If there was ever a film that was given a free pass because we are in the throes of a pandemic, it's Mortal Kombat — a movie so sloppy that surviving it almost requires a vaccination of its own.
Directed by Simon McQuoid and produced by James Wan, Mortal Kombat makes the same mistake that Gareth Edwards' 2014 Godzilla did. It picks the wrong dude as its protagonist. An infinitely more interesting story is teased in the prologue, only for it to be discarded almost immediately in favour of a generic hero's tale.
Watch Mortal Kombat trailer here
Like Godzilla, which made the baffling decision to make Aaron Taylor Johnson its lead instead of Bryan Cranston, Mortal Kombat is almost overeager in its hurry to move past its arresting opening sequence, featuring a face-off between Hanzo Hasashi and Bi-Han. Casual fans of the long-running video game series upon which this film is based would perhaps recognise them as the legendary foes Scorpion and Sub-Zero.
Played by the always excellent Hiroyuki Sanada and The Raid's Joe Taslim, the two characters share a history that spans generations. But just when things are about to get interesting in that medieval Japan-set prologue, the film chooses to, as Eminem would say, snap back to reality.
And that is when our real hero, Cole Young, stands up. Cole doesn't know this, but he has been marked as one of the Chosen Ones; the Earthrealm's representatives in a mythical 'tournament' known as Mortal Kombat. The Earthrealm, we are told in expository scenes that have no place in a film that spells 'combat' with a K, has lost nine tournaments in a row to the Outworld. Losing the tenth would mean total surrender.
A new generation of fighters is being put together by Lord Raiden, played by Tadanobu Asano, setting up a central thrust that aims not only to power this film, but also its inevitable sequels. At this point, studios aren't even playing coy about copying the Marvel formula — Mortal Kombat is nothing but a gorier, stupider, and less attractive 'skin' of the Avengers films.
The violence in it isn't designed to make you wince, however. In many ways, it is meant to evoke the sort of reaction that follows a good jump scare in a horror movie — a soft chuckle perhaps, begrudging admiration at having been caught off guard.
The famous 'fatalities' in Mortal Kombat are gratuitous even by the decidedly reduced standards of a mid-budget video game adaptation released in the middle of a pandemic. Oldboy, a film that had absolutely nothing to do with computer games, did a better job at approximating their side-scroller action style in that all-time classic hallway action sequence. But the homages in Mortal Kombat, the movie, aren't stylistic; they're purely superficial — limited to catchphrases and costumes.
So while the final 'boss-fight' can be appreciated on a technical level, the emotional stakes are rendered non-existent because of the clunky storytelling.
Every year, it seems, a handful of films arrive in theatres and stake a claim for the title of the best video game adaptation ever made. But the bar has been lowered so drastically for this unfortunate sub-genre that the best video game movies aren't video game movies at all. Films such as Edge of Tomorrow and Scott Pilgrim vs the World aren't based on any pre-existing properties, but they capture the essence of what it is like to play video games. Meanwhile, actual video game adaptations are still struggling to capture the essence of movies.