6/10 It’s been said too often by too many people that there has never been a good cinematic video game adaptation – too often and by too many people because that isn’t true. There are plenty of perfectly enjoyable video game movies. Max Payne is a personal favorite, Silent Hill, Resident Evil and Tomb Raider are at least good enough to be thought of as movie franchises now, and Detective Pikachu and Rampage have delighted in recent years.
Much of this impression is rooted in the mid-90s, when the first generation of arcade rats were coming into adulthood and movies were first being made to cater to them, and New Line Cinema released Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, two of the most reviled movies ever made. The crowd of people who prefer video games to movies anyway took these low-quality offerings as a personal slight, and they haven’t stopped complaining about it for a quarter century.
Now it’s 2021, and with New Line Cinema still in charge, though it’s owned by Warner Bros. now, and the third Mortal Kombat movie, which was conceived as a sequel but took so long to get off the ground they reworked it as its own franchise starter, has finally hit theater and computer screens, and it’s a blast.
Once every several hundred years, champions of various realms participate in a single combat deathmatch tournament called Mortal Kombat. The fighters of the desolate, harsh Outworld have won the past nine consecutive tournaments, and if they win a 10th, they will be allowed to invade and enslave Earth. Outworld’s warlock god Shang Tsung (Chin Han) aims to ensure that will happen, sending his fighters to Earth prematurely to ambush and eliminate Earth’s champions – the tournament doesn’t actually take place within the runtime. Former MMA champion Cole Young (Lewis Tan), who learns about the tournament over the course of the film, and the thunder god Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), Earth’s protector, conspire to outflank him.
Mortal Kombat is a lot of fun. A lot of this movie just works, albeit in a goofy, earnest way. The actors are actually taking it seriously, and a shocking number of fully rounded characters who feel motivated and distinct emerge from the simple script – Kano (Josh Lawson), the comic relief character, is an often-cited highlight, because he’s not really a comic relief character, Lawson is just delivering every line like it’s his last. The premise is treated seriously, and the many, many nods to gameplay, from dialogue to choreography to the realization of popular characters outside the narrow context of side-scrolling fight scenes, all feel genuine. They committed to the blood effects that initially set the franchise apart, and apparently almost got an X rating for it.
This is a genuine and loving celebration of the Mortal Kombat franchise, and that’s all it really needs to be. “A good movie” according to people who primarily consume other media doesn’t mean a good movie, it means an adaptation that honors what’s valued about the original media by its existing fanbase. This new Mortal Kombat seems to have won the “first good video game movie” title by doing that, but the truth is there’s never going to be a “first good video game movie,” because whenever such a movie releases, perfectly fine video game movies will have already been around for years.
That said, Mortal Kombat is lacking in some unsettling ways, and leaves the viewer wanting. This wants to be a sweeping martial arts epic, but the studio that brought us Justice League has turned up another movie that clocks in at a commercially convenient 110 minutes, and you can feel where there’s time missing. Three long stretches with several fight scenes are edited into each other, and everything feels condensed. There’s a basic film language argument for smashing all of these fight scenes together – all of these combinations are of fights that serve the same overarching plot point – but this is an action movie, not just any action movie, but Mortal Kombat. If ever there were an audience prepared to watch dozens of full-length fight scenes laid end-to-end, it would be this movie’s.
Every fight scene should start with the characters locking eyes and squaring off, and they should all end with a gaudy execution straight out of gameplay. “Most” is nice, but not enough here.
Just like Godzilla vs Kong a month before, Justice League’s infamous mandate to keep the runtime under two hours seems to loom large over Mortal Kombat. By my counting, there’s 17 fights in this movie, all of which are pretty awesome, and 10 fighters with significant character development including four who discover their special X-Men powers within the runtime, but it’s all crammed into 110 minutes, and boy do some points ever feel crammed. You can really tell what parts of this movie spent time on the chopping block, because they feel like they weren’t shaved so much as hacked partially to pieces. A consistent lowlight is the dialogue scenes once Young starts getting inducted into the big club – it feels like every scene that isn’t a fight is an uncontrollable spew of exposition from whatever character just got introduced.
Justice League didn’t need to be kept under two hours because that’s a magic number all movies are better to adhere to, it needed to be kept under two hours because it fucking sucks. It fucking sucks at two hours, it fucking sucks at four hours, it’d fucking suck at three hours and it fucking sucks broken down into 10-20 minute segments and taken throughout the day. Mortal Kombat, on the other hand, is a lot of fun at two hours, and it would clearly be a lot more fun closer to three hours with all the awkwardly butchered bits fleshed out. As a movie based on a fighting game, it’s tailor-made to be broken down into 4-5 minute segments, but some of those are intercut, taking away from each other’s impact and causing each other to feel rushed.
The fights themselves are all individually quite well-done, but they aren’t shot like they’re well done. At least Tan, Joe Taslim and Hiroyuki Sanada, who play franchise icons Sub Zero and Scorpion, have extensive martial arts backgrounds, and it looks like the rest of the cast was game as well, but they still use the distant shooting and hyper editing designed to hide stuntmen and flips that aren’t actually performed. This is why I always harp on how bad action scenes are in the MCU – this is the “style” they’ve established for fight scenes, and they established it as a “style” in order to avoid really doing them, and in Mortal Kombat, the danger of establishing that as a style comes to fruition. This is a hardcore action movie that makes real effort to follow through with the hardcore action, and that effort is undermined in the editing room as what seems to be a stylistic choice.
As enjoyable and distinctive as Mortal Kombat is, it should be much more enjoyable and distinctive. This is exactly what I’ve been afraid of for several years now: editing mentalities meant to cover up bad stunts and bad movies applied as blanket policy and instead covering up good stunts in a good movie.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.