in lore: War for the universe, the tournament of champions, good guys led by Lord Raiden (the great Tadanobu Asano, looking disappointed in himself), bad guys gathered by Shang Tsung (The Dark Knight’s Chin Han in an embarrassingly bad wig). There’s some blather about chosen ones and marks and bloodlines, but it’s all fairly boilerplate fantasy stuff, nothing that really elevates it beyond the genre’s cliches. I will give a great deal of credit to the filmmakers for a refreshingly inclusive cast. The casting reflects the races represented in the original game, something that was haphazardly ignored quite often in the first two films.
Ultimately, Mortal Kombat is a garbage movie, but it’s not a disaster. There are some great fights. It’s occasionally funny and delightfully self-aware. (One of the characters even jokes about how “Kombat” is spelled.) These aspects keep it from sinking completely. Still, director Simon McQuoid struggles to find a direction. It’s not quite silly enough to make it a B-movie classic, and nowhere close to good enough to make it a genre favorite. So, this video game adaptation exists in a sort of nether realm of shitty movies where it will pique interest for a few months and then vanish from our collective memory, living on only for the hardest of hardcore fans.
Mortal Kombat releases on April 16 in theaters and on HBO Max.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a screening link.