As an exercise in pure, shameless fan service, Mortal Kombat (2021) certainly honors not just the 90s video game series it adapts, but also its cinematic predecessors. Shot and lit like a mature TV movie that just happens to be arriving in theaters and via HBO Max this weekend, Mortal Kombat does excel in two areas the franchise used to pull its punches in: this is one bloody, gory, fight simulation with some stupendous choreography.
The film deserves a lot of credit for acknowledging this supposedly obvious fact, that what drove kids and adults to countless hours hunting for fatalities was the game’s visceral content and devotion to ultra violence. The previous films certainly took notes from the basic story of the games, but their PG-13 ratings felt like a total misfire, an excuse to dumb down the accessibility of the film’s appeal so they could sell more tickets and toys.
The 2021 Mortal Kombat lowers the saturation, but it boosts all other levels to some decent effect. The plot only differs slightly from what’s come before; the universe is split into different realms, and the shadowy “Outworld” led by the evil Shang Tsung (Chin Han) has a chance to take over Earthrealm by winning a deathmatch tournament known as “Mortal Kombat.”
Earth’s “champions” are a seemingly random mish-mash of colorful characters bearing a birthmark of the video game logo (sure), which can be acquired by killing someone who already has it (sure). Our protagonist, Cole (Lewis Tan) is a new character in the franchise who was mysteriously born with this birthmark, though the audience knows why at least an hour or so before he does, as the film opens with a seriously competent prologue that puts most of the film to shame in terms of establishing emotional stakes in all the subsequent punching, kicking, and CGI “arcana” powers.
To be clear, this is a total reboot of the film series, of which the planned third entry was canceled due to the poor reception of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation in 1997. It makes sense to give the IP a do-over all these years later, when kids and teens who grew up loving the game are now old enough to appreciate an R-rated retelling with updated effects and stunts.
One thing this reboot doesn’t really update is the cheesy dialogue and stilted acting, which almost feels like an intentional aesthetic put on by first-time director Simon McQuoid and screenwriters Greg Russo and Dave Callahan. The video game logic of Mortal Kombat will never fully translate to a more grounded, realistic movie, so it makes sense to go for a heightened, absurdist love letter to goofy 90s action movies, rather than something serious and pretentious.
If the gratuitous violence isn’t enough to sway audiences, maybe the gratuitous easter eggs will land a punch. Mortal Kombat brims with visuals, dialogue, and cameos that only have an effect if you already know what’s being referenced. The film is definitely poised to alienate people who’ve never played the game or even watched the other movies, though considering the pop culture awareness of these properties, it’s certainly not the most niche nostalgia Hollywood has ever repurposed into a film at this scale.
In fact, Mortal Kombat could be a real knockout of an experience for many viewers if it weren’t so lacking when it comes to the characters themselves being interesting to follow. The actors do a fine enough job on their own, but the various interactions between fighters like Sonya (Jessica McNamee) and fan-favorite Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) are placid at best. Much of the film’s middle rests its chemistry and intrigue on the bombastic Kano (Josh Lawson), one of the few characters allowed to be fully cartoonish, but after almost an hour of his rampant blathering among our heroes, even he wears thin on the already thin story.
This is certainly a pristine example of an action film with a clear set of goals and priorities. And it impressively accomplishes just about all of them. It serves up a competent tribute to the source material in ways the previous films never came close to fully realizing, and its surreal world strikes a difficult balance between sincere and self-aware. But if you’re looking for an entry point into the admittedly simplistic lore of the brand, you might not be able to “finish” this one.
Mortal Kombat opens in theaters and premieres on HBO Max on April 23, 2021.