This past weekend, a new Mortal Kombat movie opened in theaters and on HBO Max. It has hit number one at the box office and is the second-best grossing movie in the time of COVID-19. Critical reception on the other hand has been surprisingly divisive. In addition to mainstream critics seeing the movie through multiple biases and stigmas regarding video game movie adaptations of one of the most violent franchises ever, geek culture critics and pundits were split over the movie's creative decisions as well. No one seems to be in total agreement on what went wrong and what went right with this movie. So what exactly did happen here?
What Is The Core Of Mortal Kombat?
First we need to step back and establish what exactly Mortal Kombat is fundamentally about. This is deceptively more complicated than it seems. Boiled down to its absolute basics, Mortal Kombat is a martial arts fantasy series all centered around a fighting tournament where the fate of the world hangs in the balance. There are good characters who are human. There are bad characters who are either monsters, robots, psycho killers, or shapeshifting sorcerers. The fights are to the death. Some characters win and lose. New characters are introduced and another tournament begins, all of it presented in a heightened reality of fantastic feats and and generic action movie character archetypes with larger-than-life personalities. Imagine Enter The Dragon if it was pumped full of superhero pulp.
That might seem reductive since most ardent fans—myself included—can talk for hours about the piles of mythology and lore that has built up around this franchise's 30-year history of other dimensions, political intrigue, bloodline lineage, betrayals, double-crosses, status quo shifts, retcons, reboots, crossovers, terrible shows, terrible spin-offs, and character development, but at the end of the day the series always reverts back to this template.
As easy as it is for fans to become too enamored with the minutia of this series, it has always been stitched together in a devil-may-care fashion from the beginning. Everything from computer glitches to Prince references has led to new characters and changes to established canon. It's part of Mortal Kombat's campy charm; it rarely asks “why” but often asks, “why not?”
This tone has become more self-serious as the more ambitious games' stories have progressed, but everything I have mentioned is still a fundamental part of Mortal Kombat.
Making a Mortal Kombat Film
When it comes to adapting video games into movies, there still isn't a proper formula. There are tons of issues with no real solid answers. Either you make something that is completely unrecognizable to the source material like 1993's dreaded Super Mario Bros. Movie, or something so faithful it is completely impenetrable to general audiences like Duncan Jones' Warcraft movie.
Furthermore, a new Mortal Kombat movie has its own unique challenges. The games' signature blood and fatalities create multiple story challenges regarding death and stakes. Current movie business practices basically demand every single movie be part of a shared universe, so sequel teases and worldbuilding are expected. There is immense pressure to not just remake the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie with an R rating in order to avoid vocal backlash from the more opinionated corners of the fanbase. Modern moviegoers tend to lean more towards literalism when it comes to the fantastic—search anywhere on YouTube and you will find tons of nitpick videos on why certain magic systems “make no sense” in addition to tier lists and “the ending explained” summary material, which means the franchise's fast and loose rules need to be codified and easily explained. Finally, you need good actors who can not just fight, but effectively pump up one-note characters with enough force of personality to make them feel authentic.
In a way, because of how movies are made and how watching and discussing movies have changed, making a Mortal Kombat movie that is completely authentic would be a chaotic mess for critics and fans alike, rife with conflicting expectations and standards.
How Does The New Mortal Kombat Movie Work?
So how does the new movie directed by Simon McQuoid handle all of these responsibilities and challenges with the 2021 film? Overall, it was a success but there are some parts that need to be refined.
The first major victory are the fight scenes and the casting. Despite the franchise being made in North America, most of the characters are East Asian, so having those very characters played by Asian-American action stars like Lewis Tan and Joe Taslim—who can not just act but pull off fantastic martial arts choreography—was a stroke of genius. Furthermore, the actors deliciously embrace the simplicity of their characters. Ludi Lin is resolute in spinning somewhat pretentious martial arts philosophy as Liu Kang, Jessica McNamee is pitch perfect with a Sonya Blade framed as a perpetual underdog, and Josh Lawson steals the show as the sadistic narcissist Kano.
Finally, there is some merit in the movie clearly being made on the cheap. Mortal Kombat 2021 reportedly had a $55 million budget—roughly a third of Detective Pikachu's $150 million budget for comparison—and it shows. Scenes shown in Outworld and Raiden's Temple are generic canyons and rock quarries with some visual trickery to add in things like statues and pools of blood, and the physical props and sets range between believable and impressively fake. One minute you'll be impressed by how Sub-Zero's ice powers are shown on screen, the next you'll notice how Kabal's mask looks like painted cardboard in spots. It all weirdly works for the aesthetic of Mortal Kombat, considering the franchise was built on emulating cheap martial arts movies.
The only point where this intentionally artificial look breaks down is the introduction of the iconic four-armed giant, Goro. The one character that was inspired by Ray Harryhausen clay animation and painstakingly created with puppetry and latex in 1995 shows up here as a generic CGI monster that dies in a suspiciously quick manner.
But regardless of taste or expectation, it doesn't change the fact that the new movie's script is weak, overcomplicating elements and story beats while adding in new ideas that distract more than enhance. While the main story is still about Earth needing to win the Mortal Kombat tournament to prevent the monsters and evil wizards of Outworld from conquering the planet, the plot is all about Outworld sending assassins to Earth to kill their champions before the tournament even begins. This is coupled with a bunch of complicated rules regarding Earth's champions being branded with dragon markings, and how their special powers from the video games—now referred to as their arcana—is tied to the marking, which ends up shrinking the possibilities of the world down. Finally, one of these assassin's targets is a brand-new protagonist created for the movie, Cole Young, who may or may not have ties to another major character in the series.
The entire first half of the movie is mired in this pedantic exposition. There are good moments peppered throughout like characters undergoing training montages and moments of growth, but it doesn't help distract that most of the plot is all about setup and never fully pays off. If the Mortal Kombat tournament is Wrestlemania, then Mortal Kombat 2021 is a 90-minute extended promo where grudges are heated, certain stars make heel turns, and the managers (Shang Tsung and Raiden naturally) get in each other's faces about booking and matchups before several exhibition fights break out near the end.
Sadly, the introduction of Cole Young has made some fans very vocal. The complaints cite the usual “sins” against the fandom, claiming it is disrespectful to change the canon just to add a new character and that including him pushed out other more beloved characters from being in the movie. While some of these complaints can be chalked up to different stages of self-consciousness, you can practically hear a pile of studio executive's notes shift around whenever the character is on screen. Some bullets are thankfully dodged when it's revealed what Cole is all about, which does pay off in the movie's best fight near the end, but his inclusion does raise some questions about the series going forward.
The strangest thing about this new movie is that while the individual elements would have doomed any other production, Mortal Kombat 2021 still crackles with infectious energy and bloody fun. I willingly sat down and watched this movie three different times with action movie junkies who don't play video games, film students, and pure Mortal Kombat diehard fans. Each and every single viewing ended in a good time being had and excitement for the future.
As a production, Mortal Kombat 2021 is a cheap, structurally lopsided movie with tissue-thin characters that focuses more on its own mythology than its own immediate story. But it's also full of fun performances and exciting fights, and it isn't afraid to mix things up to keep things interesting. Much like the games themselves, the movie can't really be called “good” in regards to high art, but it's having a ball being what it is. And in that light, it is a fantastic adaptation.
That, and it wasn't as bad as Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.