The list of game movie adaptations grows ever longer. While the vast majority of them are calamitous misfires, the last couple years have shown that game adaptations can be at least mediocre. Between the latest Tomb Raider, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Detective Pikachu, game movies have finally reached a place where watching them isn’t a form of torture. And Mortal Kombat, rather shockingly, continues that trend. While it’s by no means flawless, the film is decent, and if you like the franchise already, there’s a surprising amount of passion put into the film.
Mortal Kombat marks the feature directorial debut of Simon McQuoid, who comes from a background in commercials. Between that and the film being very much a studio-driven film, it would be easy to expect it to be an ugly, unfocused mess. While this may be true of the story’s pacing, the actual film looks pretty good. The CGI is generally decent, including a CGI version of Goro that actually looks a little better than the puppet used in the original 1995 film.
The CGI’s quality is important for the violence as well. Mortal Kombat – at long last – is presented with a hard R rating, and this fact is taken to an extreme level. The gore is ludicrously over the top, in the same spirit as the games themselves. This includes multiple fatalities recreated frame-for-frame, including a particularly gnarly one of Kung Lao’s.
In fact, the film is downright loaded with moments of care and love that pay fan service to elements of the franchise. While this can sometimes be an insufferable slog when done incorrectly – see much of Disney’s Star Wars drivel – Mortal Kombat does it right. Dozens upon dozens of moves and special attacks from the games are recreated perfectly, including some really cheeky winks to the playstyle of lesser-talented Mortal Kombat players – this writer included. It gives the film an aura of passion and love that most game movies lack. The fact that the fight choreography is sublime in many instances doesn’t hurt either. The fights involving Scorpion and Sub-Zero are noteworthy highlights.
However, the movie flounders when it’s not showcasing the great action sequences. The audience surrogate is a brand new character, Cole Young – performed by Lewis Tan – who stumbles into the fight between Earthrealm and Outworld, but unfortunately, he’s rather bland. The performance is adequate, but the character just doesn’t hold a candle to the larger-than-life personalities the franchise is known for. Especially when held alongside Hiroyuki Sanada’s pitch-perfect casting as Scorpion and Josh Lawson’s scene-stealing turn as Kano. The weakest performance of the bunch probably comes from Kabal, who gets far more screen time than expected. The costume looks fantastic, but the vocal performance is confusing. Whatever you would expect Kabal to sound like, it's definitely not this.
A down-on-his-luck MMA fighter, Cole’s driving force is his family, but the connection never feels real. His family is in this story only as a plot device, getting kidnapped or put in danger four or five times. Beyond that, Cole’s real purpose is to be exposited at. This paired with the narrative structure makes for a pretty forgettable story, as the middle act of the film is almost exclusively exposition. The fights and action that bookend the film are great, but that middle portion really kills the momentum. The idea to put the “tournament” to one side is a good one, but having the solution to defeating Outworld basically being a different tournament feels lazy, and this saps the creativity the setup provides in the first place.
It doesn’t help that the film rather abruptly ends. Shang-Tsung shows up for what feels like the finale, only to disappear, and then the movie is just over. A final showdown between Scorpion and Sub-Zero is a brilliantly brutal fight, but it perhaps more importantly side-lines Cole. So the main character of the film is more or less idly standing by as the final battle takes place. An odd choice, that.
The aforementioned fight is also one of very few moments where the music has any life to it. The fight reprises “the” theme, and actually suits the scene it’s paired with. The music winds up being one of the film’s greatest weaknesses. Outside of the melodies you’re already familiar with, there is nothing of note in the entire film. In fact, the music is distractingly bad in multiple instances. The movie comes off like it was scored by a slapdash collection of trailer songs, and then last minute someone remembered the iconic theme needed to be included. Sure, it’s a dubstep version of the song, but at least it’s fun.
Ultimately, 2021’s Mortal Kombat is fine. If you're already a fan of the series, there's so much in this to love that it’s a recommendation without any hint of hesitation. If you don’t care about the franchise, though, it’s a little trickier. The action scenes are good, but if you don’t have an investment in the property already, there’s not really much in this that would change your mind. Apart from the soundtrack, nothing is outright terrible, but this doesn't feel like the appropriate way to introduce newcomers to the property.