Videogame movies are often the eye of a very specific storm. That storm is accuracy versus adaptation. Movies based on games, books, comics and uh, board games are always subject to this kind of discourse, but especially videogames. From Street Fighter to Sonic the Hedgehog, fans are always picking apart, dissecting and separating the references, source material accuracy and stuff the filmmakers made up.
While movies like Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog have been recent successes, nobody really agrees on what makes a videogame movie good. Mortal Kombat, the next big movie to hit our strange moment’s theaters/HBO Max subscriptions, makes a strong case for the making stuff up part. The flick uses an original character, omissions and deviations from videogame lore that tighten things up into a movie-sized package without compromising that distinct Mortal Kombat-ness.
Mortal Kombat 2021 Movie Review
In a world in which every damn fandom-juiced movie has to be at least two and a half hours long, Mortal Kombat slides under the two hour mark, and that includes the opening logo montage and credit roll. It’s a breezy flick that doesn’t waste time, nor does it sacrifice any coherency with obvious time-saving edits or other jarring narrative transitions. There’s a simple story here, and the movie sticks with it. That simple story just happens to be bookended with a centuries-long blood feud between everyone’s favorite supernatural ninjas. Otherwise, it’s a story about a dude who gets wrapped up in some nonsense but deals with it because he loves his family. Easy stuff.
That dude is Mortal Kombat’s original character, Cole Young. We don’t really get a lot from Cole in terms of lore or explicit backstory. He’s what we call an “audience surrogate,” a technique writers can use to help wade audiences into unrealistic stories. Not only does Cole take the audience into the role, he ultimately doesn’t have a huge impact on the Mortal Kombat parts.
The other weird thing is how all the fighters come to be involved with the whole Mortal Kombat thing. They have these corny marks on their skin that resemble the iconic dragon logo, and that means they’re chosen heroes or whatever. This is more eyebrow-raising than Cole, but in the end it’s only really used to add some substance into one of the characters. It’s a net gain, and barely impacts anything else.
Now, when it comes to “omissions,” I mean the movie plays a bit of pick and choose with its “roster.” Obviously the movie is a pseudo adaptation of the first game or the Mortal Kombat story’s first chapter, in which we’re introduced to folks like Sonya Blade, Jax and Liu Kang for the first time. From the first game’s roster Johnny Cage is missing, and some characters from elsewhere in Mortal Kombat lore are added.
Not only does this mix things up a bit, it also modernizes the ensemble a bit to account for how messy the Mortal Kombat mythology is anyway. The characters serve their roles well, and all of the fight scenes are legitimately fun to watch. There’s a bit of the ol’ shaky cam, but it’s largely in service to the choreography which is usually clear and easy to follow. There’s a lot of clever usage of everyone’s special abilities, and each character has a digestible bespoke fighting style.
All this said, it’s important to remember we’re talking about Mortal Kombat here. It’s a miracle this movie is coherent at all, and that the tone and, well, filmic structure aren’t a mess. There are silly moments such as when more… direct references to the games are made, but as far as having an internal logic, interesting story dynamics and totally solid martial arts sequences are concerned Mortal Kombat hits its target. Could it have been better? Who can say? But what you can do is point to things about this flick beyond using the dreaded “enjoyable” take.