Configuring one’s expectations before settling down to watch the latest big (and small) screen adaptation of Mortal Kombat is something of a process. The largely wretched game-to-movie subgenre carries with it little-to-no hope at this stage, even the so-called “best” examples are seen as just about tolerable, and the last two attempts to translate Midway’s long-running fighting game failed to justify why watching these characters battle it out would be preferable to playing as them instead. As popular as the game still is (the most recent iteration has sold over 8m copies worldwide), transporting it to film is still a rather dated prospect, almost 25 years after the last version, the result of a torturous period in development hell.
So while the odds might seem stacked against it, the film also arrives at an opportune time, as cinemas are opening up again and audiences are craving bigger, gaudier events to lure them back. Just weeks after their record Godzilla vs Kong success (a hit proving that after a year of misery, appealing to our basest, silliest instincts is a surefire win right now), Warners is using the same hybrid release for Mortal Kombat, chucking it up on HBO Max and out in cinemas at the same time. The gory, red-band marketing campaign has also been quick to separate the reboot from the films that came before it, with the much-criticised PG-13 rating now replaced with a hard R, director Simon McQuoid suggesting he was just a few cuts from the film being lumbered with the dreaded NC-17. Anticipation has therefore seemed more intense than expected, a hope that what seemed like an unwanted relic could somehow be exactly the sort of big dumb thrill that many of us might be looking for at the moment.
While it doesn’t have anywhere near the same crowd-pleasing verve of Godzilla vs Kong, there’s just about enough low-rent entertainment here to pass the time, especially if that time is late and it arrives after a night of medium-to-heavy drinking. It’s all as goofy and as badly acted as one would expect yet there’s a certain schlock appeal in how it’s presented, McQuoid mercifully avoiding a grittier, more grounded take on the junky material and keeping things sprightly and mostly lacking in self-seriousness. The ramshackle plot is a challenge to follow, darting between fight scene to filler back to fight scene but it centres on Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a sub-par MMA fighter who finds out there’s more to life than having his family watch him get beaten up for $200 a pop. He’s recruited to take part in a tournament between the Earthrealm and the Outrealm alongside others who also share his birthmark.
We’re thrown an ungodly amount of ungainly jargon in Greg Russo and Dave Callaham’s clunky, at times incoherent, script but never expected to know much more than the basics: this is a fight between good and evil and the fights are really what we should be paying the most attention to. As the main selling point of the film, there’s certainly a lot of them and with McQuoid granted the freedom to push the limits of the R rating, they’re as vigorously violent as any player of the game would expect. As a martial arts film, it’s a bit of a mess with imprecise or at least imprecisely edited choreography hampering our involvement but as a video game film, there’s something kinetic and gnarly enough about the fights to make them pop. There’s a nasty, rousing energy to them, well-grafted from the world of the game and surrounded by a substantial amount of dedicated fan service (from lines, moves and locations all dragged over from console to cinema), gamers should feel mostly nourished. For those new to the world, it’s an almost deliberately confusing entry point, discordant scenes crashing up against each other with too many characters talking about too many things at once but paced for those with the shortest of attention spans, there are enough shiny things to serve as distraction.
The less said about the actors the better (each impressive technically but otherwise allowed to do little more than cosplay) and while McQuoid’s slick trash aesthetic works in bursts, at other times it feels only a very small rung above a cheapo DTV film of the past. Mortal Kombat would have benefited from a number of things – a sharper sense of humour, a more coherent script, some tighter editing, less techno music – but its sheer manic energy might just about be enough for some. For the rest, more alcohol should help.
Mortal Kombat is released on HBO Max and US cinemas and on 6 May in the UK on digital platforms.