Hollywood has a troubled history with video games. While they sometimes generate nice returns at the box office, video game adaptations never score above mixed with critics (the best reception I found was for Detective Pikachu in 2019). Never mind that the first Pirates of the Caribbean turned a theme-park ride into a fun adventure film, or that The Lego Movie is a genuinely great animated comedy based on a product catalog – video games are just too big a challenge for screenwriters. It’s become a bit of a curse at this point, and rather than hoping each new attempt will be the one that finally smashes expectations, I believe most audiences would settle for it not being the worst movie they’ve ever seen.
The new Mortal Kombat clears that bar, at least. Based on the popular fantasy fighting game franchise of the same name, this film from first-time director Simon McQuoid follows a washed-up MMA fighter named Cole Young (Lewis Tan) who learns he has been chosen to represent Earth in an ancient tournament between realms. The vicious Outworld has defeated Earthrealm nine consecutive times, needing only one more victory for the right to conquer the planet – but a prophecy says that Young, as a descendant of the 17th-century ninja Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), can still defeat them. He and Earth’s fellow champions must train and discover their inner power before the Outworld sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) and his warriors wipe them all out.
First, the positives: the R-rated Mortal Kombathas some quality kill scenes. Anyone at all familiar with the games will know this is important to mention. The special effects are generally good, with creative moments that linger, and some of the characters are brought to life well. The writing, however, is quite bad, and in almost all the ways it can be. The characters are poorly developed and behave inconsistently, the dialogue is often clunky, and the story itself takes what should be simple and makes it confusing. The acting is mixed and hung out to dry by the script, creating an easy divide between those who manage to sell their dialogue and those who don’t. The foul-mouthed mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson) is perhaps the most successful character overall, but when the guy who winkingly insults everything is capturing the viewer experience better than the “audience surrogate” protagonist, your movie has a serious problem.
Even with all that, if Mortal Kombat had nailed the action, everything else would be pretty much forgiven. But McQuoid overcuts and shifts perspective too often, softening the impact of blows and challenging our sense of the geography, a crucial part of any fight scene. The choreography sometimes struggles to tell a clear, engaging story and tends to repeat the same back-and-forth rhythm, as if the studio imposed a fights-per-minute quota that required some standardization to meet. The creative moments that work usually come down to either special effects or weapons design, which the filmmakers were clearly more inclined to show off than the stunt work. Diehard fans of the games will probably get enough out of it to justify a theater ticket, but for anyone who doesn’t have an HBO Max subscription to stream it, don’t worry – you’re not missing much.