Mortal Kombat (2021) Review
A NEW AGE OF KOMBAT IS JUST OKAY
Two words…. Mortal Kombat! In the pantheon of long running video game series or pillars of gaming franchises, the Mortal Kombat franchise has endured over the years; spanning a wide variety of video gaming consoles and generations of eager players that want to get wrapped up within this visceral and violent fighting game. First developed by Acclaim Entertainment / Midway Games and created by Ed Boon and John Tobias, the basic premise focuses on several characters of various intentions and powers who enter a martial arts tournament with worldly consequences; with each of its multitude of subsequent game releases adding new characters and expanding the lore of this world. As a whole, Mortal Kombat has gained a mass following over the years; captivating players and gaining a reputation for high levels graphic violence, including, most notably “fatalities” (finishing moves allowing the player to finish off their enemy opponent). Thus, given the incredible amount of success of the games, Mortal Kombat expanded into new mediums throughout its franchise; one of which was in theatrical motion pictures realm, with the release of Mortal Kombat in 1995. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, the film, which takes cues and inspiration from both the original 1992 game as well as the 1993 follow-up Mortal Kombat II, was well-received by video game fans; finding many praising the martial arts sequences, atmospheric nature / tones, and production value. Mortal Kombat went on to be the number one movie in the US for three consecutive weeks and was able to cultivate roughly $122 million at the worldwide box office. Following the success of the first film, New Line Studio (the studio behind the movie) greenlit a sequel to the 1995 feature to be made, with Mortal Kombat: Annihilation being released in 1997. Unfortunately, the movie was met with backlash and being critically panned by critics, fans, and casual moviegoers alike; finding the sequel to inferior to its predecessor and having such a negative stigmatism decades later. Because of the critical and commercial failure of the sequel, the then planned third Mortal Kombat film (to be named Mortal Kombat: Devastation) was cancelled and, while the video games continued to be released, all notions of returning to the Mortal Kombat property franchise for the silver screen adaptation went dormant. Now, nearly two and half decades after the release of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Warner Bros. Pictures and director Simon McQuoid presents a new reboot to the Mortal Kombat film franchise with the 2021 release of Mortal Kombat. Does this new revival remake bring a new excitement and entertainment into the popular video game or is it just another failed Hollywood remake that feels lackluster and unimaginative?
Cole Young (Lewis Tan) is amateur MMA fighter, accustomed to talking a pummeling for petty cash for his fights; struggling to find his place in the world as he supports his family, wife Alison (Laura Brent) and daughter Emily (Matilda Kimber). Cole is unaware of his special heritage or the actions that are about to befall him as a deadly assassin named Bi-Han / Subzero (Joe Taslim), an otherworldly Cryomancer, is sent by his master, Shang Tsung (Chin Han), a soul-eating sorcerer, to hunt Cole down. Fearing for his family’s safety, Cole goes in search of Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) at the direction of Jax (Mehcad Brooks), a Special Forces Major who bears the same strange dragon marking Cole was born with. Soon, Cole finds himself in unfamiliar territory, traveling with Sonya and rogue mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson) to the temple of Lord Raiden, where the meet the Thunder deity himself (Tadanobu Asano) and protector of the Earthrealm, as well as fellow experience warriors, Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang). There, Raiden explains to Cole and the others of the challenge that awaits them; preparing assemble group of Earth’s champions, those who bear the dragon mark, of a great tournament with another world (Outworld) and the high stakes battle for the universe. Pushing the others to find their hidden arcana powers, Raiden and his warriors begin their training as Shang Tsung and his fiends from Outworld seek to undermine the champions of Earth before the tournament begins. But will Cole be able to push hard enough to unlock his hidden powers in time?
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Growing up in the 90s, I remember spending a lot of time playing video games (at my house or at some of my friend’s houses) as well as going to the arcade every now and again. Mortal Kombat was one of those games as it was quite different from the standard platforming video games of that age; showcasing a grouping of unique characters within a fighting game that was bloody fun. I’ll admit that I had a hard time unlocking a lot of those “fatalities” moves, but I always did enjoy watching them when others were able to unlock them. I mean…. the variety, the violent gory fighting style and finishing moves, and the expanding roster of characters…. it’s no wonder why the lore and fascination of the Mortal Kombat has endured for almost three decades. Because I was a fan of game, I was definitely looking forward to seeing 1995’s Mortal Kombat when it came out. I didn’t see it in theaters, however, but I did catch it the following year when it was released on home video. Personally, I liked it. Yes, it was bit cheesy and flawed (looking back at it in today’s light), but it was a lot of fun and brought the iconic characters and martial arts fighting to the silver screen. Like many who enjoyed the 1995 film, I was looking forward to seeing the 1997 sequel film, which I did see in theaters when it came out. However, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation was pretty bad. Yes, I did like a few scenes from the movie (i.e. the fight scene with Smoke), but the film was disappointing, lackluster, and just overstuffed with too much fan service. Its no wonder why many (including myself) calls Mortal Kombat: Annihilation as one of the worst sequel movies of the 90s. It’s kind of sad that this particular movie basically signified the closure of a potential film franchise and, while the video games would continue to be produced, seeing more Mortal Kombat movies on the big screen seemed like a passing memory.
Until now…. flashing forward to almost two and half decades later and we finally have a new Mortal Kombat movie, with the release of 2021’s Mortal Kombat, a reimagining reboot of the popular video game property. Giving the poor reception of the 1997 sequel, I thought that another Mortal Kombat movie was never going to happen, but I was pleasantly surprised when it was announced that Warner Bros. was going to reboot the franchise with an all-new movie. I do remember hearing a few snippets of information about this upcoming project for quite some time, but nothing truly major. In truth, it was kind of downplayed for some time…. until the film’s movie trailer appeared online. I was definitely interested in seeing the new movie and was curious to see how it would fare with today’s viewers. So, since I had HBO Max, I decide to watch Mortal Kombat on there, rather than going to my local movie theater (mostly for convenience to me), during its opening release weekend and finally have time to give my personal “two cents” about this 2021 reboot. And what are those? Was the movie any good? Well, kind of sort of. 2021’s Mortal Kombat is a modernized reimagining of the famous video game IP that gets some things right and others wrong. It’s definitely a mixed viewpoints movie and its not something truly spectacular as some are making it out to be, but it is definitely entertaining if one takes it as face value….no more, no less.
Mortal Kombat is directed by Simon McQuoid, who makes his feature length directorial debut with this project. With a background of directing commercials and the video short The Night-Time Economy, McQuoid doesn’t seem the first choice to direct such an ambitious project, especially one that has many looking forward to seeing as well as being a “reboot” endeavor. Surprisingly, McQuoid does a pretty admirable job in the director’s chair with Mortal Kombat, but it doesn’t come without some problems (more on that below). However, looking at the positives, McQuoid approaches the film with a sense of what fans of the video game series wanted to see in the previous two Mortal Kombat features. And what is that? Well, the violence and gory that the games are known for. While the past movies had a PG-13 rating, McQuoid’s Mortal Kombat has a R-rating and delivers on the promise of capturing the violent essence of the video game franchise, with the movie touting a plethora of action violence that will surely delight fans and moviegoers alike. Gruesome deaths, bloody fights, and hard-hitting action are presented at the forefront in 2021’s Mortal Kombat and does succeed in adhering to original source material. In this regard, McQuoid does succeed and it is a great highlight of the film. I, too, found myself shock and delighted when a few fighting moves and / or fatalities occurred in the feature, with a few finding myself squirming with bloody violent deaths. Thus, if you are looking for some “over-the-top” violence, you’ll definitely like this movie.
In addition, McQuoid certainly does know how to modernize the Mortal Kombat property; bringing viewers along for a wild ride that seems both familiar and different to a certain degree. McQuoid does seem to know what fans were looking forward to seeing and keeps the ever presence thought throughout the film’s runtime; leaning towards the more mindless blockbuster path rather than a deeper / methodically. More to the point, McQuoid approaches Mortal Kombat with an understanding keeping the movie having a campy feel. It’s kind of like a “double edge” sword (more on that below), but overall…. I’ll admit…. that it kind of does work. A handful silly moments and a crazy adventure origin starting point story with larger-than-life characters and ridiculous violence. Overall, the context of a Mortal Kombat movie can be daunting and outlandish at the same time, but believe that McQuoid knows that and ultimately finds a comfortable groove to settle into; making his interpretation of Mortal Kombat have a fun campy tone that can be mindless, but also entertaining as well. Also, McQuoid finds amusement within trying to balance the feature’s action and comedy; blending the two together that (again) speaks to the overall campy feel and tone of the film. Of course, this leads into the fight sequences that the movie boasts and McQuoid and his team do a terrific job in accomplish these moments. Almost every fight scene in the movie is dynamic and fun (again, speaking to the video game series); generating plenty of entertainment within the brawling moments, which can range from close quarter fisticuffs, a variety of weapons, and mystical special powers. Whatever a person’s view on this movie is (whether good, bad, or indifferent) …. there is no denying the action / fighting sequences in Mortal Kombat are great and are superior to the ones found in the original 1995 film and its 1997 sequel.
The story of 2021’s Mortal Kombat, while thinly sketched, does prove to have a proven track record narrative path by being a mixture of an origin story for the film’s main protagonist character (Cole) as well as establishing the foundation for this reboot franchise; introducing the various heroes and villains in the film’s universe as well as the basic principles of a great tournament between our world (the Earthrealm) and the world of Outworld. Plus, McQuoid does do plenty of callbacks, nods, and references for the Mortal Kombat video game franchise scattered throughout the feature, which will surely delight longtime fans of the series. I won’t spoil them, but I was pleasantly happy with almost every single one. Additionally, I thought that McQuoid did a decent job in keeping the film moving forward at a brisk pace as I felt that the runtime of 110 minutes (one hour and fifty minutes) didn’t feel that long.
The technical presentation of Mortal Kombat is actually pretty good and I do have to give the “behind the scenes” team some credit for accomplishing a lot of noteworthy pieces that make up the film’s visual flair and appeal. For starters, the film’s overall look is pretty solid in my opinion. There are a wide variety of places and locations that are utilized to create a very fantasy-esque / otherworldly locales that definitely are unique and are intricately detailed with cinematic visual flourishes. There’s an overall grandiose and bigness to many of these set-pieces and locations that add to both the flavor of the film as well as to the “large-than-life” characters that populate the film. Plus, I do have to admit that I love a lot of the costume attire / apparel for most of the Mortal Kombat characters that are feature in the movie. Definitely better than what was presented in the previous two features. Thus, I really do have to commend several of the lead people on these categories, including Naaman Marshall (production design), Rolland Pike (set decorations), and Cappi Ireland (costume design), for their efforts made on this project.
Visually speaking, Mortal Kombat is terrific. While the two 90s feature films are considered dated by today’s CGI effect shots, this 2021 remake is vastly superior and showcases plenty of awesome visual effect shots to help aid in bringing these superhuman individuals to life. While the effects aren’t exactly breaking any new ground, the certainly do meet the industry standard of today’s CGI rendering shots, which (as mentioned) do lend credence to many of the more fantastical elements that the movie wishes to express. Thus, I love it. This is also aided by some of the choregraphed movements and staging of the various fighting sequences, which are energetic and fun to see. Additionally, the cinematography work by Germain McMicking is also pretty good; creating a some slick and visually impressive camera angle shots that are aided by the CGI effects and choregraphing fight moves. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Benjamin Wallfisch, is good and certainly adds to the feature’s various sequences, which ones that involve fighting sequences. The downside, however, is that the new Mortal Kombat’s soundtrack is quite as impressive as the two 90s Mortal Kombat, which had a great song selection for the various fight scenes. That being said, there is one point in the movie where the 1995 Mortal Kombat theme song is heard and feels quite appropriate when it appears.
Unfortunately, 2021’s Mortal Kombat struggles in finding a proper balance and faces a good helping of criticism that holds the film back from reaching its cinematic potential. How so? Well, for starters, the story itself and how the script handles everything. While the narrative plot arc of both an origin story for the feature as well as young “chosen one” protagonist character has been a proven to work in superhero blockbuster / fantasy adventures endeavors, the idea needs to be bolstered / enrich to overcome formulaic nature. Mortal Kombat doesn’t do that and makes the story of Cole’s journey arc and the introduction to the Mortal Kombat universe quite unimpressive; playing up the conventional storyline plot points of a hero’s journey and feeling lackluster to the touch. Thus, there is a lot of predicable aspects throughout the movie and it is quite easy to figure out what was going to happen before it hands. This, of course, stems from the feature’s script, which was penned by Greg Russo, Dave Callaham, and Oren Uziel. The story is quite thinly sketched and certainly substance from the get-go. Of course, I didn’t expect a movie such as Mortal Kombat to have an interwoven narrative that combines character depth and an insightful story. However, I was expecting something a bit more in the narrative department, especially since the movie spends a great deal of time establishing all the various characters that populate the film. This makes Mortal Kombat feel a bit of a “dumbed down” adaptation; focusing more on the fighting and action scenes than the plot of the feature. What’s even worse is that the movie’s written dialogue is kind of corny at times. To be clear, it’s not as a bad as the past two Mortal Kombat movies from the 90s, but there are some dialogue lines that are a bit cringeworthy and / or eyerolling. Basically, the script / story could’ve been strengthened to the storyboard department to benefit the film’s likeability.
Additionally, the film’s point of criticism is in McQuoid’s directing. Yes, while this is his first feature length directorial work, its quite clear that he lacks of experience in helming a motion picture. With a combination of the film’s script lacking, McQuoid has a difficult time in trying to balance the feature’s narrative components and the various characters. To be sure, there’s a lot to juggle, but McQuoid can’t find a proper rhythm to make the film have a good flow to it. This leads into the pacing for Mortal Kombat, which unbalanced, especially during the film’s first half. Things are not slow or sluggish as the film does move at a quick pace, but maybe a bit too fast as McQuoid rushes through a lot of story elements and character moments for more of action fighting violence. Heck, even the 1995 Mortal Kombat had a better story and narrative construction. The second half of the film has a better flow, but is still a bit inconsistent and feels like certain sequences were removed and left on the cutting room floor. All in all, McQuoid does a decent job in the movie, but not quite enough and the director’s inexperience shows.
Lastly, my biggest complaint about the movie is Mortal Kombat doesn’t feature an actual Mortal Kombat tournament. Yes, I know that might come to bit of a spoiler, but it is the truth. The film spends a lot of time introducing a variety of characters and a little of the backstory behind a “great tournament”, but I was a bit perplexed when the film’s end credits began to roll and the so-called “great tournament” never happened in the movie. The filmmakers have stated that the movie Mortal Kombat tournament is kind of being saved for a potential sequel, but that makes the 2021 Mortal Kombat movie feel a bit lackluster and merely introduces the players that are going to be in the next movie. While a sequel seems likely, but…. knowning Hollywood….nothing is granted anymore. Worst case scenario…. Mortal Kombat sets ups events for a movie that might not actually happen.\
The cast in Mortal Kombat is kind of a mixed bag. Most are relatively unknown actors and actresses and I kind of like that as I don’t have any pre-conceived notion of the acting talents and no reasons for “big ticketed stars”. None of them give either bad or “over-the-top” cringeworthy performances like the previous two 90s films, but the overall characterizations for most of these characters (many of which are well-known staples in the video game franchise) are rather thin or almost nonexistent; rendering almost all quite bland to the touch. Perhaps the one weakest character of the entire cast is the feature’s main character of Cole Young, the protagonist of the film and who is played by actor Lewis Tan. Known for his roles in Deadpool 2, Into the Badlands, and Wu Assassin, Tan’s acting is fine and I don’t dis his performance of the role of Cole. That being said, he doesn’t really come into his own; passably walking through the part with no much memorable moments. Thus, he is adequate as Cole. What’s even worse is the fact that the script does little to make the character stand out by playing up the commonly used tropes of a hero’s journey / chosen one; a wayward individual that comes into a new surrounding and discovers his abilities. It’s a classic superhero origin arc, but does little to expand upon that notion. He’s basically a blank slate of a character, especially since he’s an original character for the movie and not a classic Mortal Kombat character from the games. Thus, Cole (as a whole) is rather a bland and wooden construct protagonist character and is easily one of the most forgetful and unmemorable characters in the entire film.
On the opposite end of the memorable spectrum, actor Josh Lawson (Superstore and House of Lies) proves to be the “big hit” of Mortal Kombat as the fast-talking / wise-cracking character of Kano. From the moment he appears on-screen, Kano is hilarious and it’s a testament to Lawson’s acting abilty to make the character Kano fun and amusing. To be sure, the character could’ve been played as the straight forward Aussie assassin, but Lawson’s plays around with the character and makes Kano his own creation. From his fast-talking attitude to his crass jokes he makes, Lawson’s Kano is the most memorable character in the entire film. Unfortunately, the other two important main characters in the movie…. Sonya Blade and Jax….are underdeveloped and a bit unmemorable. To be sure, actress Jessica McNamee (Battle of the Sexes and The Meg) and actor Mehcad Brooks (True Blood and Desperate Housewives) are relatively good in their respective parts as the classic Mortal Kombat characters. However, the movie gets these respective characters that much time to shine in their own rights and gives the acting talents of McNamee and Brooks not much to go on. Yes, they both look like the iconic Mortal Kombat characters, but are woefully underdeveloped in the film. Likewise, the seasoned warrior characters of Kung Lao and Liu Kang are serviceable to the movie, yet don’t quite make the strong impact I think that the movie was trying for. Sure, the combined acting talents of Max Huang (Time Raiders and Dragon Blade) and Ludi Lin (Black Mirror and Power Rangers) are good and kind of fit the “campy” feeling of the sure and definitely look like their video game counterpart characters very well. That being said, the movie doesn’t allot that much time for pair to fully develop their characters. Thus, Kung Lao and Liu Kang are merely there to aid in the younger / inexperience warriors of the Earthrealm and nothing more; acting as constructs for the narrative to push forward.
Secondary characters like Lord Raiden and Scorpion are delegated to more supporting roles in the movie and, while their involvement is fine in the movie, they don’t do as much as what I was expecting them to be. To be sure, Raiden, who is played by actor Tadanobu Asano (Thor and Battleship), definitely fits the bill as the “thunder god” and protector deity of the Earthrealm, but neither the director nor the script gives that much time to give the character much time to make the character memorable and is simply there as the “all powerful being” for exposition dumps now and again. Similarly, Scorpion or rather Hanzo Hasashi, who is played by actor Hiroyuki Sanada (47 Ronin and The Wolverine), looks quite impressive and certainly makes the iconic Mortal Kombat character come alive with cinematic glee. The only downside is that Scorpion (as a character) bookends the movie and there isn’t much anything big or new that hasn’t already been shown in the film’s movie trailer. Kind of ruins the actually moments during the climatic third act set-piece a bit.
In the villian category, I would definitely have to say that actor Joe Taslim proves to be the best with his portrayal of Bi-Han / Sub-Zero. Known for his roles in Warrior, Fast & Furious 6, and The Raid: Redemption, Taslim definitely strikes a memorable performance in the movie as the deadly assassin cryomancer. Like Scorpion, Sub-Zero is definitely fleshed out more so than just being a glorified cameo supporting character like in the 1995 film; basically acting as the focal point for the feature’s main antagonist. Taslim’s acting talents are pretty good and definitely help elevate the character. Plus, how the story positions Sub-Zero in the movie are good and definitely is one of the big highlights of the film; seeing his ice powers being used with deadly ferocity.
While Taslim’s Sub-Zero certainly strikes a memorable performance in the movie, actor Chin Han (The Dark Knight and Skyscraper) as the evil demon sorcerer Shang Tsung doesn’t. Sure, the iconic Mortal Kombat bad guy is formidable and is clearly positioned that way, but the movie doesn’t give the character that much time for us (the viewer) to get attached to. There’s one scene where you get to see his signature fatalities, but that’s pretty much it. To be honest, I thought that the portrayal of Shang Tsung in the 1995 film was ten times better and offered a better villian role than what was presented in the 2021.
Sadly, the other villainous characters, including actress Mel Jarnson (Between Two Worlds and Pretty Boy) as Nitara, actress Sisi Stringer (Bloody Hell and Children of the Corn) as Mileena, actor Nathan Jones (Mad Max: Fury Road and Conan the Barbarian) as General Reiko, and stuntman / actors Daniel Nelson (Godzilla vs. Kong and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) and actor Damon Herriman (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Justified) as Kabal (Nelson does the body and Herriman provides the voice), are woefully underdeveloped and paper thin. That’s not to say that they look cool and fit their respective parts in the movie, but neither the script nor the film’s direction allow these particular Mortal Kombat characters to truly shine; rendering them to be cannon fodder baddies and not much else. And that is disappointing.
A new age of kombat is about to begin as Lord Raiden gathers warriors from the Earthrealm against the deadly assassins of Outworld in the movie Mortal Kombat. Director Simon McQuoid’s directorial debut film takes the popular video game franchise and translate that into a new reimagined cinematic tale for the modern age; showcasing updated visuals effects, better fighting sequences, violent fatality move finishers, and several nods and winks to the franchise. However, the movie falter when held under a microscope, due to the director’s inexperience, a lazy and dull script, pacing issues, and a plethora of characters that are underdeveloped. Personally, I thought that this movie was somewhere between good and okay. Yes, I didn’t have super high expectations about this movie, so my expectations were quite low and I did like the film’s visual appeal and action sequences. However, most of the movie’s characters (except Lawson’s Kano) were underdeveloped and the story’s pacing and structure were wonky. It’s kind of a give and take sort of thing. To me, there were things that the movie got right and some things that the original 1995 film did better. Thus, my recommendation for the movie is a adequate “iffy-choice” as it serviceable to Mortal Kombat fans out there and maybe as well to the causal moviegoers out there. The ending of the film proves that there is more to the tale to be told and sequel could be possible. While there is a strong notion that this “next chapter” will be greenlit, I do hope that the filmmakers learn from the faults of this particular movie and make the second Mortal Kombat a better and well-rounded endeavor. In the end, 2021’s Mortal Kombat does what it sets to do…. nothing more, nothing less. The film (flaws and all) proves to be a visual and graphic violence film adaptation of the video game property that’s strong action and gory, but light on memorable characters and story. Take the feature for what it is and at face value….and you’ll enjoy the feature. Short answer…. Mortal Kombat isn’t a “flawless victory”, but it is amusing to pass the time.
3.5 Out of 5 (Iffy-Choice)
Released On: April 23rd, 2021
Reviewed On: May 1st, 2021
Mortal Kombat is 110 minutes long and is rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout, and some crude references