Once upon a time it was a universal truth that, with little to no exceptions, movies based on video games were guaranteed to suck. And vice versa.
Gradually, however, film adaptations of video game properties became at least watchable. Some might even say good. In recent years we’ve seen decent live-action films based on video games, such as Pokémon with Detective Pikachu, and we’ve even seen genuinely good movies like Sonic the Hedgehog.
So when I first saw a trailer for the new Mortal Kombat movie before a Godzilla vs. Kong screening, my curiosity was piqued. The actors and actresses looked well-cast, the cinematography was up to standard, and the special effects looked just fine. I didn’t have high expectations for it; after all, at the end of the day trailers can be misleading and it didn’t look phenomenal by any stretch, but I was still cautiously optimistic that it could turn out alright.
And now after seeing it, I admit. It was alright. In the beginning, that is.
The opening to Mortal Kombat is very well-executed (no pun intended). As a short film, it would be amazing. It has one of the best 10-minute openings in recent memory that demonstrates the art of storytelling through film in its purest form. It’s succinct. Polished. It has a beautiful setting. Well-acted. Well-choreographed. Nice.
As soon as that scene is finished, however, we immediately veer into the all-too-familiar territory of live-action film adaptations of any medium (comics, books, video games, whatever). Things start to feel a little paint-by-numbers. But, it’s still not that bad.
In fact, it kinda finds a nice middle ground that works and becomes a fun adventure for the better half of the the first hour. Although it’s clear the film isn’t going to live up to the excitement and clarity of its introduction, it at least is managing to hold audience interest and build its world as the character roster adds up little by little.
Unfortunately, as Mortal Kombat enters its third act – it becomes increasingly obvious that not only is the film indeed not going to live up to its opening, it’s not even going to keep that middle-of-the-road territory it had occupied. It delves into being an outright bad movie by the time the end credits roll.
And it’s sad. Because for a while, it felt like it didn’t have to be that way. I’m very curious if the filmmakers/writers started out optimistic about the project as well, but then as deadlines loomed and more demands came down from studio heads, did they just lose interest and decide to give up halfway through?
I’m trying to do my best not to spoil it, but that final act really feels unfinished and it’s hard not to explain why without spoiling it.
So I’ll keep it simple. Much like the video game fighter its based upon, the best parts of the Mortal Kombat movie are the gruesome fatalities. They’re highly entertaining and display a creativeness about them that is sorely lacking throughout much of the exposition-heavy scenes that fill up most of the runtime.
And the acting is good, for the most part. Joe Taslim portrays a very wicked Sub-Zero. Jessica McNamee makes for a believable Sonya Blade. Josh Lawson as Kano is a highlight. As is Mehcad Brooks as Jax. I’m perhaps not quite as thrilled with Ludi Lin as Liu Kan, but hey. Nobody here is outright bad in their respective role and most of the long list of cast members nail their roles. The costume department also worked wonders bringing all of these characters to life.
But the movie often feels boring between fight scenes. Even with its short runtime (the film is mercifully less than two hours long), it can feel like a bit of a chore to watch it when fighting isn’t involved.
And the tone is all over the place. The opening feels like it’s trying to be serious, but then we move into lighter territory, until we finally enter all-out cheese by the finale. Surely the filmmakers could’ve picked one tone and stuck with it consistently?
At any rate, if you’re wondering – the answer is yes – you will hear all of your favorite catchphrases from the Mortal Kombat video game series. Everything from “Get over here!” to “Flawless victory!” are quoted in showstopper fashion, serving as wink-wink callbacks to the game you’ll likely enjoy.
Speaking of which, I’ve only played two Mortal Kombat games in my life, and I never watched the 90s films, so I surmise there are a lot of easter eggs and references that totally went over my head.
For example, I wasn’t impressed with the closing line of the film. In fact, I was confused by it. But a friend of mine who is deeply familiar with the games later explained its relevance to me, so now I get it. I’m still not sure it was the best note to go out on, but at least I get it now.
So if you’re a major fan of Mortal Kombat, I assume you will get a lot more enjoyment out of this than the average viewer. At times, it really feels like a love letter written to someone else. While I thought those long durations of exposition were dull, perhaps there were juicy tidbits in those monologues that referenced things in the games which would make fanboys and girls squeal with delight. If that’s the case, you might want to add an extra point to my final score.
That said, even for longtime Mortal Kombat fans, I feel like this film will fall a bit flat outside of a few memorable scenes. The music and sound design are nice, too.
But overall the movie needs an adrenaline boost. The director didn’t go far enough even with the R rating. Sure it has some gory moments, but come on. If we’re going to lean into the cheese factor as much as the film forces us to by the end, they should’ve just went nuts with it from the beginning. Embrace that corniness. Go for broke. Really earn that R rating.
The abrupt ending that seemed to make a bold assumption that a sequel will be released. Personally, after sitting through this one, I’m not so sure. Mortal Kombat may be a tier above other film adaptations based on games like Angry Birds, but it’s certainly nowhere near Sonic the Hedgehog quality or even Warcraft for that matter. This is purely a mediocre ride. It does succeed at one thing though: by the end of it, you’ll want to play the game instead of watch the movie.
Mortal Kombat releases in theaters and on HBO Max in the United States on April 23rd.