Yet another stab at putting the iconic video game Mortal Kombat to screen, Simon McQuoid’s film follows MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan) in a plight to save the universe from the Outworld’s threats. Though sadly, its stakes in actuality never quite reach such lofty heights and tension.
Narrative is never really a strong point to the fighting game genre, it is background noise. From Tekken to Street Fighter and all in-between, it’s a niche that cultivates intense memories of fun competitiveness and boasts characters that have ascended to iconic status in gaming circles. As such, 2021’s Mortal Kombat has its work cut out, and then some – with no foundations to adapt, and a previous attempt that flopped hard, it seems an odd time to capitalise on the brand as its weight in the current cultural zeitgeist is minor. Mortal Kombat has waned somewhat since the latest game release a few years back.
With the prior in mind, I honestly can’t say that the film impressed in any sense. Harsh? Perhaps, but it wasted early potential and came out as an incredibly bland product that even failed in giving satisfactory fan service.
Where the story is concerned, it’s an ungodly mix of Marvel’s Avengers Assemble and the notional premise of Dragon Ball. A team-up of gathered champions whose main goal is recruitment to bolster their ranks to ready for the eponymous tournament. Attempting to launch us into this world via Cole Young, an aged ex-MMA champion, the biggest undoing is the script. There’s no reason to back Young’s plight in the early stages of the film and that remains throughout, unfortunately. DC’s attempts at ‘universe style’ franchising is an apt comparison. Rushed, unfocused and packing enough audacity to actually suggest it’s worthy of a follow-up, it reeks of exploiting fan goodwill and nostalgia in a trade-off for financial success. Not exactly a terrible video game film as there’s not really much (if anything) lost in the translation, but one that’s worthy of the failure on account of its soullessness.
Tone is an issue in this type of experiment, McQuoid’s film is on the wrong side of the line. Unironically camp, Mortal Kombat can’t even be enjoyed for the wrong reasons. Its focus is elsewhere and that is quite evident from the opening shot to the closing titles. It doesn’t take a second of itself reasonably, sure, the games are hardly the most intriguing of dramas, but Mortal Kombat feels almost indescribably sterile. It could be any B-List action flick, which seems to be a realisation had in post-production, given that there are jarring instances of the film almost stopping entirely to reel off iconic catchphrases and tags. From “Get over here!” to “Fatality” and “Flawless Victory,” they invoke a slight chuckle, born out of shock and awe. A mess to say the least.
A large ensemble, there is sympathy to be had for its cast who were hampered by what formed the foundation of the title. With serial Charles Manson actor, Damon Herriman arguably the most noteworthy of stars, there were only a handful of serviceable turns. Josh Lawson’s early moments seemed to hint at an engaging second half… how quickly I was proven wrong. Starring as Kano, he chewed the scenery for a little while, a dislikable but charismatic mercenary, he truly feels like the films first proper ‘character’ only for that to go to waste.
The closest leading characters you’ll find here, Tan and Jessica McNamee, demonstrate good chemistry and have a couple of instances in which they bounce off of each other well, until Young and Sonya Blade are separated for a period. It clumsily and naively undoes its best elements. When apart, there is little depth to those individuals in the slightest.
Penned by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham, their work is shallow and doesn’t have the confidence to take much artistic freedom or license with its work. The characters are lacking, not one has a single ounce of depth and you can imagine how inconsequential that makes the conflict. Its story rings as an attempt to feature iconic characters, don the adored optics and hope that it’ll have some impact upon the reception. Mortal Kombat feels like a first draft that has some seriously bad intentions of profit over substance.
Visually, well, that’s a full house on the sub-par bingo card. Mortal Kombat as a franchise pride itself on visual merit. The film does them a disservice. No tournament backdrop so the one-on-one confrontation is completely out the window, a toning down of the gore and its comically brutal style in favour of a lesser certification. The unforgivably bad technical form is the worst of all. The distinction between the good and bad of the action genre is quite clear, and recent barnstorming hits such as John Wick show why. Visual focus. Filmed to let the sequences breathe and demonstrate their impeccable cinematography, Mortal Kombat instead opts for an erratic and heavy over-reliance on editing, as well as near pitch black lighting. Relaying its combat on that fashion throughout, it makes for a redundant feature. Its classification as an action feature feels unwarranted.
Mortal Kombat may have the potential to be suitable popcorn entertainment, but it does feel as if it lacks the mindlessness for that task. A hollow shell and soulless attempt at creating a decent Mortal Kombat title, the film falls short of both expectation and intrigue. Not a great start for the desired universe expansion.