When a beloved property like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter gets adapted for the screen, fans want, and expect, a certain level of faithfulness to the source material. Beyond that, they’d hope faithfulness goes hand in hand with the adaptation actually being good. (With Return of the King winning a record-tying 11 Oscars in 2004, it’s safe to say Peter Jackson lived up to his end of the Lord of the Rings bargain.) But how do these sentiments apply to adapting something as objectively silly as Mortal Kombat?
For the uninitiated, Mortal Kombat is a series of fighting games that launched in the 1990s and has endured through the years largely because of its brazen commitment to cartoonish ultraviolence. There are plenty of fighting games on the market, but only one franchise lets the user deliver a trademark fatality where, for instance, you kick the opponent in the groin so hard that their skeleton pops out of their body. When the series’ early games were released, Mortal Kombat was so provocative that there were congressional hearings about its violence (those hearings were partially responsible for the video game ratings system still in use today). It’s a ridiculous legacy, but a legacy nonetheless.
So when Mortal Kombat was first made into a movie—a 1995 cult classic that features a few absolute bangers on the soundtrack—the adaptation, with its PG-13 rating, couldn’t do a full-scale embrace of the video games. On that front, at least, the R-rated Mortal Kombat reboot, released concurrently in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, knows how to cater to its fan base. It’s hard to imagine that something more brutal than the public shellacking the European Super League received could come out of this week, but when a Mortal Kombat character uses his razor-brimmed hat like a sawmill to slice an opponent down the middle—vertically, if you must know—the film certainly comes close. Such a gruesome overkill is, in its own way, Mortal Kombat delivering in its faithfulness to the source material: Death by sawmill-hat is an actual fatality from the games.
Perhaps the riskiest proposition of the reboot, as far as potentially incurring the wrath of the game’s fans goes, is that it centers on a new protagonist created for the movie. (The inclusion comes at the expense of fan favorite Johnny Cage, master of the crotch shot.) That would be Cole Young (played by Lewis Tan), a washed-up MMA fighter who was born with a mysterious dragon marking on his chest. The mark means that Cole has been chosen for a once-in-a-generation tournament called Mortal Kombat, which pits fighters from different realms against one another; if the soul-eating sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) and his minions end up winning, the Outworld realm will conquer Earth.
Rather than wait for the tournament, though, Shang Tsung plays dirty by having his fighters—led by Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim; his abilities are pretty self-explanatory)—pick off anyone bearing the dragon mark. But before Sub-Zero can—presumably, given his and the game’s reputation—freeze Cole’s body and hack it apart like a bartender cutting ice for a fancy cocktail, Cole is whisked away to a hidden temple where he can train under the Thunder God, Raiden (Tadanobu Asano).
All in all, the movie does a good job of sticking to Mortal Kombat’s hokey lore—which historically involves a lot of timeline-resetting in the spirit of staging more interdimensional fighting tournaments—while not digging into the mythology in a way that alienates a wider audience. Sit through a few scenes of ridiculous exposition, including photos of ancient hieroglyphics with the words “Mortal Kombat” strewn across them despite English being thousands of years from invention, and eventually the film begins to honor its video game roots in a manner that is more broadly palatable: a bunch of superpowered fighters quite literally tearing each other apart.
It’s not often that a character being sliced in half with a hat doesn’t register as the peak of on-screen carnage, but it’s just a taste of Mortal Kombat’s signature over-the-top fatalities. Heads are popped like watermelons, limbs are brutally severed, and enough guts are spilled that even Hannibal Lecter might say “you’re doing a lot right now.” It’s the kind of violence that, were it inserted into another action-oriented franchise, would probably be criticized for trying to be too edgy. Here, however, it’s an accurate representation of the gnarly gameplay that can make the player feel like they’re mainlining Mountain Dew.
Even given the admittedly low bar of adapting a goofy product like Mortal Kombat, though, the movie is not without its drawbacks. Having to introduce so many characters from the games, including Sonya Blade, Jax, Kano, Liu Kang, Kung Lao, Goro, Nitara, and Sub-Zero’s archnemesis, Scorpion, is an arduous task, especially when packing everything in under two hours. (Kano is a profane scene-stealer, though.) Spending so much of the viewers’ time following Cole wouldn’t be nearly so dispiriting if the film bothered to give him some semblance of a personality. Worse yet, he commits the cardinal sin of not even executing an impressive fatality. Greg Russo, who cowrote the Mortal Kombat screenplay, told Polygon that he was cognizant not to “slip into camp,” which feels antithetical to a video game franchise that’s resonated for doing just that. I mean, have you heard the theme song lately?
While video game movie adaptations have been unfairly maligned in Hollywood, at least when it comes to the underappreciated filmography of schlocky auteur Paul W.S. Anderson, the Mortal Kombat reboot runs the risk of falling into a familiar pattern of mapping out a franchise without considering how invested audiences are in the first place. At least one actor (Taslim) has signed on for four additional films, which retroactively explains how certain iconic characters like Johnny Cage were left on the cutting room floor, and why the movie never actually gets around to its titular tournament. (All of the fighting in this installment is basically a pre-tournament killing spree borne out of Shang Tsung’s impatience to take over Earth.)
Ideally, this new Mortal Kombat has enough going for it that green-lighting a sequel is a matter of when, not if. But with theaters not quite at pre-pandemic levels of attendance, it’s hard to gauge what the movie needs to do to make that happen. Best case, Mortal Kombat makes enough of an impression at the box office and on HBO Max that the film becomes the rare success story of a big-screen video game adaptation. But if Mortal Kombat instead follows in the footsteps of the many aspiring video game movie franchises that sputtered, well, it’s hard not to look at the production choices as anything but a self-inflicted fatality for a movie that could’ve seamlessly slipped into faithful campiness.