It’s time to test your might as the new Mortal Kombat film finally arrives. The video game reboot took it’s time, but there’s plenty to enjoy despite a so-so story.
It’s been a LONG time since Mortal Kombat has graced the big screen. Despite it’s overall cheesiness, the original film in 1995 remains one of the most successful video game adaptations around. Even with the poor reception of its sequel, Annihilation, the MK brand remained pretty damn strong. The games continued to churn out, but even with a (very) successful reboot, it managed to take a couple decades before a new film finally came together.
Directed By: Simon McQuoid
Written By: Greg Russo and Dave Callaham
Starring: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Chin Han, Joe Taslim, Kiroyuki Sanada
Release Date: April 23, 2021 in Theaters and HBO Max
They’ve been trying for YEARS to reboot Mortal Kombat on film, but now it’s finally upon us. With a diverse cast of impressive martial artists and a promise to uphold the ultra-violent appeal of the games, it has looked to be the reboot fans/gamers have been hoping for. In many ways, the new film is very successful in what it’s trying to do, but there some things that don’t quite work. Let’s break it down.
Just about everyone knows the general idea of Mortal Kombat. There are multiple Realms in existence beyond Earth. One of these, Outworld, is filled with some really bad people who wish to conquer everyone else. In order to do so, the Elder Gods designed a tournament of champions to fight one another for the fate of their Realms. In order to claim final victory, Outworld must win ten straight Mortal Kombats…Guess how many they’ve won by the time the movie takes place?
That’s right, nine. With victory close at hand, the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) isn’t leaving anything to chance and is rigging the game. Instead of waiting for the final tournament to start, he’s been sending his Outworld assassin’s (Sub-Zero, Reptile, even Mileena) into our Realm to preemptively kill off the chosen champions.
This time around, Champions can’t simply be anyone, but must be chosen. Those chosen are marked by a distinctive dragon-shaped symbol on their body. The only way to acquire one is to be a direct descendant of previous MK champions, or you can KILL someone with the mark and have it transfer over. The general idea here being that only those most skilled will be able to officially compete.
Thus we find Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a MMA fighter who’s seen better days. After learning his “birth mark” actually indicates he’s one of those chosen to defend the world. After his family is attacked by a supernatural being, he pairs up with someone who might be able to tell him what’s going on. Enter Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee).
Despite not being one of the “chosen” herself, Sonya has dedicated a lot of time and research into learning about Mortal Kombat and trying to find the other chosen. She’s learned that Outworld hasn’t been playing fair and the people remaining to defend the planet is getting smaller and smaller.
The two, along with the murderous Kano (Josh Lawson), head out to find Raider’s Temple in order to train with the Thunder God and hopefully be ready to fight in Mortal Kombat when the time comes. Unfortunately for them, they’ll find themselves forced to act sooner than expected…I don’t want to get into spoilers, but suffice it to say it all leads to a ridiculous amount of ass-kicking.
In a lot of ways, it’s pretty much the setup you would expect, but I love how it really tried to put a different spin on the whole concept. Hell, we don’t actually even make it to Mortal Kombat itself, as the whole story is about them having to fight back against Shang Tsung’s cheating! In fact, the film pretty much ends on the idea of them having to go out and find more Earth champions to fight in the tournament.
Over the decades, the Mortal Kombat games have delved into some pretty deep lore. Characters have been given some intricate backgrounds, and the overall story has expanded dramatically. The new movie takes advantage of this in some ways (mostly with Scorpion and Sub-Zero, which has been a big focus of the marketing), but largely moves forward with it’s own story.
The basics are still there, but we’re only given glimpses of Outworld and passing references to certain characters’ history. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there’s a part of me that really wanted some more info behind the characters. In general it gets all the important points across. My girlfriend, who has no interest or prior knowledge of Mortal Kombat, followed the story along just fine and didn’t care about the longer history between Kabal and Kano.
The focus of this new Mortal Kombat is on Cole, a completely new character crafted just for the film. Ostensibly, him being entirely new gives audiences a fresh perspective to enter the bigger world/story. It also gives us a more grounded point of view as we’re thrust into the more fantastical/supernatural elements of the film.
The problem, however, is that Cole is ridiculously trusting of all the people and information he’s given. He absorbs the idea of being hunted by Sub-Zero, and the history of Mortal Kombat with barely a blink. As more weird stuff comes to pass, he continues to just take it in and roll with the punches (literal and figurative).
It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes the Cole feel less than a fleshed out character. For me personally, his reactions/inclusion actually made me less accepting of the fantastical elements and made me want to question them more.
It also doesn’t help that the story doesn’t give the character much time to process/deal with the information given to him. The plot is a bit flimsy, and mostly serves to get us from one fight scene to another. Generally speaking, that’s most of what you want out of a Mortal Kombat movie anyway, but the film insists on taking itself super seriously. It’s strange, and feels weird when they go meta (e.g. a character straight up saying “flawless victory” or “fatality”). Because so much of it plays at being serious, those moments come off more cringy than cheesy.
This is true of all the characters, sadly. The script just doesn’t give any of them enough time to really feel meaningful or fleshed out. Sonya Blade is little more than a mouthpiece for lore dumps, with the actress hurling dialog at a breakneck speed to get all the info out in a timely manner. Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), the normal protagonist of MK, is overly serious and feels like a caricature rather than a hero to root for.
Kano, funny enough, feels like the most fleshed out character in the film. He’s brutal and crude, but manages to steal just about every scene he’s in. It’s clear the actor is just having a blast, and it feels like his over-the-top attitude should have been the norm for all the characters.In some ways, it feels like the film’s focus on establishing Cole Young as an important part of this world, took away time to flesh out the other characters.
Now, I will say that Joe Taslim absolutely KILLS it as the villainous Sub-Zero. He brings true menace to every scene he’s in and I’d love to see more of his story explored down the road. He’s just so good in this.
All of this sounds harsher than I probably intend. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely enjoyed Mortal Kombat and had a blast watching it (hell, I hope they make more of them soon). The lack of real character development, however, made it really tough to care when the fights went down. There was no emotional connection to them, so the finale, while impressive to watch, lacked a certain “oomph.”
Holy Shit, The Fights
If you’re looking forward to Mortal Kombat, the big reason probably has nothing to do with the character development or lore. No, you’re looking for the action. In this regard, the new film delivers in a number of amazing ways.
There are a ridiculous amount of fights in the film. With a cast full of impressive martial artists, each of them manage to stand out and bring their own flair to the table. No two sequences feel the same or get repetitive. It’s pretty damn great. I mean, I lost count of the amount of “holy shit” or “oh damn”s I shouted out during the film.
As a long-time martial artist myself, I was floored by the talent on display during many of these scenes. The filmmakers managed to incorporate a visceral/grounded feel alongside the supernatural elements in a natural way. And that’s not to mention the fatalities!
As promised, the film delivers on the brutal nature of the games. There’s blood and guts galore as limbs fly, heads roll/explode, and so much more. Normally, I’m not big on over the top gore, but in the context of this film, it’s an absolute blast and left me wanting more. They managed to pull off these scenes in a way that balances the cartoony and realistic. It helps take the edge off, preventing it from turning into the more grotesque way horror films show.
The fight scenes deliver and if that’s all you were hoping to get out of the new Mortal Kombat, you’ll have a blast. The story is passable enough that it keeps you engaged between the fights (though there’s not a lot of time for that), and makes for an action flick that’s easy to enjoy. As I said, my girlfriend could care less about the games, but came away from the film having a fun time.