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Why is it so hard to make a good video-game movie? The age-old question is ripe for discussion again now that there's a new Mortal Kombat hitting the big screen. This film (out Friday in theaters and on HBO Max), like many others before it, seems far more concerned with adapting the lore of a beloved game franchise than trying to replicate the experience of actually playing it.
An interesting comparison can be found by looking at comic books. Iron Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies that followed were far from the first films to adapt superhero comics for the big screen, but a major reason they blew up into a culture-swallowing juggernaut is that they came to replicate the experience of reading Marvel comics: following different characters on their own adventures in various subgenres before coming together for epic conflagrations. One of the few non-MCU superhero movies to achieve popular and critical success in the last decade, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, tackled this from another angle by mimicking the sensation of flipping through a comic book and being as wowed by the colorful art as you are by sci-fi concepts like parallel universes and alternate selves.
The new Mortal Kombat unfortunately doesn't bring the same kind of ingenuity to adapting the video games it's named after. Certainly, anyone who's played the games will recognize several of the characters here, including the fiery Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), the trained soldier Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), the insufferable cyborg Kano (Josh Lawson), and the hat-wielding Kung Lao (Max Huang). All of them pale in comparison, it must be said, to Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), who cuts through this movie like an icicle through flesh. Ask anyone who's recently seen this movie what superpower they'd want and they'll almost certainly say "ice." Sub-Zero uses his powers in an incredible multitude of ways throughout. The climactic fight of the film is even set amid a frozen panorama he created, though too often it comes off like a generic warehouse with an frigid Instagram filter thrown over it.
Warner Bros. Pictures Hiroyuki Sanada in 'Mortal Kombat'
Mortal Kombat tries a few different strategies to turn fighting-game material into a compelling narrative, none of which really work because they all bump up against each other. The main one is building the movie around an original character named Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a descendant of Sub-Zero's ancient enemy Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada). Cole seems meant as a viewpoint character through whom the audience can be introduced to the world of Mortal Kombat, but the time spent halfheartedly developing his family life and backstory as a washed-up MMA fighter means less plot space to develop the other characters, all of whom are more recognizable and more visually interesting.
Another structural technique here is the concept of a cosmic tournament in which Earth's best fighters must compete in order to protect their dimension from invasion; at one point in a particularly monotonous exposition dump, Sonya tells us that "cultures throughout history reference a great tournament" (does everything have to be Ancient Aliens?). The tournament concept is certainly one way to justify having a bunch of characters fight one another in hand-to-hand combat… except the tournament never actually happens because the fighters all get restless beforehand and start picking fights with each other anyway! Why so much screen time was wasted talking about a tournament at all is left unclear.
There is one area in which the new Mortal Kombat definitely delivers, though, and that is in fatalities. This movie has plenty of brutal, bloody kills. If you're vaccinated and watching this movie in a theater, there will be plenty of opportunities for hooting and hollering. The Mortal Kombat games' bloody death blows spurred the creation of the ESRB video-game rating system in the first place, and anyone who comes looking for that level of violence should be delighted by the sight of Kung Lao driving an opponent into his spinning razor-sharp hat, allowing the viewer to watch their entire body get cleaved in half from the top down.
Fatalities are the closest we get to the fun of playing a Mortal Kombat game, but future adapters would be better off realizing that video games are art precisely because of their unique gameplay, and not because of the silly lore that stitches cutscenes together. Perhaps it's no surprise that the movies that the best "video game movies" are those like Scott Pilgrim and Edge of Tomorrow that aren't based on specific games but rather the feeling of battling through a never-ending string of gimmicky bosses or playing the same level over and over until you finally beat the horde of enemies. Hopefully as time goes on, more filmmakers will get the hang of adapting those structural aspects, as they have with adapting comic books. Even Mortal Kombat might get more chances: The villainous Shang Tsung (Chin Han) ends the film by all but promising sequels, which certainly seems like an overestimation of my interest in Cole Young.
In the meantime, speaking of comics, if you're searching for a surprising story about iconic characters assembling for a martial arts tournament that never actually happens, you'd be better off reading the incredible recent X-Men event X of Swords. Grade: C