The very first line of dialogue of Mortal Kombat that seeps into your ears is "I'm going to need more than two buckets." It's a line spoken by a 17th-Century Japanese woman to her husband who is returning from a well, but it may as well be the sentiment of anyone trying to watch this movie on a full stomach. You will need more than two buckets, for in watching the gleeful display of violence packed inside the movie, you shall barf and barf again!
Mortal Kombat -- which is now on HBO Max and in theaters -- is a successful movie if you measure that success by how many gruesome ways one person can murder another in battle. Smashed skulls, punctured eye sockets, hearts ripped from cages, and bodies bisected from head-to-groin keep this fundamentally ludicrous story lubricated with squishy blood and viscera. It certainly wins points for relentlessness, and so long as you have something to keep you occupied during the moments without violence (which grow rarer as the film progresses) I guess one has to admit that this is, if nothing else, an energetic motion picture.
The story goes like this. We live on Earthrealm, and somewhere on some other plane is a nasty place with spiky thrones and pink skies called Outworld. The Outworlders have won nine Mortal Kombat tournaments. (I guess these are only broadcast on pay-per-view because I never saw them on ESPN.) If the Outworlders win one more, they will control Earthrealm. This will be bad for some reason. The only Earthrealmers who can fight to protect our way of life have a dragon birthmark, which just so happens to be the copyrighted logo of the video game Mortal Kombat.
Our reluctant hero is Cole (Lewis Tan), who is shocked to learn (from Mehcad Brooks' Jax) that he is part of this secret league of fighters, and he must train to discover his true power. He teams up with the tank-topped Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and the rowdy Kano (Josh Lawson), who likes to make cracks about Harry Potter and Magic Mike, which just so happen, like Mortal Kombat, to be properties owned by Warner Bros. (The gang first meet up in Gary, Indiana, which is weird.)
Okay, before they can save mankind they must prepare with Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) and others, and these sequences are wild. Each fighter must discover their "Arcana" which is basically their individualized secret sauce. It might be fireballs, it might be laser blasts coming out of their eyes.
While this is happening, the baddies, which include a shrieking harpy and a dude in an iron mask, are muttering Stan Lee-era dialogue like "the prophecy is among us!" and "you must conquer the realm!" in their eerie wasteland.
Then the two teams fight and holy crap is it gross.
Mortal Kombat is based, of course, on an extremely popular video game that has already been adapted into other movies. As it happens, I have never interacted with any aspect of the Mortal Kombat brand before this, though there were some years in the early aughts when a friend had a Sega, and I'd go to his house, drink beer from a can, and play Soul Caliber. My cursory research shows that Mortal Kombat and Soul Caliber are basically Coke and Pepsi, so I have a fundamental understanding of how this all works. You'd pick a player (either a muscly man, a bosom-y woman, or some sort of reptilian beast), then face-off against your friend by spasmodically banging on the buttons and shimmying the joystick. Eventually one of you would win. I don't remember any stories, but maybe we just skipped past that.
That all said, I am sure there are moments in this movie where, if I had more familiarity with Mortal Kombat lore, I'd point and say "aha! I know that weapon/totem/defensive crouching posture!" These winks, while doubtlessly amusing to those in the know, are not, however, instruments of drama. They are just evidence of corporate inculcation.
So does any of this make Mortal Kombat a good movie? Truly, the non-fighting aspects are dreadful. No one on screen was hired for their acting ability. The combat choreography is quite athletic, though, and the very creative use of gore is through the roof. The computer generated effects aren't so hot — there's a multi-armed beast with a hammer that really does look straight from your Playstation — but dialogue like "where are we?" "We are in the Void" are, to me, extremely funny.
What we have here is perfectly acceptable "entertainment product," but not "cinema." The games-to-movies pipeline remains a trap for storytelling, I'm afraid, unless we're talking about the 1985 masterpiece Clue. But there are times when you want to put the controller down, or, if at the Dave and Busters, have run out of quarters. To watch someone else play has its benefits.
TV Guide rating: 2.5/5
Mortal Kombat premieres Friday, April 23 on HBO Max. It will be available on the streaming service for 30 days.