The 1995 Mortal Kombat is a decent movie. It’s dumb and, as cliché as it is to say, clears the astoundingly low bar set by other video game movies, which is good enough for most people. But it’s not a particularly great film, especially when removed from the nostalgia it’s rooted in. The new 2021 Mortal Kombat film hits some of the same roadblocks as its predecessor and is still just relatively fine overall, but it’s better the ’95 debut in just about every way.
The R rating is the most obvious improvement. Gore itself doesn’t make a film, but it can make some more honest and realistic, especially one in the Mortal Kombat universe. Fights are allowed to be more brutal and involved, as evidenced by the opening scene where Hanzo Hasashi uses his famous spear dart to shred the Lin Kuei forces. It’s literally a blade on a rope so having blood splatter around as it carves through flesh is only natural (whereas appearing through a hole in someone’s hand is not).
The bloody violence in the scenes is usually relegated to the end of the fights for the Fatality-like enders as bones aren’t snapping with every punch. Melee scuffles are well-choreographed and exciting to watch even amidst the CG effects because of the solid martial arts at its core. While they aren’t as intense or as well-framed as similar scenes in films like The Raid or John Wick, the final showdown is an absolutely incredible spectacle that easily bests every other prior scene. Many films tend to lead with their best scene, but Mortal Kombat finishes with its standout.
A chilling villain
Violence also raises the stakes in addition to pumping up the action. Watching Jax get his arms frozen solid and then ripped off is horrifying and his plight is given more value because of how we’re able to see his trauma in all of its gory glory.
Sub-Zero perfectly encapsulates how violence ups the ante as he’s essentially the Terminator throughout the film. His presence is literally chilling since he constantly wreaks havoc whenever he’s around. No one is safe and the film brilliantly uses framing and lighting to portray him as an incredibly dangerous being. The scene in the abandoned building is a standout as he becomes more of a Predator than a Terminator, a wonderful callback to the inspiration behind his iconic spine-ripping Fatality. He just wouldn’t have been as threatening with a PG-13 rating.
The film makes other uses of its R rating or, rather, Kano does. He’s a filthy potty mouth and is an accurate portrayal of the Australian dirtball. It’s hard to make a kid-friendly version of a man with a moral compass of a pirate or a black market weapon dealer and Mortal Kombat embraces that. It works because he essentially becomes the much-needed comic relief of the film; a role he fills in Johnny Cage’s absence. Josh Lawson’s improvised riffs are usually worth a chuckle or two and it’s disappointing that there aren’t more characters that can bounce off or match his sense of humor.
And the fact that Kano is a scumbag is yet another way the film pays respect to the game series. Respect has been the key differentiator in the recent lot of video game adaptations and it’s obvious that this project was also handled with care. Characters dress like their video game counterparts — the Shao Kahn statue looks almost identical to his MK11 variant — and the creative liberties the team took are well within reason and help avoid it feeling like an exact carbon copy. Again, this respect is mostly enabled by the R rating, but that level of care ripples out to the rest of the film from costumes to Fatalities.
[Insert catch phrase]
However, it does get dragged down by its devotion to the games at times and overdoes it in others. There is an undeniable layer of cheese that coats the entire film like the 1995 movie that came before. It was corny then but felt like a typical ‘80s or ‘90s movie in that regard. But this film can’t quite get away with the same levels of silliness.
A lot of this silliness is derived from characters constantly spouting lines from the game. There are times where these catch phrases can be welcome nods to the games — it makes some sense that Scorpion would shout “Get over here!” when yanking someone over with his spear. But there are too many instances where it’s randomly thrown in so fans can chuckle and point at the screen like the Leonardo DiCaprio meme from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. For every earned “Get over here!” there are about three or four forced “Flawless Victories.”
Clunky lines that try too hard to please fans also come alongside a clunky script that tries too hard to please fans. Mortal Kombat is relatively easy to follow and thankfully deviates from the tournament setting the series constantly like retell over and over, but the lack of a central event makes it hard for some characters to justify their cameos. For example, Reptile has no business being in the film other than to satiate fans. It’s a creative and intense fight scene, but a random one as well.
The way characters get their powers is the ultimate form of bad fan service as it is essentially magic. Jax doesn’t start out with his big metal arms and Kano isn’t born with a laser eye yet hand waving away progression in favor of an unseen magical force is a cheap shortcut. Willing yourself the ability to shoot lasers instead of earning it through other more grounded means is unsatisfying and while it’s not impossible to externally manifest internal change, it’s just ridiculous here.
Mortal Kombat isn’t a great enough movie on its own to appeal to those who don’t know any Fatality inputs by heart because the story is too middling. But it’s got enough quality fight scenes and gore-soaked action to make it the best and most honest Mortal Kombat movie. It’s a bit disappointing that it couldn’t be more than that, especially given the storytelling qualities of the three most recent games, but for a video game movie, that’s certainly good enough.