In the immortal words of one Shao Kahn: “The tournament will begin!” Or at least, we’re told it will be. That tournament is Mortal Kombat, a centuries-old war between fighters of Earthrealm and Outworld. Outworld, led by sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han), is on the verge of invading Earthrealm, as a realm needs 10 straight victories to do so and Outworld is at 9.
It is the 11th hour for Earthrealm, which means a mad search led by the Thunder God Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) for each and every remaining Earthrealm champion, branded as such with a dragon tattoo. Enter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a past his prime MMA fighter and family man, Special Forces Major Jax Briggs (Mehcad Brooks), and Shaolin Monks Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang). And things are so dire for our realm, we can’t turn down those who aren’t branded such as Briggs’ partner Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and the scummy Black Dragon mercenary clan leader Kano (Josh Lawson). Throw in a centuries old feud between an undead revenant Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) searching for vengeance against the man who killed his clan in Bi-Han (Joe Taslim)—now known as Sub-Zero, and things are going to be chaotic. And very bloody.
There is nothing surprising about Mortal Kombat being rebooted for the silver screen. I was five when the 1995 movie came out, with my first memories of it being one of the trailers on the Dumb and Dumber VHS (National Lampoon’s Senior Trip, too!). The only somewhat surprising thing is how long it has taken for a new silver screen installment, but Hollywood was wise to wait as long as it did, for the controversial fighter that essentially created the ESRB in the early 1990’s has been on a roll since Netherrealm Studios’ new vision on consoles beginning with MK 2011. Video game movies have a low bar to clear, and the 1995 Mortal Kombat still stands as one of the better adaptations. So too is the new Mortal Kombat. That does not make it great. There are aspects that can be done without and should have been implemented, but it is evident that some care and source appreciation went into the making of this.
Aussie director Simon McQuoid gets the call up from directing commercials into a full-length feature. Sometimes, us moviegoers are spoiled with directors who knock it out of the park in their first effort. Knock it out of the park, McQuoid does not. To say this has consistent pace throughout wouldn’t be accurate, as it can stagger and look wobbly like a fighter cornered in the screen with little space to escape. But right when one may think there’s no opening for a rally, McQuoid makes that perfectly timed jump and begins his flurry, putting together very capable sequences of what MK fans and even just action fans want to see. Loads of gore in legitimate fatalities, and coherent martial arts fighting. It is a semi-bummer that those 4-6 minute fights are closer to 1-3, but he manages to get almost every character one highlighted moment.
The presentation of each fighter and the casting (in looks at least) is a huge plus of Mortal Kombat, though a few aesthetic choices leave something to be desired. Nevertheless, whether it be Jax’s heavy hands and lead-like feet, or Kung Lao’s agile swiftness, the characters and their styles are true to form. The influence producer James Wan has on this can be seen, particularly in the scenes that feature Sub-Zero which carry slight tinges of horror. And don’t discount contributions from composer Benjamin Wallfisch. While we don’t quite hear the glorious MK theme in all its glory, snippets are interspersed and the industrial techno melds into the action. There is rewatchability here.
Mortal Kombat 2021 is a true reboot, keeping certain happenings from the early games/first live action film and choosing to go in other directions for other areas of the story. That is very OK and encouraged! However, MK totally drops the ball on, well, the actual logistics of making sure the namesake actually happens. To talk about the importance of why a Mortal Kombat tourney is necessary but never have it go down is a whiff, especially when considered that tournament-type films (think Warrior and what MK is heavily inspired by in Bloodsport and Enter the Dragon) lend themselves to basic yet uncomplicated stories. With the lack of a tournament, Mortal Kombat’s rules become fuzzy, and by consequence, shine light on half-baked or probably unnecessary plot ideas (Arcana, branded chosen tattoos, etc.), not to mention the questionable decision to inject a new character as the lead with no discernable traits, overlooking other lore-steeped individuals who could have served Cole’s space.
A wonky plot puts more pressure on a cast to carry the load, and for the lot of cast here, their performances are dull at best and wooden at worst. You feel bad for Tan, who would be more than capable as a support but offers little as the central point of the narrative. Thankfully, Sanada and Taslim play off and against each other well and as long as any future films have these two, the franchise will be in a stable place. The star of this Mortal Kombat is easily Lawson, who is given free reign to improvise playing Kano and never misses. He chews scenery the moment his character’s screen time begins that will certainly live on for eternity on Twitter.
It’s official, Mortal Kombat does not suck. Well, maybe in spots. But in totality, there is a lot here to work with in any future follow-ups. That is worth a victory pose in and of itself.
Photo credits go to impawards.com, ew.com, epicstream.com, and bloody-disgusting.com.
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