For a series about people getting their spines pulled out, Mortal Kombat has a surprising amount of story. Over three decades, the fighting franchise has amassed a great mythos, filled with histories, knowledge, and motivations for its many warriors, usually used to answer the question: why someone’s spine and / or arms removed. However, you wouldn’t really know that from watching the new movie. The movie features a lot of callouts to the games – gruesome fatalities, crazy one-liners, and lots of familiar faces – but it never stops long enough to tell you why you should care. It’s not particularly fun either, despite all the aforementioned raised arms.
Mortal Kombat largely follows the same premise as the games, where champions of Earth compete against creatures from a place called the Netherrealm in a fighting tournament, with the fate of the world at stake. There’s a little twist in the movie because the champions of the Earth are chosen for this task – and they know they’ve been chosen because they all match Mortal Kombat Dragon logo birthmarks. Sadly, their counterparts in Netherrealm have decided not to play fair and are preying on Earth fighters before the tournament so they can win by default.
Of course, that premise is usually just a way of explaining the action, and for the most part, the film does deliver results on that front. In the early stages, you get to see exactly why Sub-Zero is so feared; he uses his ice powers to terrorize an entire city block and, yes, rip off someone’s arms. (Sorry Jax.) Later, when the two realms face off, it’s an incredible spectacle. There’s a sequence where an invisible reptile is stabbed with a torch for tracking in the dark, as well as an absolutely brutal fight with a very CG looking Goro – Mortal Kombatthe iconic four-armed warrior – who doesn’t have four arms at the end.
But the story gets in the way of all that. The setup is a bit like a big superhero epic, with a bunch of super-powered people teaming up to fight a common enemy. But unlike, for example The Avengers or even Justice League, Mortal Kombat doesn’t spend nearly enough time introducing its massive cast. The first half of the nearly two-hour film is a blur, racing from one character to another, while also trying to set the rules of this unique fantasy world.
It’s both too much and not enough: there’s an overwhelming amount of information, but the movie doesn’t give you any reason to care. I couldn’t tell you much about the main cast apart from basic details like ‘washed up MMA fighter’ or ‘really serious army man’. There are plenty of dramatic moments and twists where the film is clear want you get invested emotionally, but they never hit as intended. It also seriously lacks a sense of humor. The closest joke to you is when someone points out that “kombat” is misspelled.
The movie is actually at its best when it mimics the games. In a series towards the end, fighters around the world are warped for one-on-one combat, complete with gruesome fatalities. There are a lot of of deaths in Mortal Kombat, and, just like in the games, they are cheerfully sadistic. Heads are sawn in half, limbs are chopped off, and blood flows freely. Someone even says “spotless victory” after a particularly bloody murder. The fights are a great mix of almost balletic martial arts and vile violence. It looks cool and it hits hard.
There just isn’t enough of it. If Mortal Kombat was nothing more than a steady stream of carefully choreographed fights and inventive deaths, I’d be all for it. That’s kind of the whole deal of the franchise. But instead, it spends way too much energy on the how and why, without really digging deep enough to make either of them attractive. It wants to be both a ridiculous action movie and a serious one, and those two sides never fully gel. Worse, it’s hardly a complete story; instead of a real ending, Mortal Kombat ends with a massive plague for another movie. It’s like a two-hour prologue.
Play Mortal Kombat is cheeky and gory, but it’s also a lot of fun – the film lacks a lot of the latter.