Mortal Kombat’s Kareless Konformity
Issue 15, Volume 111
“Mortal Kombat” is, against all odds, worse than you might expect. Inspired by the famously violent fighting games first released in the early ‘90s, the movie is chock-full of cheesy writing, gratuitous gore, and hilariously out-of-place fan service. But, in all honesty, its self-aware camp is a lot of fun, even if it isn’t the most intellectual of productions. Instead, the film’s problems come from its adaptation to the big screen and its unwillingness to fully commit to the inherent stupidity of the franchise. The series of games is undeniably a difficult foundation to create a cohesive story. The lore is incomprehensible, its characters are obnoxious and poorly written, and its entire aesthetic can best be described as that of an angsty middle schooler. At the end of the day though, a true “Mortal Kombat” movie would have been at least entertaining and almost certainly more interesting than the formulaic action flick we got in its place.
The central plot of the film is similar to that of the games. The empire of Outworld, another dimension, wants to invade Earth, but the gods will only let them if they can beat Earth 10 times in Mortal Kombat, the titular martial arts tournament. Earth has already lost nine times, so our cast of (mostly) iconic characters has to defeat the champions of Outworld in order to save the planet.
The one massive revision to the lore is the introduction of Cole Young (Lewis Tan), the movie’s completely original protagonist. There are clear reasons why a new main character might have been necessary: “Mortal Kombat” isn’t known for strong character writing, and it would have been difficult to make any of the games’ central cast members palatable for casual audiences. The franchise’s most iconic character—Scorpion, a ninja hell zombie who yells “Get over here” while pulling people toward him with a kunai on a chain—would have likely been a poor choice for grounding viewers in the film’s world. The problem with adding Young isn’t that he’s new, but that he’s boring and stands out like a sore thumb in the otherwise over-the-top universe of the movie. Young is the archetypal macho protagonist: a cage fighter with poorly defined powers, prophesied to save the world and fighting to protect his family. It doesn’t help that Tan’s performance is flat and self serious, but more importantly, Young lacks the creativity and ironic edge that the original characters have. Despite the time invested in his arc, he still feels cliché and half-baked, just another symptom of the filmmakers’ failed attempts to force a traditional narrative structure on the insanity of the fighting games.
Another irritating problem with “Mortal Kombat” is that it’s paced so poorly that its story, based entirely in lightning fast martial arts action, gets strangely boring in a lot of places. The entire second act of the film is an hour-long training sequence that brings the escalating stakes to a grinding halt as the screenwriters struggle to give any of the characters development past “good at fighting.” For what it’s worth, some of the cast are charming in the quippy Marvel sense, but none manage to be well-written enough to justify how much the drop in tempo undercuts the film’s tension. No one in the “Mortal Kombat” games was designed with character depth in mind, and the time the film wastes trying to change this aspect just feels wasted. With how poorly the script handles any complexity, this entire section would have been better spent actually progressing the main storyline, something only made more apparent by how rushed the climax ends up being.
Despite these flaws however, the moments when “Mortal Kombat” embraces its fighting game roots are genuinely enjoyable. The fight sequences are satisfyingly brutal, full of the gore and bloody explosions that freaked parents out so much when the games were first released. Past that action, when the movie stops taking itself seriously and starts taking advantage of its overdone, cheesy tone, the writing actually becomes pretty funny. Lines like “Perfect victory!” are delivered with almost a wink to the camera, and the references to the games, when aware of how poorly they’re integrated, serve as an amusing nod to fans without ruining the tension of the plot. It’s easy to see what “Mortal Kombat” could have been, and though a heavily ironic, excessively satirical film wouldn’t have been without flaws, it would have shown more creativity and willingness to experiment than the lackluster by the book tedium that was ultimately put out.
“Mortal Kombat” was never going to be an exceptionally good movie. The games on which it’s based are just too ludicrous of a starting point to make anything with any cinematic merit. However, it definitely could have been better. Though the film is by no means unwatchable—it certainly has enough bloody action and overt references to appease fans—it ends up feeling incredibly safe and uninspired. Had the movie leaned into the obnoxious ‘90s camp the franchise is known for, it could have at least failed trying to do something interesting, but instead we get the same story we’ve seen a thousand times before, just with the dressings of an iconic game.