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“Mortal Kombat” Review: Mortally Mediocre, But With Future Potential

For years, it was difficult to get too excited about movies based on video games. To say the track record of those movies is sub-par would be exceedingly generous. Unlike superhero movies, there weren’t any real gems that set too high a bar. There was no classic 1978 style “Superman” to point to as a gold standard or even a high point from a previous era.

By and large, video game movies have always sucked. I say that as someone who saw multiple “Resident Evil” movies in theaters. Trust me. That money would’ve been better spent renting the old games.

However, that finally seemed to change last year with the success of “Sonic The Hedgehog.” For the first time, a movie based on a video game was genuinely enjoyable for both casual movie-goers and fans of the game. It captured the spirit of the characters, told a compelling story, and was generally entertaining from start to finish.

Now, video game franchises have an example in which a movie based on a game didn’t suck. It gave me real hope that this could start a large trend. Finally, when Hollywood decides to make a movie based on a popular video game, we don’t have to assume it’ll be awful, underwhelming, or a wasted opportunity.

That’s why I dared myself to have high hopes for “Mortal Kombat.” When I saw the first trailer, I felt like this movie had the right look, effects, and story capture everything that makes this franchise so iconic. It was distinctly different from the previous two movies that came out in the 1990s. Those movies were cheesy as hell and did plenty to water down the violence.

Hell, just look at how Goro was portrayed. It has not aged well.

This movie had a chance to embrace the bloody, brutal aesthetics to the utmost. As such, this legendary fighting game, known for its graphic violence and pissing off certain politicians, was in a good position to further the trend that “Sonic The Hedgehog” started. I made it a point to set up my living room, just as I did for Zack Snyder’s “Justice League,” to take it all in. I went into this movie with a hopeful optimism that I never once dared for a video game movie.

Unfortunately, I think I might have been too optimistic.

I’ll even go a step further. I may have let my love of “Sonic The Hedgehog” make me forget how difficult it is to translate a video game franchise into a movie.

That’s because, by and large, I was very underwhelmed by “Mortal Kombat.” It wasn’t awful. This movie was certainly no “Super Mario Brothers.” It was just so frustratingly mediocre. The basics are there, but not much more than that. If you were expecting something bigger, bolder, or innovative with this movie, you’re going to be disappointed.

In terms of the story, there won’t be any surprises to those with a passing familiarity of Mortal Kombat lore. For centuries, there has been a secret tournament featuring the best fighters in all of Earthrealm and Outworld. The forces of Outworld, led by Shang Tsunge and Shoa Khan, seek to invade and conquer Earthrealm. In order to achieve this, they need to win one more tournament.

There’s actually a lot more history and complexity to that story, which the games have masterfully fleshed out over the years. However, there’s none of that in this movie. For the most part, it only tells first parts of that story with just a handful of familiar characters.

Plenty of the classics are there, such as Scorpion, Sub-Zero, Sonya Blade, Jax, Kano, Liu Kang, Kung Lao, and Raiden. The problem is they’re really no the driving force of that story. It’s mostly driven by Cole Young, who is not a character from any of the games. While he is a descendant of Scorpion, his story is just so plain and generic. He’s basically a Diet-Scorpion, minus the flaming skull and hell-warrior persona.

In other words, Cole lacks pretty much all of Scorpion’s most awesome traits. Yet, the movie gives him the most screen time?

I’ve got nothing against Cole. He was a decent catalyst for the events of the movie. He just was not that interesting. He was not someone who would get lifelong Mortal Kombat fans excited. If anything the opening sequence that told Scorpion’s origin story comes off as an elaborate misdirect.

You thought you were going to see Scorpion’s story play out in this movie? Well, you’re mistaken. He doesn’t show up again until the end and he’s basically just a Deus Ex Machina for the plot. As someone who wasted many quarters playing Scorpion in the arcades back in the 1990s, I felt like he deserved better.

On top of that, Cole being the protagonist basically ensured this movie did a lot of telling rather than showing. He just gets dragged along the plot with other characters basically telling him everything he needs to know about Mortal Kombat. There’s not much in terms of world-building or exploration. It’s just some exposition followed by some brutal fight scenes.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Those fight scenes are awesome. They’re probably the best part of this movie. They’re much better done than previous Mortal Kombat movies and the R-rating ensures nothing is watered down. You do get to see blood, gore, and bodily entrails, not unlike those of an appropriately brutal fatality from the game. That much, this movie gets right. It just doesn’t get much more right beyond than that.

It’s also very clear from the ending that this movie is meant to set up future movies. At this moment, no sequel has been confirmed. Given the scale and breadth of Mortal Kombat, as a franchise, I think it needs to be multiple movies. You just can’t fit the whole story into one film. This movie didn’t try to do that, but it still feels like it could’ve done a lot more to stand on its own.

After watching it, it still left me wanting to see the sequel. However, I doubt I’ll go into that movie with the same hopeful optimism I did with this one. If I had to score “Mortal Kombat,” I would give it a 2 out of 5 at most. It’s one of those movies that’s not worth going to the theaters to see, but still worth watching on premium cable or a streaming service.

In that sense, I’m very thankful that HBO Max made it available. That saved me the cost of a movie ticket and overpriced snacks.

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