Mortal Kombat
More info i
Credit: Warner Bros.

Does 'Mortal Kombat' finish off video game movie curse? Critics love the carnage, but say story lacks punch

Contributed by
Apr 23, 2021, 7:40 PM EDT (Updated)

After nearly a quarter of a century, Mortal Kombat is back on the big screen in a bloody, R-rated reboot from relative newcomer Simon McQuoid. The film, which is now playing in theaters and on HBO Max, currently holds a mixed 56 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — a score that's admittedly 13 points higher than the 1995 adaptation helmed by Paul W.S. Anderson.

What sets the modern film translation apart from its '90s-era predecessor is the rating.

Whereas Anderson was working within the limitations of a PG-13 project, McQuoid was given plenty of leeway from Warner Bros. when it came to the various depictions of violence. He didn't have to shy away from the games' iconic finishing moves (better known as fatalities), which only became more brutal and graphic with each installment. As The New York Post's Johnny Oleksinski puts it in his review: "The blood never stops gushing."

Reviewing the movie for Variety, critic Peter Debruge says that Mortal Kombat "gets the R-rated reboot its fans feel the property deserves, which entails being as graphic as the game was when it comes time for the pugilists to eliminate their opponents, whether that means ripping out their hearts or buzz-sawing them in twain with a razor-sharp hat. Such ruthless finishing moves may be the selling point here."

The carnage isn't the issue, though. It's the story, which may only appeal to hardcore fans of the source material. Once again, Hollywood falls into the video game pitfall of attempting to build a narrative around something that doesn't really have a big one. And like a body rejecting a newly-transported organ that wasn't there to begin with, the results can result in *ahem* mortal wounds. Not a good sign when Warner Bros. is hoping to kickstart a new film franchise.

"Though the filmmakers definitely wanted to please the gore-starved faithful by getting an R rating ... you do get the impression they don’t want to alienate ordinary viewers either," writes The Hollywood Reporter's John DeFore. "The result is kombat that isn’t as viscerally mortal as it wants to be. Yell 'Flawless! Victory!' all you want, but this is just an ordinary product hoping enough people buy it to justify a sequel."

Entertainment Weekly's Christian Holub finishes their C-grade review by directing members of the audience to find their fix elsewhere in the pages of an X-Men comic: "If you're searching for a surprising story about iconic characters assembling for a martial arts tournament that never actually happens, you'd be better off reading the incredible recent X-Men event X of Swords." Yikes.

But hey, at least it's not Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, right? Oh look, there's Sub-Zero stabbing a man with a dagger made of his own blood! Awesome! Apparently, there's no much here for casual fans, but if you grew up playing the Mortal Kombat titles at pizza parlor arcades or from the comfort of your own home, it's not something to miss.

Jacob Oller of Paste Magazine (formely of SYFY WIRE) falls into that category, describing the reboot (penned by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham) as "blockbuster filmmaking that manages to be a satisfying action film, thanks to tactile and intimate one-on-one fights—and a 'kid with a blank check' carnival ride for those who love the franchise." He goes on to write that while Mortal Kombat isn't a cure-all for the video game curse, it "might finally deliver their sweepingly bad reputation a devastating fatality. And yes, it has a 'Get over here!' moment so good it’ll give anyone who’s spent time with the arcade fighter goosebumps."

What could be the deadliest blow of all is the fact that the titular tournament doesn't even take place in this movie, which hopes to save that particular element for future entries (of course, if the movie makes a butt-load of money and drives HBO Max subscriptions through the roof, we won't have to worry about all the negative reviews).

"For those of you who aren’t familiar with the games, imagine how exciting it would be to watch a Fast and Furious movie about someone trying to puncture Vin Diesel’s tires before he could start up his car," writes IndieWire's David Ehrlich. "There’s really no coming back from that, nor is there anything that McQuoid and his spirited cast of actors can do to compensate for the sinking realization that all of the training montages and side battles that eat up the middle hour of this movie aren’t building towards a meaningful climax."

And what of the cast, led by Lewis Tan's washed-up MMA fighter Cole Young, who answers the call to adventure and disembowelment? Ehrlich says Tan brings "a like-able kind of DTV charisma" to the character, while The Guardian's Benjamin Lee isn't as generous: "The less said about the actors the better (each impressive technically but otherwise allowed to do little more than cosplay)." Let's be honest, you're not here for Oscar-worthy performances or a cohesive plot. In the words of Kotaku's Mike Fahey: "The fights are outstanding, the acting is okay, and the story is complete garbage."

Click here to watch the first seven minutes of the reboot, which takes place in feudal Japan.