Mortal Kombat hits the right spot

Friends, your old pal Stuart is taking over Streaming Saturday this week. For those six of you who prefer Buckler’s articles, he’ll be back next week.

This year, HBO Max is debuting most of Warner’s tentpole releases at the same time they’re in theaters. I don’t know about you but I think this is the right move. On the one hand you have Disney which is doing the same thing but charging you $20 for “Premier Access” to the film. On the other hand you have all those films which just put off their release dates until they can fleece you of $50 for two tickets and some subpar snacks.

I like what Warner is doing here because personally I wasn’t a big theater goer in the “before times.” I actually prefer watching movies at home and I’ve put in the time and effort to create a home theater that I really enjoy. Plus, Warner’s move here gives me the opportunity to see some films I probably wouldn’t have gone to see otherwise. And, that’s the subject of this week’s Streaming Saturday.

Why do video game movies usually stink?

You know they do. Don’t pretend they don’t. Some are legendary stinkers, like the 1993 clunker Super Mario Bros. This was a film so bad that even amazing actors couldn’t fix it. Most movies based on games are just forgettable. You’d certainly be forgiven if you’d forgotten that someone made a Mortal Kombat film before, back in the 1990s. Wikipedia lists a crap ton of movies based on video games, and most of them are either forgettable or bad.

Sometimes, a video game adaptation is so bad that it gets slammed even before the film comes out. Last year’s Sonic the Hedgehog was so profoundly panned at the trailer stage that effects artists had to go back and retool it even before release. That has to be some sort of record for bad video game adaptations.

For the most part, game-based movies stink because they can’t please anyone. Real fans of the game, the people who should show up in droves, will never be satisfied because there will never be enough fan service. The general public comes in looking for a decent, entertaining film and is generally confused by all the tributes paid to the video game itself. It’s a no-win scenario.

Surprisingly, Mortal Kombat is pretty good

I’m no gamer. I have enough to do in my life without sitting in front of yet another screen. I’m like most of you in that my only real exposure to the Mortal Kombat-verse is in the early-1990s video arcade game that seemed to be in every pizzeria and convenience store back then. I remember the outrage from parents at the cartoonish level of violence (which seems quaint today.) And I have certainly growled “FINISH HIM” in a low, modulated voice as much as anyone else.

More hard-core fans know that there have been about a dozen adaptations of this fighting game, with the last being released in 2019. I don’t recall ever seeing any of them but a quick internet search tells me that both the plot and graphics have been massively upgraded.

The film itself

The film version of Mortal Kombat brings a largely forgettable plot about a cage fighter who is apparently born into greatness. This could literally have been the plot of any of 25 other movies, and I can’t remember the name of any of the main characters. So much for plot. But I don’t think you go into one of these movies thinking about the nuances of character development.

Rather predictably, our hero leaves his family to train for some sort of extra-planetary fighting tournament, meets friends, makes enemies, suffers setbacks, and eventually develops his own superpowers that let him defeat the bad guys. Yeah, not a lot of effort went into creating that character arc. But again, you’re not supposed to care.

It comes down to the action

Mortal Kombat shines where it’s supposed to. The CGI is flawless and looks unique. That’s saying a lot considering how much most action films look like each other. The characters are different enough that you can tell one from another, which is good. And the martial arts looks convincing enough to keep your attention while looking fantastic enough to make you wince when someone lands a blow.

I’ll also give props to the filmmaker for walking the line when it comes to representation. This is a film with multiple Asian characters and each is sharply defined without using stereotypes. There’s a Black character who never falls into the typical holes associated with African-American characters in action films. The female characters aren’t damsels in distress, far from it. And yet this film never makes you feel preached to. It just represents a lot of different groups positively without drawing attention to it. That’s how you do it in 2021.

The Mortal Kombat franchise is known for its gore and this film won’t disappoint there either. There’s definitely enough of it there that parents won’t want small children to see it. But it’s not “gross” so much as it’s well-rendered. The film could have gotten really disgusting with the level of gore, but instead the effects look just cartoonish enough that you can distance yourself from them.

By the time the big-bad-battle begins, and you know it’s going to, you have some idea of the characters and how it’s going to go. There are some really inspired little touches, and you’ll find that the film holds your attention. And that’s the goal

The one bad thing I’ll say

Because this is a film based on a game which spotlights one-on-one combat, that’s what you’ll see. There are never more than three people in a fight and really you never see more than two people fighting at any time. A lot of this film could have gone a different way if a couple people would have just cooperated. But I think that you just have to accept that about this film.  It’s just how it’s done.

Mortal Kombat is free on HBO Max for the next three weeks and then it goes to paid rental for a few months. If you tend to enjoy martial arts films with some splashy CGI gore, I suggest you catch it now.


About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.