Mortal Kombat (2021) Review – Fumbling At The Controls
The year is 1992 and it’s a Saturday. I’m thirteen years old and, like most weekends during that time in my life, I’m at the mall. When I wasn’t at the food court horsing around with my friends, or rummaging through the shelves of movies at the music store, I was at the arcade. The arcade was typical of the time period- dimly lit with only the glow from the various machines adding any real illumination to the darken amusement-filled space. It was always crowded and noisy, electronic boops and beeps mixing with loud laugher and even louder conversations as people crowded around the various arcade cabinets. On this particular day the crowd seemed denser, the laughter and excited chatter even louder. Something was happening.
I worked my way through the people and caught a glimpse of what the commotion was all about- there was a large crowd packed tightly around a new addition to the arcade: a video game cabinet titled “Mortal Kombat”. People were gasping, cheering, and letting out surprised laughter liked it was the greatest thing they had ever seen. I couldn’t resist knowing what this was all about. So I exchanged some bills for tokens and quickly got in line to play.
As I waited my turn to step up and try out this new game, I caught glimpses of it over other people’s shoulders. My jaw hit the floor. The characters looked like real people who had stepped out of a martial arts flick. As a budding film fan, this was the coolest game I had ever seen. I noticed so many different references to all the movies I was just discovering. And the blood, it’s funny to look back on it now but the level of gore and violence at the time was unreal. By the time it was my turn to step up and grab the joystick, I was beyond hyped to get my first taste of “Mortal Kombat.”
Less than 15 minutes later, I was out of tokens and had been thoroughly beaten down. My fumbling, awkward attempts to learn the ropes of “Mortal Kombat” resulted in frustration, discouragement, and truthfully a little bit of embarrassment thrown in for good measure. As I watched the end credits roll on the latest live-action adaptation of the game, simply titled, MORTAL KOMBAT- I was struck by how much my feelings about the new reboot reminded me of that Saturday afternoon from nearly 30 years ago.
The new film acts as a sort of prequel to the events depicted in the long-running game series where Earth’s fate hinges on the result of an interdimensional fighting tournament against a hell-scape reality known as “Outworld.” The story centers on a washed-up MMA fighter, Cole Young (Lewis Tan, WU ASSASSINS) who, unbeknownst to him, has been destined for the tournament since birth. This reality comes crashing into his life when a mysterious and deadly ninja with otherworldly abilities, named Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim, THE RAID), appears and tries to end his life. This sets Cole on a journey to discover his destiny as a participant in the ancient tournament and to help the other chosen warriors of Earth defend their home against the monstrous champions of Outworld.
The setup allows the film an obvious way to roll out characters from the game as the story progresses. Cole is rescued from Sub-Zero by another fated member of the tournament, a U.S. soldier named Jax (Mehcad Brooks, SUPERGIRL), who tells him to seek out Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee, THE MEG) and begin his preparation for the inevitable conflict. At this point though the main characters of the game series are introduced rapidly and with little exposition. This is where the problems with the film first start to really be apparent. Introductions come with all the depth of a video game stating that a “new player has joined the game” and you can almost hear the token hitting the arcade machine slot and the chime when the second player hits the “Start” button to join in.
Still, Mortal Kombat is very well-cast with talented actors and notable screen fighters alike who feel like the characters and, with the impressive costuming on display, certainly look the part. Sadly, they are given little explanation or reason for us to care about them beyond nostalgic attachment to the franchise. All of them just spout mostly exposition or run down a checklist of catchphrases from the original games and when you have legitimate Asian acting stars like Tan, Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada (THE LAST SAMURAI), Tadanobu Asano (ICHI THE KILLER), and talented young up-and-comers Ludi Lin (POWER RANGERS) and stuntman Max Huang (THE FOREIGNER) in your cast, reducing them to such one-note characters is frustrating at the very least.
Let me be clear, every actor in the film does an excellent job with what they are given, it’s just that everything in the script is so very threadbare. The only character who feels fully realized is the villainous (and openly bigoted) mercenary Kano, played with gleeful relish by Josh Lawson (HOUSE OF LIES). It’s an odd, and slightly troubling choice to give the most developed role in the film to the racist character played by the only Caucasian male in the cast. I doubt it was intentional but the optics are troubling nonetheless.
That weirdness aside, the simple story and flat characters could be forgiven if MORTAL KOMBAT delivered where it matters most: the fights. With great screen fighters on board and the stunt team responsible for the strong action in the effects-heavy blockbuster AQUAMAN involved, this should have been a “flawless victory” for that aspect of MORTAL KOMBAT’s production. Unfortunately though, all the obvious hard work of the stunt team and the actors is completely undone by poor editing. Every fight scene in the film is broken up by numerous edits and angle changes that not only rob the clearly solid fight choreography of any impact but most of their visual coherency as well.
Even the film’s two strongest action scenes, the dual fights between Joe Taslim’s Sub-Zero and his undead rival Scorpion (played by Sanada) that bookend the film are severely undermined by the editing choices. The top-notch choreography and graceful performance by the actors in those two showpiece scenes are almost completely destroyed by overly rapid cutting. It makes what should have been a monumental clash between two supremely gifted martial artists into something that is frustratingly mundane. For a film that’s whole focus is “kombat”, that’s unforgivable.
A lot of the blame for this must be laid at the feet of first-time feature director Simon McQuoid. He was given all of the elements to make a fun, special effects-laden martial arts blockbuster and under his watch the film’s action became a bland, uninteresting mess. In the lead-up to the release of the film, McQuoid stated in the press that they had brought some of the best fight scenes ever filmed to the screen with MORTAL KOMBAT. After seeing the finished product, that statement feels like the boastfulness you would see from someone who claimed they were good at the original video game only to see them get obliterated when they actually stepped up to play because they didn’t actually know how to pull off the complex joystick and button combinations to compete effectively.
It’s not all bad on the violence front thankfully, the absurdly gory nature of the “Mortal Kombat” games was lovingly transferred to this screen adaptation. Bodies are decimated left and right with source material-accurate finishing move “fatalities” that perfectly capture the “what did I just see?” craziness that sparked popular culture’s endearing love for the series. I imagine when people defend their enjoyment of MORTAL KOMBAT they will point to these fun, gooey moments of CGI mayhem, when the film really comes alive and feels like its namesake, as the main reason why.
MORTAL KOMBAT ends with the promise of more to come as it heads towards stories that will pay off all the setup laid down here in this opening chapter but I am not sure if I’ll be willing to drop another token in the machine and hit “Continue” for round two to see where the story goes.
Hopefully, the team behind MORTAL KOMBAT learn from their awkward shortcomings here, study up, and return with the skills to make the experience as fun and exciting as it seemed in the build up to the release of the film. I mean, nothing is worse than waiting for something, getting excited for it, and then being disappointed and embarrassed when it’s not a good experience. I already went through that once on that summer afternoon at the arcade back in 1992 and I have no real desire to do it again. (2.5/5)
MORTAL KOMBAT is now playing in theaters and IMAX, and is available for the next 29 days on HBO Max at no extra cost.
Currently residing in Nashville, TN, he also co-hosts the film podcast "Video Culture" (available on all podcast platforms). He can be reached at "WheelsCritic@gmail.com" and on Twitter: @WheelsCritic
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