There’s a soft spot in every millennial’s heart for the original Mortal Kombat film. When the movie released, video game films were still kind of a new concept and despite being rated PG-13, the film was still based on the somewhat taboo game series you played without your parent’s permission. There’s a nostalgic magic to the movie that allows it to still be enjoyed today despite not actually being all that good.
However, those millennials have all grown up and so has nerd cinema. With the success of R-rated genre films like Logan and Deadpool studios are diving into more graphic content based on comics and games. What better excuse than to revive Mortal Kombat as a film franchise, delivering the R-rated film that the series was pretty much begging for. That’s what Warner Bros. has done with the reboot but no matter how much gore you paint the screen with it can’t cover up a movie that has very little else going for it.
Mortal Kombat (2021)
Director: Simon McQuoid
Release Date: April 23, 2021 (Theatrical and HBO Max)
Believe it or not, there is a plot to the Mortal Kombat games and over the years it has become quite complex, involved, and — dare I say it — interesting. Mortal Kombat takes most of that complexity and boils it back down, though with a bit of a twist. There is still a tournament that takes place between the champions of Earthrealm and the champions of Outworld, the winner of ten of these tournaments is allowed to take over the other world. Outworld has won nine in a row but there is a prophecy that the bloodline of Hanzo Hasashi/Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) will rise to stop the tenth win from happening.
To this end, Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) is gathering the champions of earth, all marked with the MK logo, to train for the battle but he’s pretty behind on it and, despite being able to teleport anyone anywhere, lets them all kind of wander around until about a month before the competition. Meanwhile, Shang Tsung (Chin Han), an evil sorcerer from Outworld, is planning on cheating by killing off the earth’s fighters before the battle begins. He sends Subzero (Joe Taslim) and a cadre of other MK villains to kill off franchise staples Jax (Mehcad Brooks), Kano (Josh Lawson), Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), and Kung Lao (Max Huang). Thus the Mortal Kombat tournament actually never takes place in the movie, instead the film revolves around the gang training to awaken their inner powers (laser eyes!) and being randomly attacked by the bad guys.
There’s also the addition of a new character not from the games in Cole Young (Lewis Tan). Cole turns out to be the descendent of Scorpion and actually has some of the more intriguing powers, his body getting wrapped in a kind of sinewy armor that absorbs his opponent’s attacks and can be reflected back at them via his blade and club weapons. It’s almost too bad he’s stuck in the film because he would make a really interesting fighter in the games. It’s obvious why he’s been added to the film so that audiences have a surrogate but he’s also the only character who gets any development outside of punch things good. That would be all well and good for a fight film if the fights delivered.
Credit should be given to the film for casting actors who can fight instead of trying to land a big name. It does allow the film — when it actually has non-CGI, hand-to-hand combat — to feature some fantastic and creative scenes. Yet director Simon McQuoid can’t stop cutting them up despite his actor’s skills. Every once in a while he realizes they are actually able to throw a punch and keeps longer shots of fights but even then he seems intent to make sure the camera is always moving. It’s the kind of action direction you get from Western directors who don’t know how to shoot martial arts well because they’re used to cutting to hide their actor’s inability to actually fight. One sequence sloppily cuts between four different concurrent fights so frequently it feels almost like a self-referential joke (it isn’t).
His sloppy direction and editing for fights aren’t actually a big part of the film, though, because unless it’s a fight between Subzero and Scorpion, there isn’t that much martial arts action going on. The film relies heavily on CGI sequences that are less fights and more action set pieces setting up bloody, slow-motion moments. The movie is more interested in lining up gorey kills than delivering interesting fights. Make no mistake, the film is blood-filled and pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to violence but without strong fights leading up to the gore it mostly feels gratuitous.
Yes, I know that gratuitous violence is the very core of Mortal Kombat but that is part of the problem. The games, at this point, are cinematic enough to make the violence in the film feel blasé. The movie is jam-packed with references to the games, to the point of tedium, but it doesn’t feel special because the games pull that violence off better. A quick scan of YouTube for fatalities will give you all the same cinematic-style violence the film offers and then some. When MK was a 16-bit fighter simply reproducing the kills on-screen “in reality” would have been awesome but it’s hardly special now. Video games look like movies now and for a film to warrant its existence it needs to do more than mimic a game whose graphics are nearly on par with the movie’s CGI.
There should be campy fun in here somewhere too. The original movie definitely has it and it was something you could enjoy both on the first viewing and down the road. This new Mortal Kombat, however, takes itself far too seriously to really play camp. While it delivers terrible lines with comedic gusto (multiple people say things like “Kano Wins” or “Fatality” to themselves after finishing a fight), it doesn’t seem to be self-aware enough to play as camp. Its blood and violence are ludicrously over-the-top but nothing else is and it makes the film feel like it’s an out-of-date 90s genre movie, not the bloody, R-rated spectacle that fans wanted.
There’s a time and a place that you’ll enjoy watching Mortal Kombat and it’s on your house at home while doing something else. In the days before COVID-19 that would mean you’d have to wait to stream it but thanks to HBO Max you can do that right now. If you’re a fan of the franchise the film offers just enough blood and guts to keep your attention but the soul of the film is so small that not even Shang Tsung would make it his.