Starring: Lewis Tan (Wu Assassins), Jessica McNamee (The Meg), Josh Lawson (House of Lies), Tadanobu Hosano (Thor), Mehcad Brooks (Supergirl), Ludi Lin (Power Rangers), Chin Han (The Dark Knight), Joe Taslim (The Raid), Hiroyuki Sanada (The Wolverine)
Director: Simon McQuoid
Writers: Greg Russo and Dave Callaham (Wonder Woman 1984)
Runtime: 1 hour 50 minutes
Release Date: 23rd April (US/HBO Max), 6th May (UK/PVOD)
The phrase “there’s no such thing as a good video game movie” generally holds water, but an exception to many is 1995’s adaptation of the arcade classic that introduced us to fatalities, digitized graphics and the Entertainment Software Rating Board: Mortal Kombat. Sure, the story was formulaic, the dialogue was cheesy, and it lacked the trademark gore of the franchise, yet it had enough charm and gnarly 90s techno to gain affection in the hearts of fans everywhere (its 1997 sequel, Annihilation, however…has few admirers for good reason). Even so, Mortal Kombat has for ages been begging for a cinematic reboot to fully capture the totality of the series: more characters, more special moves, more gruesome finishing blows. Those wishes have finally been answered in 2021’s Mortal Kombat and, whilst it’s not a flawless victory, it delivers enough B-movie fun to satiate the bloodthirsty.
Rather than following the tournament structure of the early games or the first movie, the new Mortal Kombat spends most of its running time building the world and developing its heroes and villains. This approach leaves the film feeling like an overlong prologue, spending its time between fights mostly spouting exposition about tournament rules and character backstories. It places the film in a bit of an awkward middle ground, being neither detailed enough to please fans nor simple enough for laymen to invest in. The movie does get to explore avenues previous adaptations have often looked over, like the rivalry between Scorpion and Sub-Zero or the camaraderie of Sonya and Jax, but to do so the basic tenets of storytelling are often warped from the pressure of cramming so much in with less than two hours.
After a compelling cold open, the film’s first act seemingly swallows up most of the remaining runtime, with much of the story taking place in one location as the characters train and banter for nearly an hour. All of this build-up and anticipation does lead to a pretty satisfying finale that delivers on much of what the film promises, but it still does feel like the filmmakers are holding a lot back for a sequel they are far too confident they’ll get to make. Ultimately however, the film holds up in spite of all this simply because it captures the spirit and heart of the games so well. It has its grandiose mythology, its twisted sense of humour, its brazen self-awareness and, above all, its commitment to fun above all else. If you can’t get on board with that, that’s more than understandable but, for better and worse, this is undeniably a Mortal Kombat movie made by and for Mortal Kombat fans.
Much like the original film, what carries the story is the charm of its characters, and Mortal Kombat delivers a healthy dose of fan favourites, obscure deep cuts and, most surprisingly of all, a brand-new challenger in the form of our protagonist. Lewis Tan does a commendable job as Cole Young, creating a character with charisma and relatability in spite of his generic backstory and motivations. He is at first too grounded compared to his more colourful supporting cast, leading him to sometimes get lost in the shuffle, yet by the climax he comes into his own and narrowly edges himself a satisfying arc. I doubt he’s going to become anyone’s favourite character, but if Cole ever becomes playable in the games, I’d certainly give him a few rounds. I mean, he’s certainly got more character and a unique move set compared to the countless forgettable fighters the series has had in its near-thirty-year history.
Jessica McNamee nails Sonya Blade’s terse yet noble personality, though she is unfortunately saddled with not only a lot of expository dialogue, but also a problematic subplot about her worthiness to compete in the tournament. Being the only female character in the film with any development, it’s pretty disappointing to see her arc boil down to a poorly-concealed glass ceiling metaphor. Mehcad Brooks fares better as Jax, capturing both his bravado and his insecurities, though he is out of commission for much of the second act. It seems odd at first to place Liu Kang, the usual protagonist of the series, in a supporting role but this allows the film to poke fun at the character’s stoicism without turning him into a joke, and Ludi Lin does well balancing that line. Whilst Max Huang does get in some great moments as Kung Lao, he enters the film quite late and leaves pretty quickly, and Tadanobu Asano’s po-faced performance as Raiden has neither the grandiosity of the game character nor the humour of Christopher Lambert’s 1995 interpretation.
Though their screen time together is mostly relegated to the bookends of the film, Hiroyuki Sanada and Joe Taslim make for a great combo as Scorpion and Sub-Zero, and the way the film uses the language barrier between them to add conflict is a unique touch that adds a little authenticity. Chin Han does a great job of matching the bravado and intimidating presence of Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s performance as Shang Tsung, but he’s in the film far too sporadically to have a real impact. Much of the rest of the rogue’s gallery is made up of disposable jobbers with barely a handful of lines between them, with only Kabal getting much personality or connection to the other fighters. Most disappointingly, fan favourite Mileena is relegated to this henchman role and is sapped of not only her origins but her unsettling personality too; if they weren’t going to do her justice, they should have saved her for the sequel and thrown in another throwaway villain like Tanya or Ashrah. With all that said, the film’s big secret weapon is Josh Lawson’s hilarious performance as Kano. As soon as he’s introduced, the movie drastically improves as the Australian backstabber quips his way through the rest of the film and threatens to steal the whole production. He is the movie’s Jack Sparrow, and if anyone in the film deserves to become a breakout star, Lawson should.
If you came to Mortal Kombat looking for blood, you are going to find it and much more. Limbs are severed, skulls are split, hearts are ripped out, people are burnt alive and frozen to death; everything an edgelord would love and a conservative parent would hate. Unfortunately, punches are pulled in the most literal sense, because the fights are surprisingly the film’s biggest weakness. Though the 1995 version was hardly a Bruce Lee masterpiece, it understood how to not only stage its brawls, it knew how to edit them. Mortal Kombat blatantly suffers from the pervasive Hollywood problem of not just having too many cuts, but placing them in a way that robs the fights of their full impact. The choreography is perfectly fine when it’s comprehendible, working in plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle references to moves from the games, but it desperately needed someone like Chad Stahelski to step in and supervise these sequences.
It’s a massive shame, because the film otherwise does a fantastic job of capturing the aesthetic of the games. Some of the locations are bland, with most scenes in Outworld looking like it was shot in the same quarry as every other episode of Doctor Who, but those pulled right out of the games are startingly accurate and it’s great to see a lot of on-location filming as opposed to green screen sets. The visual effects are generally pretty solid, especially on fully CG characters like Reptile and Goro, but there is only so much one can do to make these insane character designs feel tangible. The cinematography captures some gorgeous moments, the costumes strike a great balance between being source material-accurate and being stagey, and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is a suitable mix of Zimmer-inspired bombast and techno-infused modernity that works in that classic “Techno Syndrome” beat in every chance it gets.
Fans love the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie because it’s dumb fun, and its 2021 successor continues in that fashion. Its greatest flaws lie more in trying to do too much rather than not trying enough, which is certainly the more admirable way to fail, but what it gets right more than makes up for those shortcomings. More than any previous video game adaptation, this captures not only the look of the game but the feeling you get when playing it: giddy, excited, and wincing at all the right moments. The Mortal Kombat games never strived to be high entertainment, and this film shouldn’t be held to a different standard just because of the change in medium; you don’t denigrate a food truck burger simply because it’s not a porterhouse steak. This movie is a food truck burger, and judging it as such, it’s a pretty damn good one that needs less mayo and a little more time on the fryer. If you’re not a fan of the games, knock a point off my score if you want. Otherwise, strap in and try not to puke.
FINAL VERDICT: 7/10