The kind of media that causes ratings boards to be created will always go down in infamy. Mortal Kombat is a cornerstone in videogame history for exactly that reason. When the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) began rating games, it was because of such provocative works as Mortal Kombat (1992) and Doom (1993). Those first products that get rated have a kind of allure about them. That bold M for Mature was like a signpost that playing Mortal Kombat was akin to coming of age in the ‘90s.
Many videogames shared that rating, but none so effectively utilized it, whether by mechanical gimmick or marketing tactic. Arcade games back then were about attract modes and making sure something looked cool enough to stand in line for. The fatality system of Mortal Kombat, then, was an invention of great ingenuity, an understanding of the context-of-space of an arcade and the use case for how we used to discover games.
When the initial set of movies came around, Mortal Kombat was everywhere. The exuberant theme song was played every day in our school’s gymnasium. It was all we talked about on the schoolyard. And you better have that Genesis version as a kid, so you might seem at least adult-adjacent, and of sound enough mind to handle a little bloodlust. It was infectious. So, those first movies captured the zeitgeist, and maybe nothing more. They absolutely were not Mortal Kombat.
One thing to consider, is that what Mortal Kombat is has drastically changed over the last thirty years. The games have matured into their years by now. They now tell their own stories, greater stories than any adaptation has attempted. They have become the defacto standard for storytelling in a fighting game. But there is not an equivalent example of these games at the movies. The closest we’ve come is a spunky YouTube series called Mortal Kombat Legacy (2011). Therein lies the challenge for 2021’s Mortal Kombat: a film that attempts to match brutality with fan service.
If brutality and fan service are the primary metrics, then Mortal Kombat succeeds. It has enough of both. The fatalities look awfully fatal. There’s a good amount of splatter and fighting with stakes that feel legitimate. It circles around the characters from the first two games. Some fan favorites, even some very early ones, do not make the cut. But you’ll get your Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada), Jax (Mechad Brooks), Kano (Josh Lawson), etc., etc. It’s like a launch roster desperately in need of some downloadable content (I’m a Cyrax guy).
The story introduces a new character, Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a past-his-prime MMA fighter who was born into a legacy of great fighters. He’s recruited for a decisive tournament where the fate of the world rests on the contest between the Earthrealm and the Outworld. It’s an excuse for action, like most game-to-movie stories are, but one that allows screenwriters Greg Russo and Dave Callahan to pay homage to the history of a game without stepping too far outside the initial premise, while director Simon McQuoid establishes an easy formula for the fighting bits.
How does Mortal Kombat fare as a movie? It is basic. As a kind of martial arts film, it is basically satisfying. It establishes a simple story: an unknown hero is called to a tournament with the highest stakes imaginable and must fight to the death. Perfectly fine. Many of the cuts are abrupt. It could do with holding longer on some of the action, even the CG-kind, and having more patience to establish itself. It’s tough now that the videogame has a better story than the component movie, because what is it then adding to the conversation?
The fights are a great deal of fun. The writing team have had a lot of fun inserting game logic and references at every turn. It’s not out of bounds in the movie for someone to throw out dialogue referencing the game, like “test your might” or “is that your only move?” More importantly, the visual language is far more attached to how fights play out in the games themselves. There are several instances where it would have benefitted from sticking with one fight, instead of flipping between concurrent battles, but largely it holds onto the perspective and visual language, giving it an apparent aesthetic, as a martial arts film.
Mortal Kombat is primarily going to serve one audience and one audience only. It would be hard not to recommend it to devotees of the videogames. As game-to-movie conversions have gone, it stays as faithful as any have. It feels like a legitimate connective layer to the games. A movie inspired by mechanical action. Meanwhile, it’s almost impossible to imagine the value for anyone else. What could someone with no relation to these games possibly get out of this movie? At best, a mediocre but standardly entertaining martial arts film. That is certainly not the worst fate for one of these. A Mortal Kombat film that understands why we play the games. That’s just enough. The movie eventually sputters out, the ending essentially being a trailer for the next film, but whether or not more are established, we have this one perfectly fine adaptation of a fighting videogame.