When you think of Mortal Kombat in the film format, what jumps to mind? Obviously, THAT banging techno theme song but what else? Is it the cheesy and cartoony nature of the original or the absolute dross that was the sequel, Annihilation? Maybe you’re a deep cuts kind of fan and the late 90’s TV show, Conquest jumps to mind? Or maybe the interesting and clever web-series that came later, Legacy? Whatever, comes to mind, chances are when it comes to quality, it begins and ends with the original 1995 film. A movie that has become quite dear to many even though it has a ton of flaws.
The thing is, video game movie adaptions are notorious for being bad. So even a half-decent one, which Mortal Kombat was, will immediately be elevated. When your sharing shelf space with the likes of Street Fighter, House of the Dead, Bloodrayne, Double Dragon and Super Mario Bros., things can only look up.
Adapting Mortal Kombat is a hell of task though. Do you stick rigidly to the tournament style ‘story’ and isolate non-game fans? Or do you deviate far from the source material and isolate game fans? Getting that balance is very hard and few have managed to get it right. Mortal Kombat (2021) gets a lot of it right. Not everything, but considering what we’ve had in the past from this franchise, this new movie easily stands out for all the right reasons.
Based on the long running game series it shares its name with, Mortal Kombat (2021) is a reboot of the film franchise. Directed by Simon McQuoid in his feature directorial debut. It stars Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin, Chin Han, Max Huang, Joe Taslim, and Hiroyuki Sanada.
Beginning in 17th-century Japan, the opening section of Mortal Kombat is arguably its best part. As we see the Shirai Ryu clan led by Hanzo Hasashi (Sanada) attacked by the ruthless Lin Keui clan led by Bi-Han (Taslim). Many are killed, including Hanzo’s wife and son before the two warriors do battle. Bi-Han gets the better of Hanzo who dies before he can reach his youngest daughter, hidden away. His soul is sent to the Netherrealm and the Shirai Ryu leave. We then see Lord Raiden (Asano), the god of thunder arrive and take the young baby away.
Cole Young (Tan) is a former MMA champion taking part in local fights. After another loss, he leaves with his family to eat. While there, they are attacked by Bi-Han, now called Sub-Zero. Cole and his family are saved by Jax (Brooks) who tells them to seek out Sonya Blade while he stays to fight Sub-Zero. That goes badly for Jax, his arms being frozen and shattered off before he is left for dead.
Cole separates from his family as Sub-Zero is targeting him and finds Sonya (McNamee) who has Kano (Lawson) captive. Sonya explains to Cole what she knows and says they need to go to Raiden’s temple which Kano knows the way to. Before the trio can come to an agreement, they are attacked by Reptile but manage to destroy the creature.
Forced to team with the villainous Kano, Cole and Sonya arrive at Raiden’s Temple where they meet Liu Kang (Lin) and Kung Lao (Huang). They have been training for the next Mortal Kombat tournament on the side of Earthrealm. It turns out that the Outworld realm has won nine out of ten tournaments and should they win the tenth, they can invade and conquer Earth Realm. Shang Tsung (Han) is attempting to weigh things towards Outworld’s favour by taking out the chosen Earth warriors ahead of the tournament. Hence why the likes of Cole were targeted by Sub-Zero.
He, and others, have a distinctive mark on their body in the shape of a dragon. This is a sign that they have been chosen but should they die in battle, that mark will transfer to the winning fighter. A stamp of approval, if you will.
Cole, Sonya, Kano and Jax (who survived and has had metal arms implanted on him) will have to find their ‘arcana’ power to have any chance of defeating the forces of Outworld. They’ll also have to find it quickly as Shang Tsung is sending his best warriors to take them out.
One of Mortal Kombat’s flaws is that it gets bogged down by its own lore and attempts to sensibly explain the tournament rules and regulations. Often, it’s when the movie slows down the most – in particular when ‘arcana’ and its purpose comes up and you can tell it just wants to rush through it. Sometimes that’s exactly what happens, such as when Raiden calls out Shang Tsung for breaking the Mortal Kombat rules. The sorcerer retorts that the Elder gods are lazy so he can get away with what he is doing. Sure… why the hell not?
Unchain your brain, it’s Mortal Kombat where people can apparently unlock some power in them that lets them throw fireballs or in Kano’s case, shoot a laser out of his eye. Of course, it is nonsense but it is entertaining nonsense. It’s also bloody nonsense, where blood and guts are spilled in almost gleeful fashion. About bloody time. A Mortal Kombat movie that features heads being crushed, arms being ripped off, hearts being pulled from bodies and in one spectacular scene, an body split in half, courtesy of Kung Lao’s hat.
It’s a lot of fun with just a sprinkling of cheese to remind you that your watching a video game adaption (with plenty of references and nods too). What we’re all here for though are the fights and in that regard, Mortal Kombat nails almost all of them. From the opening battle between Bi-Han and Hanzo to their final faceoff at the end as Scorpion and Sub-Zero to Cole’s war with Goro and Liu Kang’s fight with Kabal. There’s plenty to go around and spaced out enough to not just feel like we’re going from one set-piece to another.
It sounds amazing, right? Well, we have to now talk about the biggest flaw in it and that’s some of the characters. With Lewis Tan’s Cole being the obvious first choice. A brand-new character to the universe, he is bland and uninteresting. Written as every hero ever that has to find his inner strength. The only interesting thing about him is that his bloodline relates to Scorpion/Hanzo.
Tan is a good actor, given very little to work with here. The ‘family’ stuff has no impact as they’re barely in it and he doesn’t go through enough hardship to warrant his rise at the end of the movie. He’s ineffective when on screen, made worse when he is sharing that space with the likes of Josh Lawson’s Kano. Easily the best thing in the movie. his cheeky and witty dialogue is funny and he lights up the screen every time he is on it.
Elsewhere, Jessica McNamee’s Sonya and Mehcad Brooks’ Jax struggle to have chemistry. Chin Han’s Shang Tsung and Tadanobu Asano’s Raiden don’t get enough time. Ludi Lin’s Liu Kang is enjoyable if not a bit too ‘good’ and Max Huang’s Kung Lao is similar. Sisi Stringer’s Mileena looks good but that’s about it and the likes of Nathan Jones’ Reiko feel like a waste. However, who aren’t wasted are the pairing of Joe Taslim and Hiroyuki Sanada and their characters, Sub-Zero and Scorpion. This is their film and they absolutely deliver.
It really is a mixed bag of characters but again, compared to what we’ve had in the past, it’s a big improvement. For a lot of these characters, you can see that this film is serving as an introduction to them and the later films will hopefully expand on their personalities. Which is this film overall, a re-introduction to the franchise with set-ups for what might come next. It still has a contained story if there never was one but you can tell that this is part of a longer plan. How that plays out remains to be seen. This, Mortal Kombat (2021), is a bloody good time. At certain points, it’s a great movie but mostly it sits in the good category. Big fights, lots of blood, good effects, moments of silliness and good humour… it’s a satisfying Mortal Kombat movie.
The Final Score - 7/10