Review: Mortal Kombat

Mortal Kombat (2021)

The pathway from video game to film has been oh-so-tempting for Hollywood over the years. You have a successful, beloved intellectual property with a built-in audience just lying there for the taking. All you have to do is pick it up and run to the bank. (And plan for the inevitable sequels, of course.) But, in reality, this has been a long road lined with sad and often terrible examples of attempts to adapt one form of entertainment for another. 

 

The problem is, a video game generally doesn’t need a lot of premise and backstory—just give it enough to make it an interesting concept and then throw the player into the action and let them know what the end goal is. If the gameplay is good and fun, it will be a success. A movie, however, needs to have an interesting story with well-written dialogue delivered by 

interesting and believable characters. No matter how dazzling the effects or action sequences, if there isn’t enough substance to hold it together and move it along between these big set pieces, it will be a failure.

 

When you talk of video games having—and missing—their game-to-film translation, Mortal Kombat is on the shortlist.

 

I can remember when the first Mortal Kombat game hit arcades in 1992. It was a sensation that looked and played unlike any other game that had been released to that point, with realistic-looking (for the time) human characters that stood toe-to-toe fighting to the death, beating the hell out of each other including visible blood spray. And then, when the fight was over, the winner was allowed to perform a gruesome finishing move on the other player (if they knew 

KOMBAT AT A GLANCE

Finally, an R-rated Kombat film that’s brutally faithful to the game franchise.

 

PICTURE
The experience will depend partly on your streaming device, but images are mostly clean, sharp, and detailed, with some scenes looking soft.

 

SOUND     

The Dolby Atmos mix is pretty active and engaging, with lots of video-game-like surround effects.

the right secret button/joystick combination) known as a “Fatality.” People would line up to play and watch, hoping to learn some new special move, or see a new Fatality performed.

 

With each version of the game, it just got bigger—more characters, more weapons, more fighting locations, more hidden Easter Eggs increased, and more violence, especially the fatalities, which ratcheted up in gruesomeness exponentially.

 

After becoming one of the most successful fighting games in history—with rich and deeply developed often interwoven backstories for its multiple characters by creators Ed Boon and John Tobias—it was bound to attract Hollywood’s attention, and in 1995 Warner Brothers gave us the first Mortal Kombat film. (And, yes, I did go to the theater and see it on opening night, thank you very much.) Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, this film actually did a pretty good job of bringing the game to the screen, with some elaborate fight scenes, and featuring many of the game’s beloved characters. However, its PG-13 rating hindered it from truly tapping into the game’s spirit. 

 

This was followed up in 1997 with Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, which was, well, terrible. The effects and acting were dismal, the movie tried to cram in too many characters and introduced a game concept—Animalities—that just fell flat. And with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 2%, needless to say, critics were not kind.

 

While the Mortal Kombat gaming franchise continued to see regular updates, the failure of Annihilation cooled the film series more than an ice blast from Sub-Zero. 

 

Cut to 2010 and a video supposedly “accidentally” uploaded to YouTube resurrected Hollywood’s interest. Kevin Tancharoen directed and shot Mortal Kombat: Rebirth essentially as a pitch to demonstrate to studios how he envisioned rebooting the franchise. This short film quickly gained viral traction and was the gritty, dark, rooted-in-reality Mortal Kombat that many wanted from an MK film. Warner, however, wasn’t ready to back a film, instead greenlighting Tancharoen to make a generally well received Web series titled Mortal Kombat: Legacy, which lasted two seasons from 2011 to 2013. Tancharoen thought he was in line to make a third Mortal Kombat film, but it never materialized, and he detached his name from the project. 

 

In 2015, the Kombat ball started rolling again, with James Wan of Saw and Insidious fame signing on to produce a reboot. A script was completed in 2019, with filming to be done in South Australia. The film’s release was originally set for a March release, before being moved up to January, and then moved back to April 16, before finally releasing in both theaters and HBO Max on April 23. 

 

As a long-time fan of the franchise, I had been eagerly awaiting this new installment with an R rating that promised to be truer to the game’s violent nature, including Fatalities, especially after the film’s Red Band trailer dropped on February 18, 2021. (Apparently, initial cuts of the film were a little too game-accurate, as it initially bordered on receiving an NC-17 rating and required some edits and trims to get the MPAA to give it an R.) 

 

The film begins fantastically, opening in 17th-century Japan with Lin Kuei ninja assassin Bi-Han/Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) leading a group of fighters to confront Hanzo Hasashi/Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) of the rival Shirai Ryu clan and his family. Fans of the game franchise will know that these two are long-term bitter enemies, but the movie tells you nearly everything you need to know about how these characters feel towards each other in the opening moments, as well as that some characters have superhuman abilities and that the fighting scenes will be fast and brutal. 

 

From here we cut to our time, where we learn that the realm of Outworld—the most brutal and murderous of all the realms—and home of soul-eating sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) is only one death-match tournament away from conquering Earthrealm. The name of these tournaments? Mortal Kombat. Shang Tsung sends his warriors to Earthrealm to find and kill those chosen to be Earth’s champions, people identified by a dragon-mark tattoo.

 

Here on Earth, ex-Special Forces member Jax (Mehcad Brooks) is also searching for these champions, and he finds former MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan). After Young and his family are attacked by Sub-Zero, Jax sends him to see his old teammate, Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), where she is keeping another person with the dragon tattoo, smart-mouthed Kano (Josh Lawson).

 

Together this group heads off to the temple of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), a protector of Earthrealm, where they meet two other chosen fighters, Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang), where they begin their fight training with the goal of unlocking their “arcana,” a special unique power given to all chosen fighters, all the while trying to fend off attacks from Shang Tsung’s warriors.

 

Mortal Kombat is a fun, violent (especially the final act), mostly entertaining movie that will likely have the most appeal for fans of the game franchise, who will appreciate the subtle nods to the franchise sprinkled liberally throughout as well as the 15 characters (at least by my count) represented. Many of the cast are trained fighters, and the skill is evident in the fight scenes, which are all cool and brutal and showcase each fighter’s individual skills and talents, with many moves lifted straight from the game. And for those worried the film wouldn’t be able to capture the game’s brutality, rest assured that the numerous fatalities—including Kung Lao’s hat buzzsaw—are well represented. 

 

For me, the opening scene between Sub-Zero and Hasashi in Japan offered some of the best parts of the film, and I wish it could have retained this feeling and spirit throughout, being less a video-game movie and having more an epic feel. I liked that the film took itself seriously, and kept the jokes—mostly limited to quips from Kano that helped lighten the mood—to a minimum. (I always found the Johnny Cage character from the 1995 film to be a little too tongue-in-cheek.) 

 

When the film tried to get deep into the lore of the Mortal Kombat’s mythology, with characters trying to explain things in dialogue that works fine in a video game but becomes complicated or awkward to relate in exposition—or when cutting back to Outworld to insert some plot point—it bogged down a bit, and will likely become less entertaining to non-gamers. Also, the third act felt a bit rushed, like they were in a bit of a hurry to get to the climax and wrap things up. 

 

Shot on Arri at 4.5K, the HBO Max presentation is sourced from a 4K digital intermediate. Of course, when streaming, you’re limited by a variety of factors, so individual streaming experience with vary. I found the images to be mostly clean, sharp, and detailed, but some scenes—especially the opening—had a softness to them. Usually when watching a film sourced from a 4K DI, I notice the enhanced resolution and detail in many shots, but that wasn’t the case here. It isn’t that the film looked bad—it just had the potential to look better, and we’ll have to wait for an eventual 4K Blu-ray or Kaleidescape download to see its full potential.

 

Even still, we get some nice detail in closeups that reveal the scarring and battle-wear on characters’ faces, or to appreciate the texture and craftsmanship in different costumes. The CGI is also quite good, especially the all-digital Prince Goro, who moves and fights with believable realism—well, as believable as any four-armed super-being from Outworld can be. Images are also mostly clean throughout, with just one scene—when Earth’s heroes are transported to an almost all-white void—that was plagued with some digital noise, which could have been compression artifacts introduced from streaming. 

 

Mortal Kombat definitely benefits from HDR, with lots of scenes shot in dark locations—inside buildings, at night, in caves—where we retain good shadow detail while still getting bright, punchy highlights. Scenes like Jax walking around a dark warehouse with a flashlight or the fluorescent lights in Sonya’s trailer all pop. Effects scenes like Lord Raiden’s lightning bolts or the bright-red beam from Kano’s eye laser, the glowing armor on Young’s suit, or fireballs all have lots of vivid colors and detail. 

 

Sonically, the Dolby Atmos track is pretty active and engaging. But, as I’ve found with other HBO Max films streamed through my Apple 4KTV, I needed to bump the volume about 10 dB higher than my normal listening level to really experience the dynamics and low end. 

 

From the opening scenes, we get the subtle ambience of forest sounds filling the space, followed by a room-filling thunder- and rainstorm. The speakers are also used effectively to help you locate characters moving around the space, such as Sub-Zero creeping around behind you or Reptile scurrying around the back of the room, through the sides, and up into the ceiling. 

 

The height speakers are also actively used to put you into the moment, such as when Sub-Zero unleashes a snow flurry with chunks of ice hurtling and smashing from the ceiling and down all around the space, or when Raiden puts a protected forcefield around the characters, which you can hear swirling around the room, or when Nitara (Mel Jarnson) flies around the space and screeches overhead. The fight scenes also see much use of all speakers, with characters being slammed up into the ceiling, thrown into the side walls, blades whooshing past overhead, and fire engulfing the space. 

 

As a fan of the franchise, I wasn’t disappointed, and I enjoyed the latest Mortal Kombat reboot. But I also didn’t leave feeling like I’d gotten exactly the movie I really wanted. Fortunately, the end sets the film up for a sequel—and co-writer Greg Russo said he has plans for this to be the first in a trilogy of films—so there will likely be more Kombat in our future. For HBO Max subscribers that can handle a bit of brutality with their fantasy, Mortal Kombat makes for a fun (adult)night at your theater.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

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