A film review by Craig J. Koban May 5, 2021

MORTAL KOMBAT jj

2021, R, 110 mins.

Lewis Tan as Cole Young  /  Joe Taslim as Bi-Han / Sub-Zero  /  Jessica McNamee as Sonya Blade  /  Josh Lawson as Kano  /  Tadanobu Asano as Lord Raiden  /  Mehcad Brooks as Jackson 'Jax' Briggs  /  Ludi Lin as Liu Kang  /  Ng Chin Han as Shang Tsung  /  Hiroyuki Sanada as Hanzo Hasashi / Scorpion  /  Max Huang as Kung Lao

Directed by Simon McQuoid  /  Written by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham

I cannot understate how popular, important, and controversial the original 1992 MORTAL KOMBAT video game was back upon its original release.  

It ushered in a new era of shocking (well, for then) graphic violence for the medium, which made players around the world gather around the Midway produced arcade cabinets.  It spawned legions of imitators and also spawned the creation of the ESRB - Entertainment Software Rating Board - after concerned parents and politicians had their heads turned.  Of course, it ushered in a mass merchandise empire that made its way into movie theatres with the first of two silver screen adaptations in 1995.  That Paul W.S. Anderson director effort had its B-grade, schlocky appeal, but its watered down PG-13 rating still seems like a slap in the face to die hard series fanatics.  

This unavoidably brings us to the latest remake, which does deserve some props for going the ultra hard R-rated route with the source material in an attempt to placate those that still feel let down by the bloodless '95 endeavor.  This latest MORTAL KOMBAT definitely benefits from a larger budget, a better visual filmmaker at the helm in newcomer Simon McQuoid, and much more polished visual effects (the hilariously crude CGI in Anderson's MK looks horribly dated now), but more doesn't necessarily mean better.  MORTAL KOMBAT redux is indeed bigger, splashier, and gorier, but it's not a particularly smarter video game movie adaptation compared to the mixed bag mid-nineties iteration.  It's appropriately vicious, yes, but it also paradoxically takes itself too seriously while trying to embrace the limitless absurdity or its premise.  It's also not assisted by having a newly created (for this film) underdog hero that's vanilla bland and flanking him with actors giving performances that range from functional to porn actor awful.  And oh God, some of the line readings here are as stiff as the punches and kicks in the film.   

Perhaps the main issue with a movie based on a fighting tournament video game lies in churning out a feature length plot that embellishes and expands upon it.  For those that have never picked up a game controller in their lives, MORTAL KOMBAT refers to a fighting contest of the same name that pits gallant heroes of Earth against the most accomplished warriors of the mystical Outworld.  In order to control all of Earth and enslave its inhabitants, the vile leader of Outworld, Shang Tsung (Chin Han), needs to have his fighters secure flawless victory against them.  On our plane of existence resides Cole (Lewis Tan), who is a down on his luck MMA fighter that's struggling to make ends meet and secure a future as the ultimate caged combatant.  Little does he know, though, is that he is the distant relative of Hanzo "Scorpion" Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), who just so happened to be the mortal enemy of Tsung's underline, Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim).  Things are about to get frosty for poor Cole. 

 

 

Out of nowhere, Sub- Zero makes a surprise appearance and attacks Cole and his family, hoping to destroy him and all of Earth's combatants before the tournie can even begin.  Cole is thankfully rescued by Jax (Mehcad Brooks), a Special Forces brute who brings him to Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamme), who reveals to him all of the back-story behind Outworld and Earthrealm.  Oh, and she also points out to Cole that he is a chosen one, of sorts, based on his lineage to Hanzo and the fact that he bares a solemn birthmark (that bares an uncanny resemblance to the MK logo itself), and thus begins his training to discover his hidden Chi-like power, "arcana", which is found in all potential MK fighters.  He's assisted in this soul searching mission by Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang), and Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano).  Meanwhile, Tsung gathers together powerful forces of his own, with one standout in particular, the treacherous and backstabbing Kano (Josh Lawson), who specializes in cracking wise and shooting laser beams out of his one eye. 

There is a lot of world building that occurs in MORTAL KOMBAT, some of it essential and well done, whereas other aspects are pretty cookie cutter.  McQuoid has the thorny task of having his actors (to be fair, very few of them are seasoned thespians) unleash a considerable amount of expositional particulars about core mythology that sometimes has the unintended side effect of making viewers doze off.  Now, no one goes to a MORTAL KOMBAT film for Shakespearean level acting, but the film easily could have benefited from better casting in some key roles and from some uniform and consistent charisma evoked from the entire cast.  Lewis Tan certainly is up to the physical rigors of his role and looks good as an action hero, but the script paints him so dully that we have to remind ourselves that he deserves our rooting interest.  His overall arc of a washed up MMA fighter that finds a new super powered lease on life is done with broad, obligatory strokes.  Most of the rest of his co-stars are equally fine as posing props, but don't have much personality.  The one stand out is Lawson's Kano, who seems to be the only performer here that understands what kind of outlandish film he's occupying, and he plays his baddie with a scathing wit and reckless aplomb. He's so good in the film that it has the unintended effect of making everyone else around him look fairly amateurish. 

As for what does work in MORTAL KOMBAT?  Well, it's commendably fan service-y on a level of sheer bone crunching, limb severing, and blood gushing mayhem.  This version makes the Anderson installment look like Sesame Street, and as an appropriately and hellishly gruesome spectacle this one achieves its status quos.  For aficionados of the original games that want their lust for (example) characters having their arms frozen solid and ripped off or having one fighter sawed in half from head to toe...then...well...this is your cinematic reward.  McQuoid is clearly working with higher echelon production values, consumes, set design, etc. than what was offered before, and his MORTAL KOMBAT indubitably looks grander and epic in dosages.  One of the best sequences in the entire film just so happens to be its flashback introductory scene, which is set in 1617 Japan and features Hanzo going up against Shan Tsung and introduces us to both of their unique abilities.  It's a wholly spectacular opening done with economical storytelling and impressive stunt choreography and seamless effects. 

Imagine, though, if the rest of MORTAL KOMBAT was as great as this opening.  Sadly, it's not.  It's really quite funny that a movie based on a video game about an interdimensional fighting tournament doesn't...actually...have...a tournament in it.  And when the gravity defying and powers unleashed battles do come around they're serviceable, but rarely hold up to the superlatively high level and pedigree of the best action beats in the JOHN WICK franchise.  Outside of its superb and aforementioned opening scene, most of the battles in MORTAL KOMBAT are too kinetically cut and lacking in smooth fluidity (again, the JOHN WICK series has utterly changed the game and spoiled us moving forward).  There's a load of pacing issues at play here too, and MORTAL KOMBAT has too many characters, too many subplots, and too much universe deep diving that its middle section feels like a real slog before we get to the frenetic finale.  MORTAL KOMBAT ends on an enticing tease and a promise of more films to come, but like so many other middling fantasy franchise starters its opening chapter feels like one big, drawn out setup up as opposed to being a solid film in its own right.   

Also, saying that this is better than Anderson's crack at the material ain't really saying all that much.  Both versions maintain a level of empty calorie, retrograde entertainment value, even though McQuoid's take is far more fan appeasing and most assuredly looks better.  This MORTAL KOMBAT understands and honors the unapologetically gruesome appeal of the games that inspired it, but beyond such sinful surface pleasures and a few well oiled action beats, there's simply not much more going on under the hood of this film.  And considering the decades-long wait for this by the franchise's legion of supporters, MORTAL KOMBAT tries to hack and slash its way to cinematic success, but is a far cry away from attaining a flawless victory status. 

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