Mortal Kombat (2021), a Valiant Attempt at a Video Game Adaptation

I am without a doubt a lifelong Mortal Kombat fan, I can’t remember when I first started playing it but I have memories of GBA fights at school, hours spent on the PS3 playing Mortal Kombat 9 or Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, and most recently memories of playing MKX in the evenings at university. But I was never a die-hard fan, I haven’t dived deep into the catalogue of games, comics, films and more that the franchise offers, this probably comes from the fact that despite my love of fighting games I’m really really bad at them, my interest often dwindling after spending hours trying to perfect a combo only to get completely bodied by computer and human players alike. But nevertheless I’m always down to play MK at the drop of a hat and I’m familiar enough with the characters to become excited at the announcement of a new Mortal Kombat movie when it was announced in May last year. 

Upon it being released, it was fair to say the reaction was mixed. Many citing it as a fun, inspired adaptation of the franchise, with others feeling disappointed in the end result. Unfortunately I feel like I end up in the latter category, coming away from this reboot feeling let down. I think there are a lot of positives to the film, and it’s certainly not a complete write-off, but the problems that do exist are painfully clear to see.

First I think it should be clear that I doubt any good faith critic went into this film expecting a musing allegory for the mundanity of life or anything particularly profound, and nor should they, Without disrespecting the screenwriters this is hardly the type of film that needs thought provoking writing. But the writing that is included is….. rough, to say the least. With clunky exposition, moments of heavily forced emotions, and the bare-minimum of characterisation leave the film feeling shallow. Even with a film like Mortal Kombat no-one is expecting incredibly deep and rich characters, but all the dialogue feels so generic and forced that ironically the characters feel like arcade game characters; only screen deep.

Visually the film is a very mixed bag, and the divide between good and bad is very clear, and it comes in the form of the special effects. When the film looks good, it’s during the fights that don’t require much CGI like the warehouse fight between Jax & Sub-Zero and the house in Sonya Blade’s house between Sonya and Kano, meanwhile fights like the Cole Young & Goro fight and the Kabal & Liu Kang stick out like a sore thumb due to the way the actors engage with the special effects. The latter of the two also suffers from the production design too as Kabal’s suits, without the special effects help, looks clunky and awkward during the hand-to-hand section of the fight, and during the climax of the fight the special effects make it look awkward and messy. While I’m working off of purely assumption, I wonder if the fact that this film is Simon McQuoid’s debut feature film has any impact on this, as maybe his lack of experience with special effects contributed to those scenes feeling more clunky and awkward, but it really is a stark difference to the sleek direction of some of the earlier, more “basic” (for lack of a better term) sequences.

The production design throughout is inconsistent, with many of the costumes and locations looking great, Sub-Zero’s design and armour being the stand-out favourite for myself. Similarly many of the locations, like the fitting pit and temple, look superb, again with the frozen gym at the end of the film being a particular favourite of mine. But there are other times where the costumes look very boring, often opting for a more realistic costume design over a more out-there video game influenced one. This may seem like a nit-picky complaint but to me it seems to be another example of the ‘gritty-real world influenced’ trend we see in movies nowadays, when the games are noted for their over-the-top, fantastical designs. While it was fun seeing a faithful Goro on screen, the way in which Katana’s design and Reptile’s look are produced feel so ehh when compared to the source material. One of the most egregious examples of this, for me, comes in the form of Raiden’s look. The character is such a threatening and iconic looking character in the original series, and while I think it’s amazing that Tadanobu Asano plays the role, his design and presence in the film feels very neutered and subdued, while narratively he’s clearly a strong fighter, his robes feel very boring, his lightening eyes look cloudy, and he’s never presented or framed in anyway that gives him a sense of presence.

One of the biggest complaints I have about the film comes down to the fight sequences. In a film based on ANY fighting game, the fights have to be amazing. It’s what everyone is there for, and this film doesn’t deliver the promised goods. Don’t get me wrong there’s lots of really cool sequences, including some really fun fatality moments, but throughout the film there are noticeably sloppy moments during the fights. As I’ve probably made clear by my earlier paragraph, I didn’t expect much in terms of a story or characters and the film under delivered there, but what I was expecting was Ip Man levels of fight choreography, after all this is a blockbuster film with a budget of $55 million, but it still looks bad at times. There are some really strong sequences that I mention elsewhere but moments like Kano fighting the invisible Reptile look terrible. This example also comes down partially to the special effects problems mentioned above, but the moments of Kano, Sonya and Cole taking swings at nothing look really janky, and later on in the film there’s similar moments during the climactic battle where punches are thrown awkwardly and the smash-cut editing makes the fight flow clumsily.

Circling back to my introduction about my personal history with Mortal Kombat, for a fan of the franchise there is a lot to love about this film. Whether it be the gore, which there definitely could have been more of, the easter eggs or the use of music, there’s a strong sense of nostalgia that runs throughout the film. The electronic music lifts and borrows from the original soundtracks and adds that sense of style onto the fight sequences, with the opening sequence in the rural Japanese village being a great example of this. While the sequence is framed like it could be the start to a classic Samurai revenge film, the use of the electronic music keeps it firmly rooted in the fantasy of the franchise. Similarly the use of iconic MK characters, references and gags means that you’re never far away from cracking a smile as a character does a particular move, or a fatality happens or even the voice-over announcing “flawless victory”. This adds a lot of fun to the film, especially for fans of the franchise. Despite my issues with this film, I did enjoy it. I probably wouldn’t call it good, but I would go as far to say that it was a valiant effort, and I think the direction shows a lot of potential moving forward if the franchise is going to expand as it hints that it will.

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