Updated: Jul 4, 2021
By Paul Deeter
About a month ago I wrote an article which I still stand by, based on the subject of video game movies and how they are usually bogged down in production too much to stick a landing. So many examples of these come in the forms of silly remasters of series like Silent Hill and Tomb Raider which do tend to focus on the world building of the game but lose that touch when creating a cohesive storyline. Both these films have their merits but get lost in the lore, trying to appease both fans of the games and modern critics. My one outlier example is Sonic the Hedgehog which I believe is a better example of a character rebuilt for cinema than a video game adaptation. Well, looking back at the films of the 90s we have a blast of successful reboots including Mortal Kombat (1995) an original film based on the early arcade game of the early 90s. This film did well enough financially to land a sequel in 1997: Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, which is in argument for the worst action film of all time by many sources. And when I mention that the 95 film was a success I mean only by box office terms; it’s in my opinion this film is next to unwatchable. Sure the movie showcases character favorites like Luke Cage, with his charismatic combat to match his action-film personality. But the movie tends to gloss over any purpose per character, and worse off it feels like a slog. I purchased the two film Steelbook and while it’s a cool collection to my shelf, I have no need to finish either film.
Then in 2015, after almost twenty years of development Hell and production disputes that only saw an animated short film release titled Mortal Kombat: Rebirth, James Wan, horror director of Saw and The Conjuring, jumped on board. If you want a deeper history on the absolute chaotic factors of the full length film version of Rebirth, you can follow this link for more information. To say the journey to this franchise’s release was about as bonkers as the final 2021 movie was is putting it lightly. So skipping into 2016, after horror icon Wan put his name on it, a director (Simon McQuoid) was picked and then screenwriter Greg Russo finished writing the feature in 2019. And two years of marketing and development ain’t nearly so bad, huh?
Before jumping into my takes I should also mention that the marketing for this movie did focus a lot on the factor of pushing an R-rating and delivering on the franchise favorite fatalities (or glorified kill cut scenes in the game that pushed ratings boards for over twenty years). The film balanced on a wire between R and NC-17 (according to McQuoid) and a highly streamed Red Band trailer wet the beaks of fans all over the world. It was full of blood, silly costumes and iconic one-liners. What’s not to love? I mean this is a series that’s built not just on controversial violence soaked up by all too young fans, but also humorous easter eggs snuck in by developers and sizable lore. The series almost got too big for its britches past 2010, with so many large AAA-games expanding into story based campaigns for each title. But they never lost the 1v1 joy of tearing apart your opponents as your favorite Kombatant.
Enter Mortal Kombat (2021) in the corner. With the film landscape changing for digital at home viewing, I got the chance to see this flick on HBO Max as I’m sure many others did or will do. Today’s release of the film also sees a movie theater debut as well, and to the record set by Godzilla v. Kong I would not be terribly surprised if it breaks some R-Rated post pandemic box office records. I am rather fond of my home entertainment set up and not quite ready for the big screen again, so I had a blast watching this at home, utilizing the film’s offer of Dolby Atmos sound with the volume pumped up. Let me start by saying the movie sounds absolutely phenomenal. Each meaty punch, blood splatter and bone break is felt with the movie‘s excellent sound editing. I know it‘s early to say, but I can smell a nomination for the sound design alone, and that doesn’t even mention the visual effects which also show up to impress. The special effects in the film do a fine job of pushing the R-Rating with buckets of blood and flashes of magic, but they don’t ever seem too... gamey. As a hardcore horror fan I can’t say the film ever got me to squirm per se, but I was quenched of my satisfaction for gore as a gamer fan. I can sense that’s also going to be forefront on the mind‘s of critics, namely video game news sites. The violence in the movie seems as fan-catered as the raunchiness of Deadpool, I cant imagine too many people will walk away from this wanting more in that department.
in the same department, the “Kombat“ of the film is brutal and fun. The movie does a good job of having one on one fights, some could consider these boss fights or superhero like encounters with the big characters, along with some slashing of no-name thugs as well. The opening introduces the formidable evil character of Sub-Zero and the introduction of Scorpion in a fun fan service, with some familiar weaponry play I won’t spoil. As far as fandom goes too, the biggest takeaway of this film will come down to just how many characters they’ve squeezed into this two hour flick. We’ve got Kane, Shane Tsing, Sonya Blade and more entering the picture even before the halfway mark. Each character feels more lived then the 1995 version too, one of my favorite performances is the foul-mouthed, drunken Kano played by Josh Lawson, who never seems to shut up but in the beat way possible. No evil speech or dope one-liner can land without being deflected with a Kano line. Sure some of it is annoying, but I laughed more than cringed. Again, each of these characters feels like they’re being performed, not just phoned in. I loved almost every character for its own perks and attributes, much like a gamer having trouble choosing which character to play as. A moment I enjoyed was when the classic Liu Kang faces off with Kano, and basically spams the leg sweep move three times in a row. Kano responds”that the only move you got?” and to be fair, in the games its one of his go to spamming moves. The more I talk about little touches like these the more I love the movie, it’s just peppered with detail by people who clearly understand the background material.
So ironically, just like the series awkwardly steered into campaign mode in its later entries, the movie seems to feel awkward as well when landing it’s story. The storyline is a spreadsheet to outline the many one on one fights, some of them are as goofy as a minor disagreement that turns into a full fledged beat-down. The idea of the “Mortal Kombat” is the ultimate tournament to defend the Earthrealm in this film, and a kind of Justice League-esque round up of the defenders and fighters of this realm. It’s enough to keep the story rolling, but nothing really is worth remembering outside of its fights. That may seem a bit harsh on a movie I loved, but it’s the same deal with kaiju and other hero based films: the story is not the forefront. I happened to see some of the overall low ratings from critics and get that it’s probably the biggest factor in less than favorable reviews. I tried not to read up on anything too far, but if that’s the movie’s main fault, I get it. Story isn‘t what kicks ass in this movie, and that’s okay.
if you’re a long time fan of fighting games, you’re probably well-versed in the Kombat series or games like it, as there are many (k)lones, you will definitely find something to love here. The game has been such a significant seller at home and in arcades all over, and finally it has the big-screen representation it needed, and every ounce of it delivers to the fandom of any generation. I know it won’t sit well with critics universally, it’s just too catered to the game community, but I truly can’t imagine a world where this film doesn’t succeed financially and become a cult klassic (ok last one) for viewers years on.