In a universe of demi-gods, zombies, demons, hell spawns, robot ninjas, and toothy monsters, the US military still puts up a fight. Loaded with assault rifles, they tactically lay out their plan to stop an underworld invasion using battleships and sheer numbers. It’s comical to think bullets still have value; imagine the Biblical rapture, with Satan spawning on Earth, and America launching Patriot missiles in his direction. That’s the equivalent. But, consider Mortal Kombat’s context.
It’s a blending of cultural values, borrowed from pop cinema. Kung Lao leads his monks in coordinated running across a ship’s oars in a scene taken from Hong Kong’s mystical kung-fu. Kitana slings bladed Japanese fans at her enemies. There’s British, there’s Egyptian, there’s African influence; Mortal Kombat uses that for a wacky, time travel-infused story, more than a little inspired by Marvel, ultimately bridging a singular theme – the villains fight primarily for themselves, the heroes defend their own in tandem – no matter ideology or nationality.
Take then the US military intervention. No one left behind, representing a unit through loyalty and shared allegiance. Ninjas band together in clans, an ideology of America’s and Mortal Kombat’s special forces. It’s a story of forming bonds on common ground, not standing alone in nationalist isolation. Then, in the finale, the sacrifice is played into a literal manifestation of totalitarianism letting go for the greater good, absolutely absurd but in sync with Mortal Kombat’s wacky and hilariously gruesome brutality. That too came from influence. Way back in the ’70s, Japanese star Sonny Chiba first ripped out someone’s throat in The Street Fighter and later, exploitation like Rikki Oh expanded the gore. The uniqueness of Mortal Kombat is playing to the distinct style of violence evident in all cultures.
There’s a brief battle with Jade, taking the high ground as she bats her enemies away in a bit of fluid Asian showmanship, complete with the carefully framed, picturesque camerawork. Later, Jax Briggs punches through a group with the muscular sentiment of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The camera awkwardly aligns to capture the impact if hide the merely passable choreography leading to it.
Mortal Kombat 11 is as wild an east-meets-west tale as ever produced, completely enamored with spectacle over logic, if still concerned with mini-sodes of character development that feeds on previous entries and delves into genuine emotional beats. It’s terrifying to think – and maybe this is considered on the slide rule – but Mortal Kombat 11’s rich, punctual tale of good over evil is among the most genuine of this medium (and notably derivative, beholden to another entertainment form entirely). And yes, that considers the face ripping, guts-splattering, literal blood baths filling its gameplay.
At times, it’s a lot. Mortal Kombat’s ever rising violent absurdity eclipsed grotesqueness ages ago. In game, the shaking camera and zoom-in on crunching bone produces the wince-inducing cruelty. Things that used to qualify as post-match murder now play out in the middle of a fight, with no harm done. What actually kills someone now betrays any internal logic, although ripping someone’s face off then stabbing their brain will probably pass muster.
That this all came from a crotchety, culturally deviant arcade game in the early ’90s with a budget less than a third of even the cheapest Shaw Brothers production is fascinating. Now, it’s fueled by millions of dollars, paid for through comically overpriced downloaded content.
Historically, it’s bizarre too. Where once Street Fighter’s anime-churning mysticism and yes, militarism seemed untouchable in this genre space, Mortal Kombat 11 found a way to represent people of the world and find a singular, symbiotic thread to bind us. It’s dark in theme – all humanity shares an unshakable predilection to fight – but Mortal Kombat the franchise is best to push such a truthful realization.