When I was growing up, first we had Street Fighter, and everyone was obsessed. We were like little drug addicts, congregating in liquor stores and dingy arcades, where kids from all walks of life would come together to beat up each other’s avatars in this irresistible game, and afterward wander around itching and begging for quarters like pre-pubescent crackheads. For a perfect snapshot of this time, there’s an episode of Baywatch where someone throws a beer can at Hobie, and then later Mitch smells it and thinks he’s been drinking, but it turns out Hobie was just playing Street Fighter in a weird little convenience store surrounded by delinquents instead, which is almost the same thing.
Have I set the scene well enough? Okay, well Mortal Kombat was basically the dingier, grosser, more extreme version of Street Fighter. If Street Fighter was Baywatch, Mortal Kombat was your uncle’s porn. We had to go over to the arcade in the bad part of town to play that one, a game with blood and gore where players openly vied to murder each other, just for the thrill of it. This was both revolutionary and seemed instinctively “wrong,” and everything about playing it made you feel slightly dirtier afterwards. This is all a long way of saying that for as much as I’ve ridiculed video game adaptations over the years, Mortal Kombat, an insanely dumb cash grab that I had to watch alone in my bedroom, shamefully, because it has far too much gore and swear words for my seven-year-old stepson, who surely would’ve loved it, made me feel almost exactly the same way.
Firstly I would recommend skipping the first 20 or 30 minutes of this movie. It sets up the plot and the characters but scarcely has a movie’s appeal relied less on characters and plots. It is meant to be viewed while chuckling stonedly at the catchphrases you recognize between asking “wait, what?” at the story developments. Paying too much attention to the latter spoils the effect.
All of the characters from the video games are there (I think?). Only now, some of them are part of Earthworld, while others are from Outworld, a meaner, more brutal version of Earth, that wants to dominate Earth, which it can by winning the latest iteration of Mortal Kombat. Outworld is a place that’s, like, bad, you see, and the Earthworld characters — among them Liu Kang, Sonya Blade, the glowing-eyed demi-God Raiden, and main character Cole Young, a family-man MMA fighter — have to defend it from the Outworld bad guys: Sub-Zero, Kabal, Shang Tsung, and various monsters. There, you’re caught up.
In essence, it’s the Avengers blueprint. Some bad guys from another world come here and want to rule. The difference here is that there’s no sheen of all this being some kind of social good, where powerful heroes are meant to both inspire and protect humanity. These characters are all just meat sacks for the grist mill, there to avenge their ancestors and satisfy our blood lust and nothing more. Yes, making an R-rated movie out of a nineties video game is a dumb idea, with inspiration that is purely commercial. Its very existence raises a number of questions. Is it for kids? If so, then why R-rated? And based on a game they wouldn’t remember? Is it for adults? Then why based on a video game for kids? Yet in this case, the entire endeavor is so pointless that it almost becomes art.
Something about Mortal Kombat‘s total lack of pretense towards nutritional value is weirdly refreshing. When Kung Lao, the character who wears the bladed hat, turned his hat into a circular saw on the ground and used it to bisect a bad lady in half lengthwise only seconds after she’d been introduced, complete with glistening CGI gore, I nearly cackled. Likewise, the constant and unnecessary swearing, presumably present only to make us feel like we’re sneaking cigarettes behind the autoshop building, is consistently entertaining, and a weirdly perfect complement for all the otherwise stilted dialogue like “Silence!” and “I have come back from hell to avenge my family.”
When Cole Young, the MMA fighter, and his wife, survive an attack by Goro, the four-armed monster, she tells her young teen daughter casually, while packing up the family’s things, “I just wanna get out of here, fuck another four-armed monster showing up.”
Fuck another four-armed monster showing up. I had to pause and rewind. This sentence belongs in the Louvre.
The whole movie is written like this, a mix of uncanny valley broken English videogame speak, Joss Whedonesque smarm, and a 12-year-old who just watched Eddie Murphy’s Raw for the first time. It evokes the same feeling that the Mortal Kombat videogame offered, that somewhere on Earth, there lived an unscrupulous man who believed that America’s youth desperately wanted to watch characters impale, behead, immolate, and bludgeon each other. He probably hated us, but he was right.