For a long time, whenever I heard “video game film adaptation” there was an automatic reduction in faith for whatever video game film was being mentioned...
...Over the last few years or so there has been a slow shift into a new era of video game film adaptations where quality is expected far more often. With the surprising success of films like Sonic the Hedgehog (2020), Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019), and while Tomb Raider (2018) received lukewarm reviews, they all stand as a step forward for video game adaptations, albeit small. Now in 2021, we have our next big studio video game adaption with Mortal Kombat. After the notoriously horrendous Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997) a third MK film was left in development hell for two decades. Once Warner Bros. Pictures acquired the rights, it was off to the races. Director Simon McQuoid has taken on the very heavy responsibility of giving hungry fans a new feature length film. It’s been 24 years since an MK film has hit the silver screen, so there are big expectations, and as a long-time fan of the franchise, I couldn’t have been more excited for this release.
This incarnation of Mortal Kombat follows former MMA fighter, Cole Young (Lewis Tan) who is stuck in a terrible cycle of getting pummeled in the ring for a buck. Down on his luck and desperate for change, things only seem to get worse for Cole when he and his family are attacked by Bi-Han (Joe Taslim), but Jax (Mehcad Brooks) and Sonya (Jessica McNamee) intervene. Once rescued, Cole is told important information regarding his ancestors, heritage and the marking he’s had since birth holds a weighty responsibility he must honor. A tournament, known as “Mortal Kombat” is fought every generation, where after ten victories in a row, the champion garners the right to invade their opponents world. Earth Realm is in danger of the merge, and It is up to Cole and his companions to find and train Earth’s most formidable Kombatants. Mighty as they might be, Shang Tsung (Chi Han) and his fierce fighters will stop at nothing to achieve viktory.
Right out of the gate we are greeted with an incredible opening scene featuring two of the series’ biggest characters. I won’t give away who they are, but let me just say that the scene sets the tone for the film, but it also gives you a reason to care. Opening with a big action scene is great, but significantly better when it contains emotional weight. The pacing of Mortal Kombat is flawless, with scenes lasting just as long as they need to without overstaying their welcome. It’s a film that “moves” in a way that keeps you engaged at all times. Don’t get me wrong, the film is definitely structured conventionally, with a predictable blueprint of how the film will play out sequentially, but it moves at such a good clip, you most likely won’t notice or care.
There is plenty here that’s not so predictable. Without saying who, they take a popular kharacter and play with our expectations in a clever way. They also gave this character a surprising level of depth, which was not what I was expecting in this. In addition to the already satisfying character change-up, the rest of our central characters get plenty of screen time. Sonya and Jax share a tender scene and it’s infused with an extremely important (albeit obvious) message about not giving up. McNamee is especially good in the film and inhabited the role of Sonya with loyal determination. Our protagonist, Cole, was always expected to be what I call the “sponge protagonist”. He’s there to soak up exposition so the audience can get filled in on what the hell is going on. He’s not that interesting, but he’s necessary. He could have been an irritating character so I’m pleased that Tan gave a very likable, if understated performance.
It sounds trite or pedestrian when talked about, but there are themes in Mortal Kombat that genuinely offer a sense of positivity. It’s a diverse film with several different races of people coming together to overcome a common evil. It may sound corny (and it kind of is), but I believe we all need a dose of that sense of earnest positive enthusiasm in horror/action cinema, especially when so many films today are negative and cynical. It evokes some of the same sentiments seen in Paul W.S. Anderson’s original film. In several ways, the film seems like an early 2000’s film, as films then hadn’t yet made the transition to the straight faced seriousness of films that would come later. It tells the story straight, but it also knows when to crack jokes and not take itself too seriously.
Mortal Kombat gets straight A’s across the board when it comes to its visual presentation. What I appreciate most, aside from the fighting choreography, is the wide array of color that’s used. We may be coming out of the stone cold serious dark ages of film where not everything had to be grey and depressing. In all seriousness though, I love the oversaturated look. It actually helps fight scenes, because you can more easily keep track of who is who. They’ve also opted for more wide shots during fight scenes, which I vehemently prefer over quick cuts and disjointed editing. The only thing about the fights I didn’t like was when three separate fights were happening at once, cutting back and forth to each other. I’m sure fitting in all these fights into the running time was challenging, but three edited fights together is simply disorienting to me. Still, Mortal Kombat’s fight sequences are immensely visceral and exciting.
Costumes and visual effects also score high ranks with me. Sticking to the overall colorful, more upbeat tone of the film, costumes are faithfully transitioned onto film, though some may be turned off by the “cleanness” of them, claiming they don’t look rough enough. I understand that, but because it mirrors the tone so well, it works for me. The visual effects on display are mostly adequate and fit into the world they are in. However, a scene with Goro proves the CG needed a few more passes. It was disappointing, because in Mortal Kombat (1995) the technology Anderson and company used to create Goro was very convincing. Let’s hope if we get a sequel they will improve the CG for Goro.
I don’t know what they’re doing up there at Warner Bros Pictures, but they need to keep doing it. With the successful launch of Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) and now Mortal Kombat, I’m very happy to see some of my favorite properties being adapted with such enthusiasm and vigor. McQuoid had a daunting task in front of him and I think he has done an outstanding job making a film that satisfies fans, but also has a surprisingly warm, hopeful attitude. Make no mistake though; when the fists start flying, the film is brutal, sadistic, and unapologetically violent. I wouldn’t call it a Klassic and it won’t replace the original, but Mortal Kombat will give fans what they want, and then some. Let’s hope this trend of quality video game adaptation Kontinues!
Mortal Kombat is now in theaters and on HBO Max.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth