Video game film adaptations have always been plagued by numerous teething problems; for reasons only the universe seems to know, few, if any video game film adaptations have actually been given a true and honest go at being quality films, and even less have succeeded at simply being entertaining. Instead these films have a tendency to use the popularity of the video game’s brand for marketing purposes to then create a typical blockbuster with all the same fabricated Hollywood-ness audiences are used to. What I suppose I’m trying to preface here is that most video game film adaptations that release aren’t actually trying to adapt video games at all – they’re trying their best not to, as the goal is to trick the audience into forgetting that the film they’re watching is indeed based on a video game. It’s closer to being a collaboration between two brands than it is a genuine attempt to merge two mediums.
So what should we really expect from video game film adaptations? Well, like any adaptation (such novels to film etc), you’ve gotta crack a few eggs to make an omelette, so to speak. Changes are required to translate one medium to the next, but the idea is that as long as you are ultimately capturing the tone or essence of the material then you’re on the right path. Let’s for a moment take a look at a recent video game film for further context, that being The Angry Birds Movie 2 (2019). This completely unassuming kids film currently stands as the most critically well-received video game film of all time and amusingly, it is also the least faithful to its source material; strengthening the idea that studios and writers within the film industry aren’t truly looking to create a film for fans of the video games, they’re looking to make a film that is quite simply the most accessible to the most amount of people.
Enter Mortal Kombat, a film with some shaky structure and questionable story directions, but one with a razor sharp killing drive to actually adapt its video game source material. I’m just gonna say it, it’s the best video game film adaptation I’ve seen yet. Does that mean I believe it is the highest quality video game film adaptation? No, not necessarily. But it adapts the video games better than any other film I’ve seen since, hence why it wins the crown. This film follows a fairly formulaic story structure in effort to provide exposition to movie-goers who are unfamiliar with the material, but once you get over that hump you begin to see that this film focuses on pretty much one core concept – two fighters, duking it out in a violent fight to the death with quippy one-liners; this is Mortal Kombat as fans of the video games know it. And while it may not satiate that lizard part of my brain that craves a clever story structure, I can’t help but respect that it’s doing what it set out to do; adapt the video game the best it can.
Mortal Kombat is self-aware enough to see that the very concept of its story is ridiculous – it leans into that with comedy and brutality in an effort to make the viewing experience roughly in-line with what you experience in the video games.
Ultimately, this is the first video game film I’ve seen that actually made me want to go out and play the games. What really led this film to success was its delightful mixture of comedy and violence, as mentioned, with the former being carried heavily by actor Josh Lawson playing the role of Kano and latter being peppered throughout the film by various different characters. As much of this film seems to rely on its action sequences, there is a clear choice made by creators to employ actors and actresses with either stunt experience or having a fighters physique. The only actors that manage to balance their action sequences with an admirable performance is Hiroyuki Sanada as Scorpion, Joe Taslim as Sub-Zero, and Mehcad Brooks as Jax – with almost every other character falling short in some other area. Of course, as mentioned Josh Lawson lands as the films best performance but he has a clear lack of fighting experience and thus his sequences are generally a little more “cutty” than the other cast.
Boasting a budget of $50 million, Mortal Kombat uses it on a technical level conveniently. The visual effects are incorporated well as they are only used when necessary – particularly for backdrops and character moments where it couldn’t be done practically. One of the most important aspects for this film to work is the fight and stunt choreography as the core element of the video game itself is fighting. Mortal Kombat is at its best during these fight sequences that feel entirely cinematic and grounded in realism. By having experienced martial arts trained actors and intricate fight choreography that is only supported by VFX, it sets up some dazzling set-pieces and ultimately, fatalities.
There is often an extra dosage of authenticity by the usage of real-world locations as the film mostly is shot over South Australia. There are moments where green/blue screens are utilized in these locations to support the backdrop for when practical is not an option; however, it never really took me out of the film. The impressive attributes of the set-design really come into fruition during Sub-Zero moments where the interior of the building is covered in icy floors and icicles, while you can see cold-air breath from the characters. The composed score often feels indecisive as it feels confused on which tone to strike on a musical level – while I appreciate the original Mortal Kombat theme being used, it’s often cut with intense techno music. I would have preferred the score if it had committed to using the original Mortal Kombat theme without too much intrusion from other musical elements.
Mortal Kombat is obviously not a perfect film, the structure is a little nauseating and it is very clear that some of the performers simply did not have the ability to match their cohorts – but what it lacks in these aspects it makes up for in direct and unfiltered fun. This is the most faithful video game adaptation and in spite of there being minor changes to various characters origins, it nails one very vital thing – the tone of Mortal Kombat; and in a world where remakes, reboots, and adaptations are abundant, it’s important not to forget how important that really is.