To those who suffered through the comical letdowns of the previous two adaptations of the storied fighting saga, last Friday’s release of Mortal Kombat was a breath of fresh air.
Covering all but the titular tournament itself, Simon McQuoid’s directorial debut of the cherished game series restores faith in the potential for film adaptations of video games, especially with HBO’s The Last of Us and Sony’s Uncharted in the not-to-distant future. But before we wallow in the narrative-heavy adaptions on the horizon, let’s focus on this pandemic-pleaser, much a reprieve from these times as WB’s latest Godzilla installment mere weeks ago.
I expected the same build-up light on plot to a fighting tournament seen in the previous adaptations of the series — action-heavy fighting sequences peppered with cheesy dialogue and a thin danger of world annihilation on the line. Luckily I was wrong. Opening on Hanzo Hasashi’s family and their quaint remote lifestyle, we get a taste of serenity before the 1st blade is cut through a family member’s guts, smearing blood over the sliding bamboo door as Bi-Han freezes Hanzo’s wife and child.
Following the spirit of 2020’s animated adaptation Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge, Kano provides the comedic relief and voice of reason to this otherwise outlandish narrative. Unbelieving in the mystical powers of Raiden nor the purpose in finding one’s arcana, Kano thrashes out in anger at those around him until it coincidentally unlocks his ultimate power (lasers). Using that power, Kano easily beats Cole and Sonya before turning on the group as he becomes easily swayed by enemies from his past. Likewise, Johnny Cage of 2020’s animated entry casts doubt on the legitimacy of the tournament, calling Baraka’s blades a “nice combat prop” before narrowly escaping death (again, and again and again…). Only after leaping off a collapsing ancient temple does Johnny realize the severity of the tournament.
McQuoid’s vision handily delivers on it’s R-rating, easily providing the most gruesome live-action adaptation yet. Following the emotional weight of the opening with Hanzo’s family being murdered in front of Cole, SubZero’s first conflict with Jax results in his arms being frozen as SubZero crushes his flesh, collapsing his arms and bursting scarlet blood through shards of ice as Jax falls to the ground. Only Raiden’s timely rescue is able to mend Jax’s wounds and prevent him from being finished so early.
The callouts to the video game’s fatalities was also highly praised — Liu Kang’s firey finish on Kabal lights up the good guy’s morale, with subsequent Earthrealm hero annihilating their paired opponents. Much like Liu Kang, Kung Lai deliveres strongly on his finishing move, slicing his razor hat through the flesh of Nitara as the Outworld champions lay siege to Raiden’s temple. The stage callouts seen throughout the montage of one-off fights was also strong. On a weaker note, Goro’s confrontation with Cole and his family felt low-stakes. Goro appears inside Cole’s shed, but offers little scares to Cole’s family minus shaking the car as they attempt to drive off. That weak conflict musters enough emotional weight to surface Cole’s arcana, arousing his strength and cuts off Goro’s hands, rendering the four-armed monster defeated (sans any arm-ripping of weaklings). Goro felt very washed out as well, his model feeling washed out in a dimly lit conflict with Cole.
Outside of Kano, the villains of this story felt little developed. Each appeared for a few scenes, but otherwise felt no growth or impact beyond being a disposable minion of Shang Tsung. Greg Russo’s freshman film script, having come from a background in games, was promising while leaving plenty of room for improvement. Comedic one-liners are peppered throughout professionally, such as Liu Kang’s refusal to pass the egg roll to Kano which ultimately drives him to discover his arcana.
The film delivers solidly on its expectations, providing a nice callback to the source material compared to previous film adaptations while venturing off the beaten path enough to make for a unique entry that seeks to expand the world beyond it’s namesake conflict. It leaves an optimistic outlook and wide opportunity for further video game adaptations, both in the series and wider industry, to create more emotional stories (it’s safe to say the gore and flesh-ripping we’d expect from one of video games’ most treasured fighting sagas was honored).