‘Mortal Kombat’ Again Shows Why It’s Hard To Make Video Game Movies

Last year, knowing there was a new Mortal Kombat movie coming out at some point, I remember telling myself, “I should really get into Mortal Kombat, what else do I have to do, really?” Which is a sentence I hadn’t said to myself since Mortal Kombat was on Sega Genesis. The PlayStation store was offering Mortal Kombat 11 in a package that included Injustice 2 for a surprisingly good deal, so I bought that, which also included famed Mortal Kombat characters John Rambo, RoboCop, and The Terminator.

Anyway, smash cut to today and I still haven’t played Mortal Kombat 11, but I’ve now played Injustice 2 about 25 times. And I’ve never seen the original movies (though, like my half-hearted attempt to play the newest game, I’m thinking about watching at least the first one, so this might change by the time you actually are reading this) [Update: I did] This is all my somewhat winded, but hopefully not too long way of telling you that I don’t know much about Mortal Kombat, but the thought keeps crossing my mind to learn more. Anyway, now the new Mortal Kombat movie is here and I’m watching it with the knowledge of someone who hasn’t played it since the ‘90s.

This new Mortal Kombat movie is a tough one. Do you need a working knowledge of the game? Actually, yes, at least a little bit. In that I did find myself looking up a couple of things online to answer some questions that I had. (Like, “Hey, where’s RoboCop?”) And what’s also tough is I have no idea what Mortal Kombat superfans will think since fandom, these days, has kind of turned into an all-or-nothing proposition. So I suspect people will either really love it – because no one gets their property quite like they do – or really hate it, because it’s not true to the origins of the game. There’s not much in-between anymore. Except for me, I guess. I stand firmly in-between here.

It’s weird we are, what, let’s say roughly 40 years into the modern video phenomenon (at least since Pac-Man became popular) and it still seems impossible to crack the whole “movie based on video game” genre. Then again, maybe it makes a lot of sense. Maybe it’s kind of a letdown when someone hears, “So these will be the same characters I love, only this time I have zero control over what they do.” And I bet that mindset gets into the head of filmmakers. I bet there’s at least a subconscious thought of, well, I better focus on the action instead of character development because the people who like these characters are used to action, so I will smother them in action and the character development is left to exposition.

Mortal Kombat, this new 2021 movie, has a surprising amount of plot. In that, on the surface, you might just think this is just a movie about people fighting. But there is a lot this movie has to explain about other dimensions and why the world rests in the balance of the outcome of these fights. It begins many generations ago as we see a battle between fan-favorite Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim, and at least I assume he’s a fan favorite because he’s the only Mortal Kombat character I know by heart, other than John Rambo) and Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada). We then flash forward to the present and meet Cole Young (Lewis Tan, playing, from what I can tell, a brand new character), a former MMA champion who is just not as good as he used to be, but it turns out he’s a direct descendent of Scorpion and has a special birthmark that means he’s been chosen to fight in Mortal Kombat. But a good portion of the movie is spent with Cole sulking that he doesn’t really want to fight (although I guess I can’t blame him, it doesn’t sound very appealing; you know, the whole “to the death” part). But when evil monster after evil monster keeps showing up at his house, threatening his family, he changes his mind and teams up with most of the original characters from the original game.

The tone of this movie is weird, but I kind of get what it’s going for. It basically feels like a cartoon, then all of a sudden a character will get stabbed in the head, or sawed in half, in the most gory way possible. I do remember enough about playing the game to know this is also the tone of that, but the difference is there’s something weird about it in a movie. It feels a bit more jarring. But, like I said, I at least understand what was being attempted.

There were a couple of scenes I could imagine getting huge applause in theaters. And I suspect they will get applause from the people who do wind up seeing this in theaters. (Please only go if you are fully vaccinated. We still aren’t quite out of the woods just yet.) This is a movie I think I’d have enjoyed back when I played a lot of Sega Genesis. You know, get a six-pack of the cheapest beer and sneak it into the theater, then scream as loud as you can when a finishing move was completed. Actually, I take that back, that doesn’t sound like the worst thing to even do now. (Though, the ramifications of sneaking Milwaukee’s Best into a theater do sound pretty embarrassing at my age. And I’d probably be even more confused why the Terminator didn’t show up.)

‘Moral Kombat’ opens this weekend in theaters and streams via HBO Max. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.