Mortal Kombat‘s third live-action movie, launching this week after over two decades of cinematic silence, is a weird one.
It’s not good. You wouldn’t mistake this for a classic action or martial arts film, and it borrows clumsily from genre giants without building upon their shoulders in any meaningful way.
Most recent Mortal Kombat games (and a pair of Injustice games, starring DC Comics characters in MK-like fights) have impressed largely because they’re a hoot to sit back and watch, full of entertaining, tongue-in-cheek cut scenes. Strip these out and put them on a streaming service as an animated series, and you’d get hours of fatality-filled butt-kicking and silliness—all better than what’s on display in this feature.
And yet, this week’s Mortal Kombat is also not bad. As a video game translation, it’s not embarrassing. And in trying to stitch together decades of MK gaming for a zillion different expectations, the new film massively leaps past the series’ ’90s movies. (A low bar to clear, admittedly.)
As a simul-launched film in theaters and on HBO Max, I would strongly urge anyone who’s interested to stick to the home-streamed version. Keep a smartphone handy when the film gets slow and dumb, then look up for approximately 30 minutes of fair-to-awesome komb—ahem, combat.
The careful line between gory and comical
MK gets off to a rollicking start with an opening scene that its handlers at WarnerMedia were wise to debut on YouTube earlier this week. It rewinds the clock on Earth nearly 500 years and sees a Chinese ice-wielding assassin descend upon a Japanese village to battle a ninja. Game series fans will immediately figure out what this means: Sub-Zero versus Scorpion, round one, fight. Why are they fighting? They’re rivals, don’t overthink it, the scene makes clear.
For the most part, the scene paints by the action genre’s numbers: a serene, happy family goes about its business (and the film’s called Mortal Kombat, so we know that won’t last). A few many-on-one fights play out. Rivals shout at each other, then fight to the death. The MK catch here is the sheer brutality of some of the hits. This stuff is clearly “mortal.” The special effects house in charge of the grittiest impacts (particularly heads stomped directly onto boulders and blade wounds sticking into people for a while) should be commended for rendering impacts that made me blurt a few “oooh” groans—always straddling the careful line between gory and comical, as opposed to veering into Faces of Death territory.
This scene shrugs its shoulders at establishing a plot beyond “I want to kill you,” and I wish the rest of the film did the same thing. Fast forward to the modern day, and we’re stuck following Cole Young, a flat-as-cardboard MMA fighter who follows the original Scorpion’s bloodline and is thus dragged into the latest “Mortal Kombat” tournament. This epic battle is a regularly scheduled elder-gods brouhaha between Earthrealm (our planet) and Outworld (a bad place where people have insane teeth, multiple arms, and a blood-orange sky that always looks like Los Angeles during rush hour).
Eventually, that massive battle will unfold, but in the meantime, the film grinds to a momentum halt. Cole’s only MMA fight is a remarkably lousy one in terms of film choreography. Cole’s family disapproves of his fighting, but those arguments are a snooze to watch. Classic MK characters Jax and Sonya Blade show up to recruit Cole to their Earth-saving cause, but they’re even worse in terms of wooden acting and dialogue as constructed by liberal arts college Mad Libs. (“There’s nothing here for you but death.” “Well, I’m willing to die for my family.”)
“Sorry, what’d I miss?”
As one weird waste of the film’s opening momentum, Sub-Zero descends upon our modern-day heroes with an intent to kill them all. He does this by… creating a massive hailstorm, then shooting blasts of ice at everyone. It’s arguably one of the dumbest “attacks” by a Mortal Kombat fighter I’ve ever seen in any of the games, films, and cartoons. Even this film makes that point clear by giving Sub-Zero much deadlier and visually appealing ice-murder options later.
Every MK conversation is missing a few crucial things: believability, likability, chemistry, and diversions from the ’80s B-Movie dictionary. Logic doesn’t exist for Mortal Kombat‘s heroes and villains alike, and there’s no other fun or exciting reason to listen to a word anyone has to say.
The exception is the battle-hardened character Kano, who shows up 35 minutes into the film as a rude-for-rudeness-sake antihero. The scriptwriters decided to put the film’s comic-relief duties into his bloody hands alone, but only a third of his quips land, and they all hinge on a one-dimensional trick of him getting angry and cursing up a storm. In short, the writers created a “Kano gets mad” button, then mashed it all too often. Shame, because actor Josh Lawson can be legitimately funny or entertaining.
As an example of curious meta-criticism, Kano interrupts one of the film’s overlong, boring conversations by coughing and blurting, “Sorry, what’d I miss?” Perhaps someone in the crew snuck that in as a silent protest over how boring the film can get, and typically not in an intentionally funny B-movie way.
Spines, hearts, and bowels, oh my
And yet! I used my pre-release screener access to fast forward through the film on a second watch, and here, I found my tune changed remarkably. I watched the opening scene, then fast forwarded past the snoozer plot explanations to one cool Sub-Zero attack in his otherwise boring early-film assault. I then skipped ahead to one impressive three-on-one fight against some sort of semi-invisible lizard—a beast I didn’t recognize from the games, though I did skip the 1997 game Sub-Zero Mythologies, so that might be on me. I then fast forwarded again to a pair of back-to-back fights, which skipped a nap-worthy “learn to discover your anger” montage.
When Mortal Kombat lets the cast have fun beating the crap out of monsters or each other, it’s mostly great. This works in part because the filmmakers lift some of the game series’ most iconic and gruesome attacks, particularly fatalities, in ways that look comical, not disturbing. Heads split open. Limbs become dislocated. Spines, hearts, bowels: They all emerge, evaporate, or get yanked, and while it’s all clearly hard-R violence, the hilarious amounts of blood and ooze are on par with the silly game series (though more casual viewers may be disturbed, anyway).
But my fast-forward timeline skips many of the film’s fights, mostly because Mortal Kombat‘s martial arts choreography is generally quite disappointing. These fights are neither fluid-and-comical like the best of Jackie Chan, nor ridiculous-and-focused like Jean Claude Van-Damme’s Bloodsport. And the film is particularly bad at taking advantage of the Mortal Kombat series’ fantasy edge: the fact that characters die ridiculously, then can sometimes come back to life one way or another anyway. The video games are awesome at playing with this gimmick, but this week’s live-action film is too timid to follow suit, to its detriment.
Thus, when a Mortal Kombat fight scene uses a mix of acrobatics and CGI to do crazy things like throw Scorpion’s rope-tied knife into a foe, then fling the victim around and slam him into the ground, the results look amazing. When the same fight scene pivots to a two-on-one exchange of punches, kicks, and sweeping legs, it looks ho-hum.
Optimism for the next one, but…
Between reports about actors signing on for sequels, and a ridiculously clear tease at this film’s end, WarnerMedia seems keen on keeping the Mortal Kombat live-action movie series going. And this week’s first stab at the revived Mortal Kombat film universe achieves just enough successes to make me eager to see what the next installment will look like.
That optimism comes in part thanks to last month’s Godzilla Vs. Kong, also from WarnerMedia, finally getting the revived “monsterverse” formula right. That film did a tremendous job punting extraneous plot, adding comic relief, and maintaining momentum for the sake of dumb, cheer-worthy fun. Should this week’s MK do well enough for the WarnerMedia bean counters, I could see them greenlighting every single thing needed to paint a greasy, blood-stained ramp for “MK2” to coast on.
Sadly, that doesn’t make this week’s reboot any easier to watch all 105 minutes of. Portion your time and attention accordingly, should you watch the whole thing, or roll the dice on your own fast-forwarding experiment. Definitely don’t watch it at a theater, lest you suffer an usher’s wrath for pulling out your smartphone during the copious slow-and-underwhelming parts.