Whenever a video game film is announced, eyebrows are raised in skepticism. It’s not unwarranted, given the long list of bad adaptions. Things did look up with the one-two punch of Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog, both solid adaptions of their respective worlds with positive reception. Then, Monster Hunter came along with its 47% Rotten Tomatoes score, bringing things back to the realm of negativity. Mortal Kombat has the opportunity to set things back on track, and set the stage for a hopefully good adaption of Resident Evil later this year. Mortal Kombat delivers spectacular action and some memorable characters, but doesn’t live up to its potential.
I should preface by saying I’m not someone who would be considered too knowledgeable on the Mortal Kombat franchise. As someone who has been playing video games for many years, I of course know the characters and world in passing. I’ve also seen the 1995 Hollywood adaption. So, I’m going into this with some basic knowledge. There could be some lore or callbacks core fans would appreciate more, along with changes or omissions longtime players would be better aware of. However, this isn’t a direct-to-DVD animated feature aimed squarely at fans. This is a big budget cinematic adaption aiming to start a film series. It should aim to please longtime fans, while also seek to introduce the world to people who have never touched a Mortal Kombat game.
The film certainly starts with promise. The intro takes place in 17th century Japan, establishing Hanzo Hasashi, who would later become Scorpion. In a short amount of time, the film does an excellent job investing the viewer with the setting, characters, and tone. Hiroyuki Sanada is very engaging as Hanzo. The intro also establishes Bi-Han, who later calls himself Sub-Zero. I should take a moment to say how great Sub-Zero is in this movie. Joe Taslim’s portrayal has a menacing stature whenever he’s on the screen. From his intro interactions with Hanzo, to simply standing next to his villain comrades, Sub-Zero is a highlight. Now, the intro sequence also shows us the incredible fight scenes we can expect from the movie. Hanzo unleashing his signature weapon on the assassins, followed by his showdown with Bi-Han, was fantastic. As the two best characters in the film, the story should have focused more on their conflict.
In an interview with Collider, director Simon McQuoid said the goal was to “make the best fight scenes that have ever been on film.” A bold endgame, but after watching the film, it’s fair to say the goal was met. Forget The Matrix and The Bourne Ultimatum. Every fight scene in Mortal Kombat is expertly choreographed. From Cole Young’s fight with Goro, to the battle against Reptile, it is impressive just how good these fight scenes are. Of course, it wouldn’t be Mortal Kombat without its famous fatalities. Perhaps the most gruesome (or epic) is Kung Lao slicing Nitara in half with his bladed hat. If you’re coming here just for the incredible martial arts and guts falling out, Mortal Kombat won’t disappoint.
Great action scenes don’t equate a great movie, however. Like Godzilla vs. Kong, Mortal Kombat can falter in character development. Unlike Godzilla vs. Kong, which has an already-established world to work with, Mortal Kombat has the job of introducing everything. The first red flag is in the modern day, when Bi-Han approaches Shang Tsung. Bi-Han says he no longer uses the name, but rather Sub-Zero. Why, though? What happened across these centuries for him to abandon his birth name and take the name Sub-Zero? This goes unexplained, but Sub-Zero is so cool (pun intended) that this isn’t a deal-breaker.
The jump to modern day isn’t bad. We’re introduced to Cole Young, a descendant of Hanzo. The scenes with him fighting in the ring and talking with his family are good. Sub-Zero arriving at the restaurant and reigning down icicles is great. It’s when Cole meets up with Sonya Blade that the film takes a nosedive in consistency. Sonya’s introduction is marred by her just spouting exposition. She does get more interesting later on as we see she’s disappointed about not having the dragon mark, but her introduction was just endless exposition. We’re soon introduced to Kano. There are certainly characters out there who can do the sarcastic persona well, like DC’s Lobo, but Kano was just annoying. Almost every line of dialogue was him shooting an expletive about something. If he had turned traitor sooner, this wouldn’t have been a problem. But, we’re forced to listen to him on the journey to Raiden’s temple.
Mortal Kombat throws in quite a few characters game fans will recognize. For the non-player, though, seeing Nitara doesn’t leave any impact since her first fight results in her death. Mileena seems like a cool character, but is given no backstory. Kabal is the best villain aside from Sub-Zero, surviving on cool points with his threatening suit and voice. Kabal has backstory with Kano, although it’s told, not shown. Sadly, there isn’t major backstory shown for the antagonists’ ringleader, Shang Tsung. The climax features an epic fight between Sub-Zero and Scorpion. The only problem is Hanzo’s return as Scorpion isn’t explained all that well.
The ironic thing is 1995’s Mortal Kombat film is more consistent in quality. Yes, it’s a cheesy action movie, but it never dips in quality. 2021’s Mortal Kombat has absolutely fantastic highs, but its lows are noticeable. The fights are incredible, and accompanied by a good soundtrack. Many of the characters are fun to watch. But, the film can lack in the writing department, especially with its lack of backstories. It’s good enough for a sequel, but not a flawless victory,