The arcade fighting game known as “Mortal Kombat” has had a few movie adaptations over the years, ranging from acceptable to downright dreadful film fodder. 2021’s “Mortal Kombat” takes the franchise to new, middling heights by ditching a meaningful plot in favor of comical characters and senseless gore.
Over the past 30 years, video game movies have largely been catastrophic failures. From “Super Mario Bros.” to “Assassin’s Creed,” video games franchises are usually confusing and horribly misrepresented once they make their way onto the big screen. Too many bad adaptations later and video game fans had every reason to groan and sigh when a new adaptation is announced. In recent years, however, successful movies like “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Detective Pikachu” have reinvigorated the dying genre, and slowly but surely, audiences are once again willing to believe that video game movies can be more than mediocre.
The third adaptation of “Mortal Kombat” comes at a time when big-budget projects are dropping on HBO Max due to the ongoing pandemic. While movies like “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Godzilla vs. Kong" have suffered from low box-office numbers and excessively critical reviews, “Mortal Kombat” is likely to benefit from this situation. In the traditional sense, it is not a good movie, but its thrilling moments are well worth watching from the comfort of your home.
This movie largely follows the basic premise of most of its video games, where superhuman and other worldly champions face off against each other to determine the fate of the world. In the first few minutes of the movie, we are briefly introduced to the franchises’ most popular characters Sub-Zero and Scorpion. Their ongoing rivalry spans generations, and from their first fight, the film gives us a clear sense of its willingness to get ugly with crushed skulls, hacked-off arms and merciless murder. The inventive violence is what makes “Mortal Kombat” so appealing in the video games, and the movie smartly clings onto that idea throughout. But whenever the fighting stops, even if it’s only for a few minutes, we notice the movie’s rushed plot and shallow, we notice the movie’s rushed plot and shallow, confusing exposition. The hour-long training session is rough to get through because it is composed of mostly forgettable character interactions and incessant attempts to be amusing.
In any other movie, this would be damning, but not in “Mortal Kombat.” Paying too much attention to why a struggling MMA fighter is chosen as one of the Earth’s greatest defenders, why the Outworld villain Sub-Zero wants to cheat his way into an already-guaranteed victory or why the trade dealer Kano mindlessly switches to the villain’s team will only leave you with more questions than humanly possible to answer. “Mortal Kombat” sets up engaging matchups through these breaks in logic, and it would have been a mistake to spend time explaining why.
The movie embraces this nonsensical style by intentionally keeping its story and character development at a minimum. The video game has always been known for its complicated storylines that span over different titles but focusing on those aspects would’ve bogged down the movie and added to its nearly 2-hour runtime. Instead, the movie tried to cater to preexisting fans by focusing on its most important features, like inconceivable gore. The plot and characters don’t matter when a person’s spine is ripped out of their body, so it’s best to turn your brain off and enjoy the fight sequences and unapologetic fatalities.
For newcomers to the franchise, “Mortal Kombat” might seem like an unnecessarily gruesome action film with a depthless story. While that’s accurate, fans of “Mortal Kombat” will leave this movie satisfied by the numerous references to the video games and its iconic characters. The bone-crunching fights and severed heads don’t make it a good movie, especially not one worth going to the theater for, but its violence is enough to keep most action lovers entertained. Though the bar is extremely low, it stands out as a decent video game movie, and with a sequel already in the works, it’s safe to say that video game adaptations will live to fight another day.