I'm no purist. I don't think there are all that many things you need to include in a film adaption of the long-running video game series Mortal Kombat. While the games have a fairly involved overarching story line, I don't really think most players are that aware of what it is, and anyway it's been developed over so many different entries in the franchise, with so many different curlicues, that any adaptations is going to be a pick-and-choose exercise in what details are going to show up, anyways. So while there are certain characters and plot details whose absence would be more obviously felt than others, ultimately I'd have to say that the only absolutely non-negotiable thing is that the movie would have to include a fight-to-the-death MMA tournament called Mortal Kombat, held between Earthlings and a para-dimensional invading force.

Would you like to guess what one specific thing is not in the new feature film adaptation of Mortal Kombat?

Setting that aside, which is a little bit like setting aside a Christmas party that doesn't have fir trees, presents, carols, or Santa Claus, and also is held in August, what the hell do we even have? A whole lot of extremely labored, tedious world-building, periodically interrupted by impressively violent hand-to-hand fighting scenes. Credit where credit is due: these fighting scenes are pretty decent. One of them is maybe even "really good", and to the movie's great benefit, it's also the last one. But what they all have in common, all the way throughout the running time, is that they have been arranged with some unmistakable care for making sure we can follow all of the movements, which generally happen in relatively wide shots, and though there is more cutting than one might necessarily prefer, those cuts fall at rhythmically appropriate points that are well-chosen to guide our attention to the next hit. It's very legible, which is sadly a decent achievement for this mode of carefully impersonal franchise-hopeful tentpole filmmaking. And better still, what's legible is generally imaginative and enjoyable, taking full advantage of the games' fantasy/sci-fi trappings to indulge in all the goofy excessive martial arts bombast that one might hope for out of this material. It even has the decency to be extremely violent, something that neither 1995's Mortal Kombat (a much better film than this) nor 1997's Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (a much worse film) had leave to be, with their neutered PG-13 ratings. This Mortal Kombat is well-supplied with dismemberments, decapitations, and disembowelings based on the games' notorious "Fatality" special moves, and it's very clear from the way that the filmmakers, led by first-time director Simon McQuoid (making the short jump from commercials) slow down the rat-a-tat pace to watch them happen that they knew that this was going to be what made this movie special.

The problem is that they're literally the only thing that makes this special, or even watchable. And while having good-to-great action scenes is obviously better than not (I offer, as evidence, the very same MK: Annihilation), Mortal Kombat completely drops the ball in delivering them to us. At 110 minutes, the film isn't necessarily all that long by the current standards of the effects-heavy popcorn movies it would like to be compared to (it's three minutes shorter than Godzilla vs. Kong, for example), but it's long enough that it has room to put some exceedingly long gaps in between its action setpieces, which are dribbled out for the film's first three-quarters and then all bunched-up at the end. And having made us wait so long, it then rushes through them all: other than the last sequence, which has time to develop and breathe, most of the fight scenes here have a very distinct "bang, done, next" quality, like a player who's trying to showcase their virtuosity by tearing ass through a flawless victory. It's like walking for an hour in a desert to receive a tablespoon of water.

As for what fills up those long, languid minutes in between the fight scenes: it is absolute dogshit. In the absence of having, y'know, Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat gives us an endless chain of scenes of characters maneuvering into place, a random assortment of "go here, get this, come back" filler almost as galling as the similar (but even more arbitrary) development of scenes in Annihilation. It opens promisingly enough, with a scene set in Japan in 1617 that sets up a conflict between the supernatural fighter Bi-Han (Joe Taslim), who controls ice, and the ninja-turned-farmer Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), who will die after watching his family murdered, whereupon he will go to hell for centuries and return as skeletal fire-wielding ghost warrior. The aimless length of the opening, and its fuck-all relationship to a pan-dimensional fighting tournament, both give us early warnings of the kind of film Mortal Kombat will be, but at least it's handsomely designed and shot, and Taslim and Sanada are by such an extravagant distance the best actors in the film that it's nice to have a chance to spend time with them now, and then again all the way at the end, which is the next time this plot thread gets tugged.

In between, we get the story of Cole Young (Lewis Tam), a Chosen One MMA fighter who has fallen on hard times. Through absolutely no expenditure of his own effort, he is picked up by "Jax" Briggs (Mehcad Brooks) and Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), who have knowledge about the tournament that will happen at some indefinite point in the future, and are working to prepare for it. This involves acquiring not just Cole, but also Kano (Josh Lawson), a sociopathic Australian mercenary who gets literally every single halfway-decent line to be found anywhere in Greg Russo and Dave Callaham's script. And then coming to the attention of Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), a god who is also prepping for Mortal Kombat, with his own chosen fighters Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang). Raiden has a magical room that gives you superpowers, and Jax, Cole, and Kano all get to make use of it, though Sonya has to make do with her pre-existing move set. And then, having finally gathered together a team of champions that can fight back against the chosen warriors of the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han)- oh, goshdarnit, we ran out of movie. Maybe in the sequel.

No, seriously. The plot of Mortal Kombat involves Shang Tsung sending his freaky-looking alien goons against our heroes in an attempt to kill them all before the tournament begins, and for reasons that I simply cannot figure out, it takes well over half of the movie's running time before any of them other than Bi-Han, now going by "Sub-Zero", even bother attempting to do so. Instead, we just get a whole lot of talking. About preparing for a fighting tournament. Which does not take place. If this was some kind of aggressive art-house anticinema, I would honestly probably be impressed. But it's not. It's junk food action cinema whose solitary appeal is CGI blood geysering out of mutilated CGI arms and necks. There is nothing else. Given the enormous quantity of time we spend listening to them explaining who they are, the cast remains stubbornly opaque, given no personality by the writing (except for Kano, whose personality is "store brand Joss Whedon character") and played without distinction by a cast in which nobody ever gives the impression that they wanted to be there. The narrative is a protracted exercise in exposition and doing a half-assed job of presenting the myths governing this world, in lieu of actually having a story worthy of the name. All in all, it's extraordinarily dispiriting, a tedious grind that is barely interrupted by minute-long fight scenes. Yes, I'm glad to finally see Sub-Zero rip a dude's arms off, or Kung Lao buzzsaw somebody in half with his hat in a live-action movie; but those combined amount to like 30 seconds of movie, and outside of that pleasant Japanese opening scene, absolutely everything that isn't high-impact gore effects is dreadful.