Mortal Kombat (2021) Review – 3/10

All the fan service, none of the substance


Back when the “Mortal Kombat” movie came out in 1995, fans were excited to finally see the ultra-violence from the arcades transported onto the world stage on the big screen for all to witness…Many were disappointed. That is not unlike how I feel watching the 2021 film, albeit, for an entirely separate set of reasons. While both films drastically escaped from the lore of the original series, this one does so incredibly flagrantly. It could be forgiven, but only if the setup and payoff was actually worth it.

The film starts with Hanzo (Scorpion) in the woods at his Japanese abode, with his family. The movie tries to give us some family life shots right before they are killed just as quickly as we are introduced, setting up Scorpion’s inevitable demise at the hands of Sub-Zero and the revenge sub-plot. Fast forward to modern day after Raiden rescue’s the sole surviving infant from Hanzo’s home and we are introduced to Cole, who we assume from this point on is going to be a world-level martial artist, only he can barely win fights in some shitty amateur New Jersey-esque octagon ring. The setup here is very typical for these kinds of martial arts films; the future hero being a down-on-his-luck fist for hire, or an inadequate fighter at best, who becomes better. Only in this film they added the twist that all the ‘champions’ have something called ‘arcana’. What is this arcana? It is a secret sauce all the ones with a dragon tattoo on their body have to unlock…Why do they have to unlock it if they are born with it? Where does this dragon tattoo originate from? Why is it a dragon tattoo at all? Oh, and when someone kills them, that person gets their dragon tattoo instead, meaning that them having the tattoo was meaningless in the first place since any old person can just snag one by killing them? It is only 30 minutes in and you can already see the questions that this movie is unnecessarily raising.

Except, none of that was what “Mortal Kombat” was originally about, and it unnecessarily complicates what is an other-wise straight forward and very simple component; anyone can fight, and anyone can become a champion of Earthrealm. They are not “born” with a tattoo that allows them to unlock power ranger abilities. Which reminds me of something that this film robs from the original series, which is its inherent sense of mysticism of a world unseen. No longer are the forces of the Shaolin mystical, no longer is Raiden restrained with his mighty Elder God powers, no, instead now Liu Kang can shoot fireballs because of his arcana, while Raiden is throwing lightning bolts every which way. This film has less temperance in its flashy effects than a Marvel film. It is all too eager to show off as much as possible as soon as possible, and makes it feel rushed and inconsequential. We spend the entire film watching Cole unlock his arcana just for him to get a bunch of armor and weapons. Not special powers, just regular old armor and weapons. Albeit, they are a higher tier of armor and weapons, but armor and weapons none-the-less. We spend the entire film to see Kano get his laser eyes, only for him simply to get killed, when he could have had his laser eyes from black market technology. We spend the entire film to see Jax unlock super powerful mechanical arms, his arcana somehow working on implanted robotics instead of his flesh, when we could have simply seen him get top secret military technology. We spend the entire film watching Sonya fight and argue with Kano only for her to kill him and then gain her power rings which she uses once in the whole movie to kill another character in a single shot, which again, could have simply been top secret military technology.

I think you are starting to recognize a pattern here. The dragon tattoos are just an intrinsically dumb idea. They use it to cut corners on building character attributes that match the character’s backgrounds. Jax and Sonya were in the special forces, and what do they have to show for it throughout the film? Nothing. Liu Kang and Kung Lao are highly trained Shaolin monks, and what do they have to show for it? A temple they visit. Kano is a highly sought after crime syndicate leader, and what does he have to show for it? He calls in a favor to rent a plane. They turned all the character’s iconic abilities and backgrounds into fucking tattoos that they activate like they are part of a Saturday morning cartoon. It is not just disrespectful to the lore, it is absolutely lazy storytelling which could have been so much more interesting if they had these aspects of the characters ingrained within them instead of just being deus ex machina devices. Not to mention, this only complicates things further when we realize “hey, there are other people with superpowers too, like Kabal, Sub-Zero, and Mileena, where are their tattoos?” They do not have any, or at least none that we are shown. So out-the-fucking-window that entire concept goes.

The CGI and effects looked good well enough, although the blood looked absurdly cartoonish at times. A lot of the fire and ice looks stylish, with nice crispy audio to back it, with gunfire and punches sounding meaty and brutal. The entirely CG Goro, as much as I loved the practical Goro in the 1995 movie, worked better for the kind of action we see in “Mortal Kombat”, jumping into the air, using all four arms to deliver deadly combos, and just demolishing the environment. The entirely CG reptile looks a HELL of a lot better than the 1995 version, no contest, unfortunately the fight scene is not nearly as exhilarating. The costumes in general though are quite impeccable. There is a sleek sharpness and simplicity to characters such as Liu Kang, lacking the typical over-design of a lot of characters in modern fantasy action movies like this. Shang Tsung looks more like an emperor than a sorcerer, but overall his design is unique enough to set him apart from the others. The weakest links by far are Kano and Mileena, though in terms of costume design, them being the weakest links is in the film’s favor, as they are at the very least decent. Raiden also looks particularly regal, which is opposite how he was originally intended to look, although given his advancement throughout the series from ‘innocuous peasant figure’ to ‘Wu Shu warrior’, I guess I can ignore it.

While the CGI effects are decent, the story makes little fucking sense, and the movie completely abandons most of the lore of the games, its fights are at least kind of entertaining. They lack the personal closeness of the 1995 film, abstaining from lots of close ups, instead opting to do lots of camera spins and dolly zooms, getting the action from far away, trying to mimic the video game. Only this is not the video game. This is a film. Treat it and shoot it like a film. It tries to make the action as frenetic and fast paced as possible at times, although feels somewhat stunted, providing in the camera flair, sound design, and aesthetic look, but lacking in style with its framing, and not providing enough close ups of combatants taking blows from each other. It all just kind of whizzes by you like a whirlwind, and before you know it, the fight is over. There are very few moments, save for the beginning fight and ending fight, both of which are Sub-Zero vs Scorpion, that have lengthy fight scenes where you feel like the heroes and the enemies switch tides in who has the edge over who. And as for the beginning and ending fight, anyone who even remotely knows this series knows how both those fights are going to end, so they lack the punch that the movie tries to give them, also butchering the “Mortal Kombat” theme at the last minute, completing negating the electronic pumping rhythm of the original.

Of the acting, there is not much for me to say here. The two most likable characters, both of which are villains (Kano and Kabal), are killed off. Kabal especially has some pretty slick one-liners, and as a masked, ventilated character, he has more charisma than the majority of the cast. His actor definitely knew how to emphasize his movements, giving him an unimpressed bravado throughout. Kano is a little on the annoying side, supplanting his backstabbing cunning more with lots of swearing and taunting. Sonya tries, but comes off as just uninteresting. Jax is just barely above mediocre here. Liu Kang and Kung Lao may as well be cardboard cutouts. And Cole, he is as flat as a brown note. I would say this is because of the actors, because with the short screen time Kabal gets he is by far the most enthralling, but if you give these actors more to work with, I am sure you could have made them more compelling at the very least. This is the core problem with the film; we have a total of 7 protagonists we are supposed to keep track of and be introduced to, and none of them are fleshed out much beyond their names and the most simplistic summation of their backgrounds, except for Cole who gets the “primary character” treatment, who is also the least interesting, and a complete newcomer to “Mortal Kombat” as well. Liu Kang and Kung Lao may as well have not even been in this. Hell, Sonya and Jax may as well not have even bothered showing up. This is where the original film got it right. It focused on 3 characters; Liu Kang, Sonya Blade, and Johnny Cage. You cannot have many more main characters than that, especially not if you are limiting your film to being under 2 hours.

I get that they were trying to separate themselves from the original by trying to do something different, but that does not mean you have to make obviously bad choices. Fortunately, with all the main cast introduced in this one, they have more time to ruminate on their characters and flesh them out on a deeper level in the sequel they tease at the end. Being that this was Simon McQuid’s first foray into feature films, I hope this was a learning experience for him, because while it never reached the lows of “Mortal Kombat Annihilation”, it also never reached the highs of “Mortal Kombat (1995)”.


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