When people think of video game movies, one of the first that comes to mind is 1995’s Mortal Kombat, directed by Paul W. S. Anderson. While it might not be a perfect movie, it definitely did a great job of putting some of our favorite characters on the big screen. Of course, these days, we can definitely do much better. That’s where the 2021 reboot comes in, coming from director Simon McQuoid during his big debut. With nearly three decades of game history to work with, does the new film do the series justice?
With this Mortal Kombat film reboot, things start off promising with a scene taking place in the distant past. We get a story of Hanzo Hasashi, a Japanese ninja of the Shirai Ryu clan who would later become the wraith known as Scorpion. After an altercation with a rival warrior of the Lin Kuei, his destiny is changed forever. Fast-forward to many years later, and we are introduced to a washed up MMA fighter named Cole Young. He lives fight to fight to support his family, but as it turns out, he is a chosen champion of Earthrealm. While he wasn’t aware of it at first, it’s not long before the Mortal Kombat tournament becomes a part of his destiny.
Cole, played by Lewis Tan, is an original character made for the film, sort of representing the audience’s perspective for a potential franchise. While this might not be as bad as Resident Evil’s Alice, it does make for a strange decision given how many iconic Mortal Kombat characters are available. This includes Liu Kang, who was the main character of the original films, but also appears in this film. While Cole isn’t an ideal perspective, his history does have ties to another major character in the series. He’s interesting enough, and Tan’s performance works well, but the character overall just comes off as unremarkable.
With the Mortal Kombat tournament on the horizon, Earthrealm’s champions are gathering to prepare for the fight. This includes Cole and Liu Kang (played by Ludi Lin), as well as Kung Lao (Max Huang), Jackson “Jax” Briggs (Mehcad Brooks), Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), and by coincidence, even Kano (Josh Lawson). Their opponents come from the Outworld forces of Shang Tsung (Chin Han), including Kabal, Mileena, Nitara, Reiko, Goro, and even Bi-Han, the original Sub-Zero (played by Joe Taslim). While Earthrealm wants to prepare under the guidance of the Thunder God Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), Shang Tsung decides to cheat and get the jump on our heroes. This starts when Cole becomes prey to Sub-Zero’s cold and relentless hunt.
This is an interesting approach, as the marketing for the film somewhat suggests a different story. We get a build up for a tournament that ultimately doesn’t happen. Honestly, that may have been the better direction for the plot to go in. Instead, we have Earthrealm’s champions training together to discover their “arcana,” which is their special power that as Kano puts it, basically comes out of an assorted box of chocolates. While these abilities mirror the game counterparts well, it doesn’t work all that well for explanation. It’s inconsistent and doesn’t move across the cast equally, making it strange to lump them all together as a single explanation in the first place. It honestly would’ve been best to just give the abilities with no context at all.
While the arcana is a silly inclusion to the story, the rest at least has a ton of potential. It’s just the execution that falters here. There’s a clear focus on world-building, but the pacing of the plot points overshadows them quite a bit. Some elements of the plot just happen too randomly. Whether it’s finding a character randomly in the desert, or even just instantly unlocking arcana, it lacks reason. Thankfully, the biggest draw for the movie, the fights themselves, deliver in most aspects. There are occasional fights that are a little dull, but the sheer violence and creativity help to elevate them. This is especially the case when we see many fatalities come to life on screen.
Speaking of fatalities, Mortal Kombat does at least handle the fan service relatively well. While the movie maintains the brutality and gore the series is known for, we also get a lot of inside jokes. Moments like Kung Lao claiming a flawless victory or Liu Kang repeatedly tripping Kano are fun nods to the games. These moments are spread all throughout the film, even going all the way to the ending. This ultimately gives the film some added charm and a great sense of humor in some cases. It’s great for longtime fans to have something to recognize, but it’s not enough to save the film. While it does work here, it might not go over so well if it repeats this way in potential sequels.
When it comes to the visuals of Mortal Kombat, this is where the movie is pretty divisive. The cinematography of the movie is actually pretty solid, showing a good understanding of film principles by Germain McMicking. Then there’s the color grading, which gives the film a great aesthetic tone. When it comes to the CG though, this is where there’s a lot of inconsistency. Some elements like Sub-Zero’s ice look fantastic, while other moments, the first appearance of Kung Lao for example, look terrible. Then we also have Goro, an entirely CG character making one wonder why they even made the attempt. It’s a mixed bag of visuals that mostly gets the job done, but is lacking in polish.
Finally, one element that we’re glad to see make a comeback is the techno theme song of the original movie. While it has a few changes, it’s still the classic fight song that gets our blood pumping. On top of that, the rest of the music exudes energy that makes each fight scene engaging. The audio design is also pretty great, delivering excellent sounds to immerse the audience even further. This applies to the sound mixing as well, as thankfully, none of the character dialogue is difficult to understand. Even with some of the characters using thick or exaggerated accents, their delivery comes out well enough. That isn’t to say that all the actors give great performances though.
Overall, Mortal Kombat is a fighting movie where it’s best to turn your brain off. Fans will likely appreciate the fun Easter eggs, but they’ll cringe at all the other changes. As far as reboots go, there’s potential to get better, but there are definitely some rough edges to smooth out. If you’re looking for violence with a fun sense of humor, this will be the movie for you. If you’re looking for a proper adaptation of an iconic fighting game franchise, we’re still not quite there yet. Mortal Kombat is passable, but ultimately fails to deliver what fans have been wanting for a long time.
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