For a series about people getting their spines ripped out, Mortal Kombat has a surprising amount of story. the fighting franchise has amassed a large mythos, filled with histories, lore, and motivations for its many combatants, which are mostly used to answer the question of why somebody is having their spine and / or arms removed. You wouldn’t really know that from watching the new movie, though. The film features plenty of callouts to the games — gruesome fatalities, goofy one-liners, and lots of familiar faces — but it never stops long enough to tell you why you should care about anything. It’s also not particularly fun, despite all of the aforementioned ripped-off arms.
Mortal Kombat largely follows the same basic premise as the games, where champions from Earth face off against creatures from a place called the Netherrealm in a fighting tournament, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. In the movie, there’s a slight twist as Earth’s champions are chosen for this task — and they know they’re chosen because they all have matching Mortal Kombat dragon logo birthmarks. Unfortunately, their Netherrealm counterparts have decided not to play fair and are hunting down Earth fighters ahead of the tournament, so that they can win by default.
Of course, that premise is mostly just a way to explain the action, and, for the most part, the film does deliver on that front. In the early stages, you get to see exactly why Sub-Zero is so feared; he uses his ice powers to terrorize an entire city block and, yes, rip off someone’s arms. (Sorry Jax.) Later, when the two realms face off, it’s an incredible spectacle. There’s a sequence where an invisible Reptile is stabbed with a flare so he can be tracked in the dark, as well as an absolutely brutal battle with a very CG-looking Goro — Mortal Kombat’s iconic four-armed warrior — who doesn’t have four arms by the end.
But the story gets in the way of all that. The setup is a bit like a big superhero epic, with a bunch of superpowered folks banding together to fight a common foe. But unlike, say, The Avengers or even Justice League, Mortal Kombat doesn’t spend nearly enough time introducing its huge cast. The first half of the almost two-hour-long movie is a blur, racing from one character to the next, while also trying to set up the rules of this unique fantasy world.
It’s both too much and not enough: there’s an overwhelming amount of information, but the movie doesn’t give you a reason to care about any of it. I couldn’t tell you much about the main cast aside from basic details like “washed-up MMA fighter” or “really serious army guy.” There are plenty of dramatic moments and twists where it’s clear the movie wants you to be emotionally invested, but they never hit as intended. It’s also seriously lacking a sense of humor. The closest thing to a joke you’ll find is when someone points out that “kombat” is spelled wrong.
The movie is actually at its best when it mimics the games. In a sequence toward the end, fighters are warped around the world for one-on-one battles complete with gruesome fatalities. There are a lot of deaths in Mortal Kombat, and, just like in the games, they’re gleefully sadistic. Heads get sawed in half, limbs are lopped off, and blood flows freely. Someone even says “flawless victory” after a particularly bloody kill. The fighting is a great mixture of almost balletic martial arts and vicious violence. It looks cool and it hits hard.
There just isn’t enough of it. If Mortal Kombat was nothing more than a steady stream of carefully choreographed fights and inventive deaths, I’d be all for it. That’s kind of the franchise’s whole deal. But instead it spends far too much energy on the how and why, without actually delving deep enough to make either compelling. It wants to be both a ridiculous action movie and a serious one, and those two sides never fully gel. Even worse, it’s barely a complete story; instead of a true ending, Mortal Kombat finishes with a giant tease for another movie. It’s like a two-hour-long prologue.
Playing Mortal Kombat is brutal and bloody, but it’s also a lot of fun — the movie is missing out on much of the latter.