Mortal Kombat movie review: A toothless bore of an action film, with a scant side of fun moments
The film leaves you with nothing more than a couple of famous one-liners and the few moments when it actually gets gory enough to feel like Mortal Kombat.
castS Lewis Tan, Jessica Mcnamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin, Chin Han, Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada.
The 2021 Mortal Kombat reboot doesn’t actually feature Mortal Kombat, the fighting tournament to save Earth depicted in the video games. Strangely, it’s not the only franchise entry with this distinction. The disastrous 1997 sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, picks up after the tournament in Paul W.S. Anderson’s competent original, while the largely forgotten 1998 TV show Konquest, and the first season of the short-lived 2010s web series Legacy, are about events leading up to the tournament. This new film, the first directed by Simon McQuoid, sort of falls in that latter category, with characters jumping the gun and getting to the fighting right away, without being limited by the structure of the tournament and the rules of the Elder Gods. Which, in theory, should be an exciting prospect — after all, the fights are why most people care in the first place — but the result is a big-budget Hollywood production that feels like a fan-made prequel.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you probably have one question in mind: “How awesome is the blood-knife?” Well, it’s pretty awesome. How can you be mad at Sub-Zero, played with straight-faced intensity by The Raid star Joe Taslim, drawing blood from his opponent and freezing it into a hand-held weapon? Isolate that one action beat, a small handful of others and a couple of jokes, and you’ve got yourself a fun five-minute supercut to share with your friends. As part of a two-hour movie though, the blood-knife only arrives after an hour and a half of some really mind-numbing filmmaking. It’s a nonsense movie with nonsense characters, even in the rare moments when it’s visually comprehensible. None of that would really matter if the series’ raison d'etre was handled with finesse, but sadly, the biggest sin committed by Mortal Kombat 2021 is that its action is uninteresting.
The film opens with the promise of something polished, with the 17th-century origins of the blood feud between Sub-Zero (Taslim) and Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada). This prologue adds surprising dramatic heft to two characters who, in the games, are essentially different skins on the same physical model, and it feels like something out of a prestigious period drama about mysticism and vengeance. It’s also a weird way to start a movie in which Sub-Zero and Scorpion barely feature.
Something seems off from the get-go. In modern-day, we’re introduced to a brand new character created for the film, Cole Young (Lewis Tan), an audience point-of-view avatar to bring us into this world of inter-dimensional martial arts. Young, a husband and father, is a down-on-his-luck cage fighter who agrees to bouts for measly pay, until he’s suddenly roped up in all the tournament shenanigans by existing franchise mainstays like Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and the robot-armed Jax (Mehcad Brooks), who already know the ins and outs of the lore. Young is an outsider to the proceedings, and Tan plays him with a Keanu-esque mix of confusion and sincerity no matter the occasion. He’s a fairly likeable presence — but he’s also completely unnecessary, for one key reason: Who, in the year of our lord 2021, needs to be introduced to Mortal Kombat like it’s a novel or complicated concept?
What’s more, much of the film’s narrative is about existing characters earning upgrades that bring them closer to their video game appearance. It’s one of the few ways the film seems aware of its target audience. If you intentionally watch a Mortal Kombat movie 30 years into the franchise, there’s a good chance you want to see characters perform moves you’re familiar with, or say stupid lines like “Get over here!” and “Flawless victory!” and on that front, the movie delivers. In fact, it even concocts a bullshit plot device to make some of its recognisable elements feel earned. It’s something called “finding your arcana” which, in a pop culture sense, is like figuring out your Harry Potter house or learning to use The Force. There are no real rules to it beyond the vagaries of tapping into one’s “true self” when the story seems to call for it. When characters find their “arcana,” they manage to achieve familiar abilities and designs. Jax’s arms get bigger, Sonya can fire pink lasers, and so on. There’s not much to it, but it’s something.
The problem with dumping Young into this narrative is two-fold. One, in a movie where every action and story beat exists to set up cheap nostalgia hits, your newcomer can’t really fulfil that function. And two, Mortal Kombat is also not a movie that cares enough to actually give Young, or the vast majority of its characters, any sort of human ethos as an alternative to checking these familiar boxes.
Of the few things in the film that work, Josh Lawson’s Australian mercenary Kano is undoubtedly the highlight. He’s a foul-mouthed, obnoxious asshole, and anytime he’s on screen, the movie begins to feel alive. For some boneheaded reason, he also achieves his “arcana” — his laser eye from the games — by being really angry and racist towards the film’s Asian characters. It’s both absurdly hilarious and downright ugly, and if nothing else, it at least dismantles the notion that Mortal Kombat is some kind of progressive Asian empowerment film, a bizarre idea the marketing team began leaning into (going as far saying the film “boasts a diverse international cast” before listing its Asian leads) in the wake of recent anti-Asian hate crimes. I’m sorry, Warner Bros, but the best part of your movie is a white guy who gets his superpowers from calling a Chinese man “Kung Pao,” which isn’t going to do much to #StopAsianHate. It’s not that kind of movie, and it’s pretty cynical to pretend like it is.
What kind of movie is it, then? Well, it’s one where chase scenes and characters moving from place to place feel like long stretches of nothing, but it’s also one where at least a couple of the actors seem to be aware of how silly the whole thing is. Ludi Lin plays the fireball wielding Liu Kang, who guides the likes of Young and Blade into a training temple. His every move feels like classical dance, even if he’s just pointing at a door. Max Huang plays Kang’s cousin Kung Lao, a prestigious fighter who wears an enormous hat with bladed edges (which results in the film’s most ludicrous action beat). Anytime Kung Lao is on screen, the film takes itself deathly seriously, and Huang seems to lean into it, delivering every line like it’s a lofty speech from The Lord of the Rings, even though what he’s sayings sounds like it could be trivia from Mortal Podkast. Someone seems to have told Lin and Huang they were starring in a Mortal Kombat parody, and honestly, it works wonders.
The film also ropes in a number of great actors like Tadanobu Asano as Lord Raiden and Chin Han as the villainous Shang Tsung, who you can’t help but feel sympathy for, given the material. They show up and deliver their lines. I hope they got paid handsomely.
There are other villainous mainstays like the four-armed Goro (Angus Sampson) and the razo-jawed Mileena (Sisi Stringer), but they don’t feel particularly intimidating. The fights often feel weightless, as the film’s editing constantly skips over the moments of impact. Things are shot far too close for the audience to actually get a sense of the action, compared to most competent martial arts films, whose uncut wide shots often let fights play out in full. Sometimes, three or four fights even run parallel to each other, and the film cross-cuts between them without letting a single one become engaging or intense.
Ultimately, you’re better off waiting for that supercut that trims the film’s fat (that is to say, about 90% of its runtime) and leaves in a couple of famous one-liners, Kano’s nastiest moments, and the few times the film actually gets gory enough to feel like Mortal Kombat.
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