Review – Mortal Kombat (2021)

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Overview

Synopsis Hunted by the fearsome warrior Sub-Zero, MMA fighter Cole Young finds sanctuary at the temple of Lord Raiden. Training with experienced fighters Liu Kang, Kung Lao and the rogue mercenary Kano, Cole prepares to stand with Earth's greatest champions to take on the enemies from Outworld in a high-stakes battle for the universe.

Length 1 hour 50 minutes

Release Date April 23, 2021

 

Rating R

Distribution Warner Bros. (theatrical), HBO Max (VOD)

Directing Simon McQuoid

Writing Greg Russo, Dave Callaham, Oren Uziel (story)

Composition Benjamin Wallfisch

Starring Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin, Chin Han, Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada

I wrote in my article on Netflix’s Castlevania series that the technical and artistic achievement to be found there was something of a watershed moment for cinematic adaptations of interactive titles.  No longer could one use the excuse of a weak story, thin world-building, flat characters, or Zero Wing quality writing as an excuse for a poorly executed film or television production.  If my conviction that you can make a great movie out of anything was given a full manifestation, it was there.  At the same time, it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to hit such a high mark consistently, so I found myself of two minds with regard to the announcement of another live action attempt at a Mortal Kombat title.  I’ll see about how to bifurcate that below…

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Extremely strong, bloody/gory fantasy violence. Many voluminous, spattering blood spurts. Bloody wounds. Spitting/dribbling blood. Characters are killed. Martial arts fighting with kicking, punching, throwing, complex holds. Stabbing with swords and other blades/weapons. Limbs sliced off. Sword through head. Heads bashing on rock or concrete. Guns and shooting. Characters frozen. Character’s arms frozen until they burst, with blood shooting everywhere. Character sliced in half from head to navel by giant spinning blade; gory insides shown. Giant monster battles; person rips out monster’s heart. Monster stabbed in eye. Exploding head. Character shot, leaving a huge hole.

Language/Crude Humor: Several uses of “f–k”/”f–king.” Also “motherf—-r,” “s–t,” “a–hole,” “p—y,” “b***h,” “pr–k,” “a**/bada**,” “sack/suck my sack,” “damn,” “hell,” and “nuts.”

Sexual Content: None.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Character drinks a bottle of beer.

Spiritual Content: Some superficial allusions to Eastern mysticism.  Characters are able to return from the dead.

Other Negative Themes: Strong revenge subplot.

Positive Content: Courage is shown in the movie’s extremely simple (and very violent) good-versus-evil story, though not much teamwork is displayed.

Movie has a very diverse cast. In departure from many Hollywood movies, White male characters are all either villains or turn out to be villains. The three heroes are all very positive and likable, offering positive Asian, Black, and female representation. They fight a lot, of course, but seem to fight out of a sense of duty and doing the right thing. It’s not just about power or wreaking havoc.

Review

Let’s recap for a minute here, folks.  Mortal Kombat is one video game franchise that isn’t at all alien to the big screen.  The 1995 theatrical release is today regarded as something of a cult classic, despite how low-brow, campy, and brain-dead a production it was.  Or perhaps, it’s because of that?  Is that not something entirely faithful to the pedestrian, juvenile, lizard-brained nonsense that the infamous arcade fighter of the early 90s has been known for since its inception?  Can anyone really expect anything resembling a sensible plot, erudition, or even basic cohesion from something like Mortal Kombat?

An uninitiated observer from some time ago noted that the very character roster of a standard Mortal Kombat title looks like some 10-year-old neighborhood terrorist circa 1986 grabbed all of his action figures from out of his toy box and started making them fight to the death.  The cast could be seen as a choice selection of the various merchandise genres that were en vogue among toy manufactures even in my day.  You had mutants and monsters (humanoid enough such that they could use the same standard plastic action figure molds for the more conventional characters to make them), magical warrior monks, superpowered color-coded ninjas, military commando types, cyborgs and robots, somewhat culturally insensitive mascots of various “exotic” people groups, and other folks who really don’t seem like they ought to be here save for the will of whatever capricious overseer is running this freak show.

One of the characters included in this guttural melting pot is just a cop.  Seriously.  A cop.  Not some special super cop.  Just a guy with a badge and a uniform.  I can hardly think of anything else that better illustrates the complete disregard for plot, character, or aesthetic cohesion with which Ed Boon’s brainchild is festooned.

With that said, perhaps there’s little reason to complain about what’s offered in the 2021 effort by director Simon McQuoid, a visionary whose background is exclusively in the field of commercials, from what I gather (that really says it all, doesn’t it?).  What we have in the film written by Greg Russo, Dave Callaham, and Oren Uziel (you really needed THREE people to write this?) is just as discordant, slapdash, irreverent, and carrying itself with a misplaced sense of self-importance as anyone familiar with the source material would expect.  Sadly, the film is inconsiderate towards those who might not be so familiar with the original titles, so any effort to expand the fanbase through this production is elusive, to put it politely.  I could feel having to stop every 15 minutes or so to explain things to my parents should they had been unfortunate enough to be watching this with me.

For those not in the know, “Mortal Kombat” refers to a grand martial arts tournament performed to maintain the balance among the various realms from which the combatants hail. The stories primarily focus on the two key realms of “Outworld” and “Earthrealm”.  There may be other realms besides those two, but I’m not sure.  Each of the characters have their own agendas and varying degrees of concern with regard to the ultimate outcome of the tournament, but the real selling point is seeing the characters eviscerate each other in spectacularly gory fashion as they battle for supremacy.

Does Mortal Kombat deliver where it counts?  That’s a question for more committed minds than I.  While there are a number of action scenes with choreography ranging in quality from middling to somewhat decent, the actual tournament of the film’s title never occurs.  There are about three or so iconic fatalities – the visceral killing moves of the game series’ fame – that dot the runtime, but like so much else, they’re largely perfunctory, vapid, and inconsequential.  The visual effects and costume designs are surprisingly high tier and impressive, but some casting choices here and there are quite odd, with the character of Mileena (Sisi Stringer) arguably being the biggest letdown in many ways.

We’re first introduced to a prologue sequence in Japan year 1617, in which a massacre assault on a rival ninja clan is carried out by Bi-Han (Joe Taslim), aka the first Sub-Zero, of the Lin Kuei clan.  The attack leaves the Shirai Ryu clan leader Hanzo Hisashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), or Scorpion, with a dead wife and son and a cursed soul sent to the Netherrealm (that’s another realm that I couldn’t think of a few paragraphs ago).  The revenge story between Scorpion and Sub-Zero is one of the more well-regarded subplots to the Mortal Kombat franchise.  It’s a pity that it’s not given enough room in the film to breathe or resonate at all.

Instead, much of the storyline proper is committed to establishing as much of the games’ roster as it can manage, while a new character named Cole Young (Lewis Tan) operates as an audience surrogate.  We’re shown some of the favorites that would be well-known to pre-existing fans, but newcomers will find little to respond to here.  Kano (Josh Lawson), the foul-mouthed Australian mercenary, seizes nearly all the attention in every scene he occupies, though after the first act or so, that screen presence vanishes into thin air.  We’re largely left adrift in a sea of confusion until Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang) show up to provide some much-needed exposition.

“Earthrealm” (or “Earth”, if you prefer) is in a dire situation.  In the last nine Mortal Kombat tournaments, Earthrealm has lost to the tyrannical realm of Outworld.  Should Earthrealm suffer another loss, then by rules of the tournament, Outworld will be given leave to conquer it.  Our heroes here have been chosen to fight as champions of Earthrealm in hopes that the oncoming threat can be diverted, signified by a dragon-shaped birthmark on their bodies.  The film also introduces the plot mechanic of “Arcana”, an unlocked special talent that only champions for the Mortal Kombat tournament are able to manifest. 

That little plot contrivance really made me wonder:

Why did we just take for granted the superhuman displays in these games?  Why did we never wonder how it is that a Hollywood actor like Johnny Cage can shoot green energy blasts out of his hands, because of course he can?  Did we ever need an explanation for Kung Lao’s teleportation and Mjolnir-like hat skills?  Or Liu Kang’s fire attacks?  This were normalized so much in fighting games, that their absence would have cried out more for an explanation than their presence.  Here, I guess such suspension of disbelief isn’t made ready, but I’ve seen worse ways of trying to explain away what nitpickers might call out as a sin on the filmmakers’ part.

Honestly, I see little reason to make such a defense.  Superhero movies have been getting away with this for the better part of the last 20 years or so, and aren’t afraid to wink and nod at their own nonsense.  Spider-Man’s quip about Steve Rogers’ physics-defying buckler in Captain America: Civil War is the kind of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness that would prove useful to a new Mortal Kombat outing.  There are whispers of it here and there, such as a remark that the word “Combat” is misspelled, but the grace and sophistication is lacking.

Again, that really isn’t a fault to condemn here.  It’s Mortal Kombat.  “Grace” and “sophistication” are two words have never been appropriate in describing a franchise with an aesthetic candor that one reviewer cleverly described as “Todd McFarlane by way of Andy Sidaris”.  For those who consider themselves purists with regard to adaptations, the dumb, contrived, half-witted, chaotically constructed schlock on display here was made to order.  For the longest time, video games in general aren’t exactly known for their fetching stories, and fighting games in particular are arguably the worst offenders.  Who could ask for more?

Then again, what kind of excuse is that?  I’ve said it before, and I will say it again:

You can make a great movie out of anything.  If one of the most mature and enthralling televised dramas of my lifetime was basically an animated adaptation of “Die Hard with Dracula”, then giving us a sensible and engaging take on something as base and visceral as Mortal Kombat isn’t so far out of the realm of possibilities.  Seeing as the ending wants to set up for a few sequels, and everyone in the business is hankering for the next big “cinematic universe” project, we actually have a few options in which both and possibly more could be delivered.

From my experience, the only time I was ever thoroughly invested in the story of a Mortal Kombat installment was in the case of the superb 2011 reboot title.  Even there, I find that far too many stories and too much in the way of conflicting aesthetic and tonal directions for the uninitiated was at hand.  Upon closer examination, I find the most successful flourishes in this franchise are found when they limit the focus to those groups of characters who are at least superficially congruent in their generic characteristics.  Arguably one of the best Mortal Kombat titles on the PlayStation 2 system was the 2005 release of Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks, which wasn’t even a head-to-head fighting game.

While such an entry may be a bit too esoteric for an opening, it’s a good place as a linchpin moment with such a cinematic universe project, focusing on the champions of Earthrealm most immediately in contact with the villains of Outworld.  Liu Kang and Kung Lao would get top billing, with the primary Loki-style villain being the sociopathic soul-sucking sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han). The mystical thunder god Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) would operate from the margins as he usually does, with the side plot of Scorpion and Sub-Zero’s rivalry being marginally teased at here as well.

If we were to give more aid to those out of the loop, focusing initially on those members of the cast just as baffled by such things as Outworld, the Elder Gods, and “Arcana” if you want to keep that in play, may be the optimal direction.  The aforementioned “military commando” types such as Jax Briggs (Mehcad Brooks), Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), and other more modern Western characters like Kano, Stryker and Johnny Cage, would be the limited cast to focus on in this first iteration.  You could title it Mortal Kombat: Special Forces.

The introduction of Kano and his cybernetic capabilities would serve as an effective Segway into the cyborg characters of Sektor, Cyrax, Kabal, and the underlying post-humanist sci-fi drama therein.  Call that Mortal Kombat: Cyber Initiative.  Since key characters here are also directly tied into the drama between the rival clans of Scorpion and Sub-Zero, this would serve as an effective missing link between the characters more grounded in reality, and those more of the magical Eastern warrior sort. I believe the title “Shaolin Monks” is still fitting there.

With all that established, then the door would be open for the actual eponymous tournament, in an Avengers-style “cool stuff party” with all the various characters joining in a grand battle for the fate of Earthrealm – Mortal Kombat: War of the Realms.  If all this seems a bit outlandish to you, dear reader, let me remind you that something very much like this was done with remarkable finesse from 2009 to 2019 with a similarly eclectic cast of characters that have become nothing short of household names in that period.  Even though Iron Man and Hulk come from various strains of science fiction, Thor and Loki being some manner of mythical high-fantasy epic, Hawkeye and Black Widow being James Bond-style super spies with more comic book exaggerations, and Captain America being a patriotic period-piece war drama first, and a sci-fi action thriller second, what we saw whenever these characters came together was not only viscerally satisfying, but competently coherent and functional.  Since that’s the lightning that everyone is trying to have strike twice in this racket, I see no reason why it can’t be made to fit what is at least suggested in the rough margins of Mortal Kombat

I have PayPal, Venmo, and CashApp, Warner Bros.

Positives

+ Solid special effects
+ Winning costume work
+ Some fight choreography is effective

Negatives

- Terrible writing
- Wasted opportunities galore
- Slapdash plot
- Dumb, even by Mortal Kombat standards

The Bottom Line

It’s Mortal Kombat. You get what’s on the package.

 

5.7

Tyrone Barnes

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