There’s a moment of clarity at the beginning of Mortal Kombat, where the action is exciting, the violence potent, and dialogue minor enough to never come off pretentious or meandering. The scene proceeds long enough for me to almost believe I was in for a genuinely compelling samurai action picture. Things only go south from there as the film turns into less of the fantastical adventure and more of a series of full-motion video clips in a video game. While the video game curse may be dead, the ills of fanservice are still alive and well in this sloppy serving of fighting-game filmmaking.
Mortal Kombat has the appearance of a film that was brutally savaged on the cutting room floor given how inexplicable all of it looks. It would seem that such a plot wouldn’t be too dense to juggle consider the essential story of the games and many media involves the Earth realm defending itself from the sinister Outworld realm in the form of a tournament for dominance. Earth’s greatest warriors battle against Outworld’s wealth of vicious creatures with multiple teeth and arms. The problem is that the script is bloated with so much setup and character insertions that there isn’t even time for the tournament. Or to explain, well, any of this.
The generational feud between the frost-wielding Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) and the skilled swordsman Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is at least mildly compelling. They have a feud that lasts beyond the grave and realms, ultimately culminating with them battling one another as the characters of Sub-Zero and Scorpion. But, wait, what feud did they initially have that led to this point? There’s no time for that explanation. There isn’t even time to give a reasonable explanation why they decided to adopt the silly names of the video game. They’ll just literally state they’re now Sub-Zero and Scorpion and you’ll just have to accept it because game lore requires they take these names for some reason.
Hanzo’s descendent of Cole Young (Lewis Tan) has inherited the mark of his ancestor that unwittingly makes him a player in the battle for Earth’s fate. Labeled with a tattoo, this marking apparently grants special powers to any who inherits them. In Cole’s case, he can turn his skin into armor and form swords. But he can apparently only summon this power if he’s properly trained and beaten up. The lengths to which these powers can extend knows no bounds, where everything from laser-beam eyes to enhanced cybernetics can be achieved. It’s a wide net to explain how the characters and their weird abilities transfer out of the games and onto the screen.
The film is mostly just a series of fights that are well-staged here and there but also chaotically edited with an abundance of special effects. As if to stress how darker this film is compared to the previous Mortal Kombat movie, all of the violence is treated with a certain earnestness that spends most of its time tap-dancing around the silliness of the games. This awkward staging leads to many of the Easter egg lines of “fatality” and “flawless victory” feeling completely dead on arrival.
It’s not like the rest of the dialogue is compelling either. Nearly every exchange outside of the fights is an exposition dump that is pitifully punctuated by sad attempts at injecting humor. Scenes, where characters attempt to make a reference or declare something as being bad-ass just, don’t work, mostly because the delivery is so bland it feels as though the actors are embarrassed to say such dialogue. And a film like this should feel fun when you’ve got guys with robot arms and throwing hats that cut people in half. But when everything else is treated so seriously to the point of boredom, the silly backup comes off as too little too late.
With all of this time spent on explaining what characters are doing and the mechanics of superpowers, so much of this story just feels random. We’re never given a proper introduction to Outworld outside of it being a bad place filled with bad people. An opening text (delivered after the opening fight scene) and brief explanations from the Earth realm’s wise wizard of Raiden is all we have to go on.
But aside from the mechanics of the tournament being vague, where we never fully know who is regulating any of this with rules being broken all over the place, we also don’t get much of any character introductions. Characters show up randomly for little reason other than to say “here’s Kung Lao” and “here’s Kabal”. They all have relations to the characters at least but they appear so abruptly that even though I recognized these characters instantly, I found myself baffled at how many were thrown at the screen.
Mortal Kombat commits the ultimate sin of a video game movie, where you feel like you’re watching cutscenes you wish you could skip through. Most video game cutscenes are little more than stagings to connect level 1 to level 2. This is the case with such a film that feels more likes it’s committed to hitting all those referential checkboxes for the fans than ever presenting a film with a flow to its bloody violence.
Believe me, I want to love a film where a dagger is formed out of frozen blood and robot arms smash a head into gruesome chunks. But when those are the major highlights in a film that is mostly wall-to-wall dry exchanges with lousy delivery, there’s little reason to stick around for dreary in-betweens of what could’ve been a brutal action bonanza. You need more than fatalities to make a Mortal Kombat movie work, considering you already get all of that from the many video games. And you don’t even have to sit through the tired attempts at pathos and humor to get to that sweet sensation of a Flawless Victory!