The Mortal Kombat Movie Rules, Actually

It takes its story and characters seriously and with sincerity, and respects where all this comes from.
April 29, 2021, 1:05pm
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Mortal Kombat is a franchise best known for violence. From 1990s Congressional hearings to YouTube montages of the most wicked fatalities, the cultural legacy of Mortal Kombat is that these games are beyond the pale of regular human day-to-day experiences. They’re not family fare, they’re for “mature gamers,” and it’s not shocking that the film, released last week, marketed itself with a red band trailer that showed series favorite Sub-Zero slashing Scorpion’s blood out of his body, freezing it in mid-air, and then plunging the sharp ice dagger into his enemy. This is what we’re here to see. 

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And sure, Mortal Kombat is one of the more violent films I’ve seen in recent memory. There’s a scene where someone is graphically sawed in half with a sharp, spinning hat. Viscera twirls out of the body envelope in disturbing ways. It’s R, and what the creative team leans into with that rating, puts the effects and tournament fighting of the previous attempt at filming this franchise from 1995 to shame in the hyperviolence department. If you’re here to lean into what Mortal Kombat lets you do in a fictional universe about fighting and dismemberment, then you’re well served.

If this were just a film about fighting and violence, there’d be nothing for me here. I can watch cruelty and creative killing across any number of streaming services. We live in the golden age of watching fictional people die in high definition. 

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What I was struck by when watching Mortal Kombat, though, is how it leans into the stuff that doesn’t get talked about as much when this game franchise comes up: its plot. I imagine that some people who watch Mortal Kombat could be puzzled or upset that the film doesn’t adhere to the simple promise of the franchise: a tournament where people fight to the death. But what has made the most recent Kombat games so interesting is that their story modes are just as much about character arcs as they are about the fights. 

If you ask someone about their favorite unwieldy fantasy video game plots, you might expect to hear about The Elder Scrolls or the Warcraft games or The Witcher. I’m here to tell you that you could be learning about a nearly 30-year-old plot that features parallel realms vying for power, time travel, good and evil gods, khanate politics, and rival clans of martial arts warriors. The Mortal Kombat franchise has gotten so big and lore heavy that it has entirely abandoned the Mortal Kombat “tournament” concept, instead turning into a massive and rollicking story that cuts across a huge cast of characters with their own struggles in a handful of parallel dimensions. 

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For example, take the series regular Raiden. Mortal Kombat XI is a story about time and the effects of the reality-warping conflicts between gods and heroes that have typified the series. A powerful character named Kronica appears and begins to remix time in order to perform a nefarious plan that will totally reset the franchise timeline into a New Era that is completely balanced between good and evil, short circuiting all the weird shit that the storm god Raiden has done over the past several games in order to keep the Earth from being invaded by other dimensions every other weekend (including rebooting reality). Part of her strategy to undermine Raiden is to bring a series of allies from the past of the games to serve her, some of which are convinced that they will have a better place in the world post-New Era.

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One of these characters is Liu Kang, perhaps the most famous character from the Mortal Kombat games besides Scorpion and Sub Zero. By the time that Mortal Kombat XI rolls around, Liu Kang is merely an undead revenant serving an evil god, since Raiden himself murdered him in a misunderstanding about inter-realm combat two games previously. The pseudo-resurrection of Liu Kang provides Raiden with the opportunity to right his past wrongs in killing his friend, but it also allows him to realize that the timeline of his world has been reset maybe dozens or hundreds of times, pitting these characters in battle over and over again for eternity.

This is, to put it lightly, some wild stuff. And the MK games manage to sell the emotions alongside the expansive mythical fantasy plot. When Raiden sees through these timelines and prevents himself from making the same mistake yet again, it hits hard. It’s all melodrama, of course, by which I mean that all of these emotions are heightened and played for their most epic resonances. In the grand scale of eternity, we watch a character turn away from a cursed path, preventing himself from killing his friend and protege yet again.

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This kind of seriousness, no matter how weird or wrapped up in years-long lore, is what carries over to the Mortal Kombat film. It is a sincere movie. It presents us with bewilderingly dumb characters who live in a world that barely makes sense from moment-to-moment. People appear from nowhere to tell protagonist Cole that he needs to discover his magical power (or “arcana”) alongside a mercenary/murderer who never stops cracking jokes and a paramilitary commando who lives in a boat graveyard in Gary, Indiana. A man who can throw a hat as a superpower trains him, a lightning god roasts him, and a warlock from Outworld threatens all of this in anticipation of a parallel dimension fighting tournament that does not take place in this film

Since the film’s release, I have seen almost all of these things specifically called out on social media as reasons why Mortal Kombat is terrible; I think this is why it is an interesting movie. The creative team have managed to perfectly replicate the maelstrom of proper nouns and near-nonsense that is constantly swirling around in these games, and like those games they treat everything as flatly serious and important. It invites you in with a realism of emotion that, frankly, some of our big fantastical and science fictional blockbuster franchises could do with a bit more of.

What comes out of that is an endearing, if melodramatic, plot about a failed MMA fighter who discovers that he is a special warrior whose superpower is being able to withstand ass kickings from extraworldly creatures. There is no winking, no “yes, we know this is silly.” Every moment, even the most direct nods to the game in the form of a leg-sweeping scene, is treated as flatly serious and real. Yes, Kano has a laser that shoots out of his eyeball. That is as normal as breakfast. We’re in a fantasy world. It comes with the territory.

This whole operation of taking the patently ridiculous deadly serious puts it in the top-tier of video game film adaptations, and that tone is one of the best things that it borrows from Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat from 1995. Anderson might be the king of video game film adaptations, most famously with his Resident Evil films, because he takes them seriously as genre fare. Where so many video game films—from the Tomb Raider films to 2016’s Warcraft to the various attempts by Uwe Boll—are barely more than cash-ins on existing brands, Anderson has consistently been someone who understands that video game fiction is fertile soil from which a film can grow. Like Anderson’s work, Mortal Kombat doesn’t try to clumsily mimic the video game form in a way that’s doomed to fail (2005’s Doom is still the pinnacle of this). 

Instead, it grabs what it can and abandons the rest; what it grabs is violence and a cinematic focus that loves that violence. But it also has a stance toward its fiction and mythology that takes martial warriors who have mastered hellfire as seriously as the mechanical operations of a gun. These things are flatly and equally real. They’re treated as the same for so long that when the magic hat flinger, Kung Lao, has his soul sucked out by an evil wizard, I really felt it. I was locked in when Liu Kang was tragically teleported away at the last instant, meaning that he couldn’t even fling himself into a losing battle to avenge his fallen relative and friend. It even worked for me that a generations-old battle between Scorpion and Sub-Zero took place within the very MMA ring that Cole’s story opened with, neatly wrapping everything together in a way that was both outrageously dumb and strangely fitting. I feel like I need to repeat that: the final battle of this film takes place in an MMA ring, and it works on an emotional level. This needs a specific award category.

When Cole is revealed to be the descendant of Scorpion, or when his family sees him kill a four-armed troll creature and they don’t really react at all to it, I take the swelling music at face value and lean into whatever emotions the film is asking me to give over to it. Liu Kang summons a dragon of pure flame as the ultimate revenge for the killing of Kung Lao, and I think “yes, this is appropriate, and I am happy for him.” I am not turning my brain off. This is not some kind of happy refuge from the other, more stressful world. I’ve been introduced to an engine that operates on heightened principles of mythical proportions and told to keep up or be left behind, and I’ve decided that I'd rather keep up and go on what I hope will be a long journey of sequels ahead.