Ever since Mortal Kombat debuted in the arcades back in the early ‘90s, it has dabbled in film and television more so than any other game franchise. It's had the original film, starring Highlander’s Christopher Lambert, and its lower budget sequel where he was replaced by Dexter Morgan's dad. There was the Fox Kids cartoon Defender of the Realm, because why wouldn't you market a franchise about brutal deaths at young children. There was the short-lived live-action TV series, Mortal Kombat Conquest, and by the turn of the century, few really cared about Mortal Kombat anymore.
Games still came out, but their move to 3D was not well received, and with the decline of the arcades, fighting games in general were on the decline. This all changed in 2010 when Mortal Kombat: Rebirth surfaced on YouTube, an 8-minute film that showed what the property could be if it was a bit grittier and had modern special effects. This was followed by web series Mortal Kombat: Legacy. Around the same time, the video game was rebooted. Going back to its roots as a 2D game, with excellent graphics, more violence than ever, and benefitting from a fighting game boom, thanks to the stability in online play via consoles. It was inevitable that it would one day return to the big screen, and depending on where you live during the pandemic (sorry UK fans) that day has come.
In terms of plot, not a lot has changed in 26 years. It's time for Earth and the Outer Realm to have another fighting tournament. Two god-likes, Shang Tsung representing the Outer Realm and Raiden, representing Earth, must select their champions and have them pitted against each other in fights to the death. If the Outer Realm wins 10 consecutive tournaments in a row, then they can happily invade Earth, and they're currently on 9. The main plot difference to the original film and game, however, is that the protagonist in that one was Lui Kang, whereas in this one it's Cole Young, a brand-new character created for the film. Cole’s a family man and a not particularly good fighter, earning just $200 a time, but he's also the Chosen One, so he better start practicing…
As you would expect, the special effects are much better than in any previous effort, as is the choreography in the fight scenes. Right from the opening scene, blood and guts are flying all over the place giving you early indications of what you can look forward to. Unfortunately, however, to get there, you are going to have to sit through a whole lot of plot. The cheesy script and terrible acting make that especially more painful at times, as the actual "tournament" itself, is reserved for the last 20 minutes of the film. Sure, there are a few fights outside of it, but nothing that's remotely on the same level.
The fatalities that the series is most famous for certainly don't disappoint, with Jax, Kano, Kung Lao, and Lui Kang all getting their most famous ones in glorious detail, although sensibly amid backlash from the games, Kung Lao’s opts not to go crotch first. Other than the fatalities, the film also relies on quite a few subtler nods to Mortal Kombat fans, from Lui Kang spamming a low kick to the cheesy delivery of the commentator’s lines, quoting familiar soundbites such as "flawless victory" throughout.
It seems crazy that after nearly 30 years of the game being out, this is the best that the studio can do. Either it needs to be a well-acted film, with a good script and plot, or it needed to be 2 hours of violence and gore. It's the sort of film that would look great in a trailer or a highlight reel - the things it does well are great - there's just not much substance to it and you won't care about any of the characters. The ending suggests a sequel, but it's probably best someone rips the legs off this one.