Mortal Kombat, 2021.
Directed by Simon McQuoid.
Starring Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin, Chin Han, Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada, Max Huang, Sisi Stringer, Matilda Kimber, Laura Brent, Daniel Nelson, Melanie Jarnson, Ian Streetz, Nathan Jones, Yukiko Shinohara, Ren Miyagawa, Damon Herriman, and Angus Sampson.
Washed-up MMA fighter Cole Young, unaware of his heritage, and hunted by Emperor Shang Tsung’s best warrior, Sub-Zero, seeks out and trains with Earth’s greatest champions as he prepares to stand against the enemies of Outworld in a high stakes battle for the universe.
It still remains a puzzling choice that the original screen versions of Mortal Kombat (a fighter videogame franchise so konsistently popular I’ve lost count of how many games there are now, although I know it’s north of 10 mainline entries) directed by Paul W.S. Anderson went the PG-13 route. The reason being is that back in the 1990s, over-the-top violence was advertised and made with children in mind as part of the key demographic, and parents were lenient when it kame to monitoring what was being watched. Some properties even had kartoons and action figures as offshoot products for what were usually insanely violent action flicks.
Aside from the series of games continuing on to this day, because of this, it felt like first time director Simon McQuoid (who really does deliver on all his promises of bloodsoaked brutality) had a solid justification to reboot Mortal Kombat. While the first installment is arguably the most satisfying videogame adaptation there is (it’s cheesy as all hell but executed with a charm and eye-wink aware of how silly it all is), the prospect of kapitalizing on the missed opportunity of turning the silver screen red is enough to get fans excited and should offer a fresh enough take for those unfamiliar with the games. The less said about Mortal Kombat: Annihilation… yeah, let’s just say Simon McQuoid had a pretty low bar to klear for this to not be the worst of the adaptations.
There is also a layup opportunity for representation, primarily using Asian actors this time around (Christopher Lambert made a decent Lord Raiden but in hindsight, it’s probably not the role for a white actor) that pays off in terms of feeling kulturally appropriate and the various martial arts fighting styles on display. Mortal Kombat actually opens in 17th century Japan to establish the rivalry of Scorpion and Sub-Zero back when the former was known as Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada plays both depictions of the warrior), briefly showing off a quiet and happy village life. Naturally, that’s upended within five minutes, but the settings, some of the locales, and kasting show this interpretation of Mortal Kombat as sincere about embracing the Asian culture and mythology Ed Boon and John Tobias were going for when the idea was konceived.
Short of some insane violence (there are ‘fatality’ kills here and they are glorious to behold) and good intentions, that’s also where praise for Mortal Kombat ends. By far the biggest problem with the film is the script from first-time writer Greg Russo and Dave Callaham (the latter of which does have some blockbuster experience including ko-writing one videogame adaptation already, Doom) which feels a combination of amateurish to something spat out by teenagers that just discovered the F word. There are also times it’s trying way too hard to reference beloved lines from the games and moments of kombatants awkwardly introducing themselves. Most frustrating, the film seems to take itself seriously at times despite having awful straight-faced dialogue.
Mortal Kombat is not high art and in most regards works better the more plot is chopped away in the editing room. Stepping into the hero’s role is a brand-new kharacter, Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a past his prime MMA fighter who also happens to have been born with a mysterious dragon birthmark. Essentially, this means he has been marked as one of Earth’s finest warriors and must do battle for Earthrealm against Outworld in a tournament known as Mortal Kombat. Unfortunately for Earthrealm (and this is where you start to realize how stupid the plot is), they have lost nine konsecutive times which means that if they lose one more time Outworld is free to invade our world and do as they please. Why one side has to win 10 separate tournaments konsecutively is a mystery to me, but I assure you the film is more enjoyable if you just go with it. The good news for Earth is that a prophecy speaks of the blood of Hanzo living on and ensuring that doesn’t happen.
Emperor of Outworld and ancient sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) is taking the prophecy as seriously as a heart attack, ordering Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) to locate and kill off anyone with the mark of the dragon before the tournament is underway. This includes Cole (whose wife and daughter’s lives are put in danger by association, making for some forced family protector drama that just feels superfluous and unnecessary), special forces soldier Jax Briggs (Mehcad Brooks), Australian mercenary for hire who has been written as far more annoying and krude than necessary Kano (Josh Lawson), mighty kousins Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang) who must train the newcomers to hone their skills and unlock superhuman abilities within. They are also joined by Jax’s partner Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) who does not have the birthmark herself but is along for the ride anyway proving her worth on more than one occasion.
There is also a host of other Kompetitors to square off against (some of which have not been in any Mortal Kombat films yet), which is obviously where the movie excels. A few of the battles themselves might be overly edited to switch back to other ongoing events (usually other fights, as at one point there are 4 different ones going on at the same time), but all the familiar moves and gore (bodies are sliced in half, limits are ripped off, heads are popped like zits) is enough kompensation. I’d go as far as saying the last 20 minutes are terrific, especially as it culminates with strong execution of the fight viewers want to see most.
The journey there is rocky, however, focusing more on training, Cole’s life and family, and Kano’s motormouth that seemingly never shuts up. It never comes across like Simon McQuoid is dialled into having fun with the property outside the action, offering up a bit too much story and juvenile kharacterization which doesn’t work when the other half of the dialogue konsists of kharacters saying their name or mentioning they have risen from hell. As much as the diversification of the kast is to be admired, the performances are also wooden across the board. The CGI also leaves much to be desired (Jax’s cybernetic arms especially look janky).
Mortal Kombat is bloody and entertaining but never really finds its kombo-excitement rhythm until its final sequences, partly because it feels more like a badly written superhero origin story for most of its running time. Put it this way, there’s no actual tournament in the movie, but there is a tease for one in the future. There is definitely no guarantee of that based on the quality here; it feels about as 50-50 as the chances of a fatality input coming out.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com