Mortal Kombat (2021) review – it’s still better if you play it kompetant

April 23, 2021
Jonathon Wilson 0
Film Reviews
3

Summary

Mortal Kombat delivers gore by the bucketload and plenty of nods for long-time fans, but its stamina is sapped by clunky exposition.

3

Summary

Mortal Kombat delivers gore by the bucketload and plenty of nods for long-time fans, but its stamina is sapped by clunky exposition.

This review of Mortal Kombat (2021) is spoiler-free.


Mortal Kombat has a dense roster of beloved characters and a perhaps self-defeatingly convoluted mythology; the potential for stories set in Earthrealm and Outworld, involving iconic personalities that are at this point older than most of the people who would be doing the storytelling, is virtually endless. What’s more is that the games, especially the most recent ones, have always had a fascination with cinematic storytelling – the story mode of every Mortal Kombat game since 2011, and two games set in the Injustice universe also developed by Netherrealm Studios, has featured almost as many cut-scenes as player-controlled fights. You could make an animated or live-action series out of all this and keep it going for years. If Netflix can do it with Castlevania and The Witcher, Mortal Kombat is an open goal.

However, that’s not the direction taken by Warner Bros. for the third live-action movie and the first that is supposed to be taken at least a little bit seriously. Launching both on HBO Max and in whichever theatres haven’t been financially crippled by the pandemic, Mortal Kombat (2021) plays things pretty straight, with plentiful nods to fans but also a proper story, with real actors and an obviously decent visual effects budget. The video game adaptation is the mangled stepchild of the movies, of course, so standing out from that mob isn’t exactly an achievement, but if you measure the success of one of these things by how embarrassing it is or isn’t, then Mortal Kombat manages to be one of the best ever without even being all that good.

Things start unsurprisingly, in part because WarnerMedia has been advertising the opening sequence all over the place ahead of the film’s release, but also because the rivalry between Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) and Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) has formed the backbone of so many Mortal Kombat stories – including that recent animated film – that it’d be weird to open any other way. Hundreds of years before the events of the film proper, Sub-Zero, a ninja with ice powers, kills Scorpion and his family and drags him to Hell, where he spends centuries stewing in his rage and grief until he can return for a climactic rematch towards the end of the film. The transition from Hanzo Hasashi to the much more familiar Scorpion, and from Bi-Han to Sub-Zero, both occur off-screen; in the opening sequence neither is wearing their iconic gear and while it’s implied that plenty happened in the meantime, we don’t get to see it. Maybe in the sequel.

The bloody, stylish action in this prologue is brutal and entertaining enough that you don’t realize how bad the writing is until we meet new character Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a descendent of Scorpion’s bloodline who has thus inherited the responsibility of representing Earthrealm – read: our world – in a legendary fighting tournament against the nefarious Outworld. Cole’s the weakest part of the film, easily. When he first turns up he’s a mediocre MMA fighter taking short-notice fights for peanuts, but once series stalwarts Jax (Mehcad Brooks) and Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) turn up to dispense some artless exposition he realizes he has a destiny™.

After the two Mortal Kombat films from 1995 and 1997, both of which were essentially feature-length low-budget music videos that became cult classics on the strength of their unintentional hilarity, the idea of some seriousness being injected into the story doesn’t sound too bad. But everyone involved takes themselves so seriously that it’s kind of tedious to watch them go about their world-saving business, going through the motions of a rote “heroes discover their powers” arc under the tutelage of Thunder God Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) and Shaolin warriors Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang). The only bright spot is Kano (Josh Lawson), a mercenary and longstanding franchise baddie who is responsible for roughly 98% of all the film’s banter in the absence of usual comic relief figure Johnny Cage (his appearance is teased as justification for a sequel). Most of what Kano says isn’t all that funny, but he throws so much at the wall that some of it stuck, at least for me.

Despite all these characters, and all this worldbuilding and plotting, I still don’t think it’s what anyone really comes to a Mortal Kombat movie looking for. What fans really want are elaborately choreographed showdowns and gruesome fatalities, and when it comes to that stuff, this film is pretty damn great. It might not be in the same ballpark as The Raid or The Night Comes For Us, despite the presence of Joe Taslim, but it’s certainly more adept than most mainstream movies, and the goriest bits aren’t serious enough to come across demented but aren’t so outlandish as to be laughable. It works well enough that the almost inevitable sequel seems a safe bet. Just don’t expect it to redefine how we think of live-action video game adaptations.

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