Mortal Kombat debuts in theaters and on HBO Max on April 23, 2021.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: against all odds, a movie adaptation of a ludicrously violent fighting game with an inherently absurd premise manages to come together as a delightfully cheesy and over-the-top martial arts action movie. If that sounds like deja vu it’s because Mortal Kombat was already made into a movie back in 1995, but this rebooted movie of the same name, directed by Simon McQuoid, follows in those footsteps by respecting the legacy of the beloved game series and its characters, but not quite to a fault. The result heavily caters to fans of NetherRealms’ 29-year-old fighting game series through tongue-in-cheek inside jokes and references, while still doing an admirable job at introducing complete newcomers to these worlds and realms.
After a terrific opening that sets up the heated and iconic rivalry between supernatural warriors Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), Mortal Kombat takes a while to find its footing. This is very much an Avengers-style team-up movie that brings together a large group of superpowered martial artists, but unless you’re familiar with the games it doesn’t have the benefit of being led into by solo movies to familiarize the audience with each character, or what the heck the Mortal Kombat Tournament even is. As a result, the first half is paced awkwardly as it bounces between character introductions, action scenes, and explanations of why this otherworldly cryomancing assassin is tearing up a city street to kill anybody with a mysterious dragon marking.
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It doesn’t help that Cole Young (Lewis Tan) – a former MMA fighter who is the only major character that doesn’t come from the games – just isn’t very interesting. Despite being such an important character to the overall plot, his backstory of being a former MMA champion who’s forgotten his winning ways feels mostly irrelevant, and his relationship with his family is too underdeveloped to draw any kind of sympathy. He ultimately feels like little more than a character who’s there to represent the unfamiliar audience and have everything explained to him.
Mortal Kombat gets a much-needed injection of personality once the morally bankrupt and borderline psychotic Kano (Josh Lawson) is introduced. Kano lights up every scene he’s in with charismatic energy, sharp delivery, and fierce intensity despite fully embracing his role as the comic relief. There’s also just a really fun and interesting dynamic between him and the rest of the cast as they’re forced to tolerate an undeniably evil man.
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After all of the introductions are out of the way, things pick up in a big way in the second half as the heroes of Earthrealm (and Kano) discover their special powers. It’s a clever way to contextualize the abilities each fighter has in the games and also leads to some great unveiling moments from characters like Sonya (Jessica McNamee) and Jax (Mehcad Brooks).
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%22There%20are%20absolutely%20some%20gnarly%20fatalities%20that%20will%20no%20doubt%20make%20fans%20smile%20with%20macabre%20glee.%22]Of course, it wouldn’t be Mortal Kombat without blood and gore, and while the new movie is actually notably less violent than the hilariously gruesome games themselves, there are absolutely some gnarly fatalities that will no doubt make fans smile with macabre glee and others gasp in shock. The special effects that achieve this level of violence are great too, and what’s especially notable about the fights is that they’re not built around digital razzle-dazzle, but rather it’s used to enhance the brutality of the actual martial arts. And in that way, it’s extremely effective. The music is notably less memorable than the incredibly catchy soundtrack from the 1995 movie, but it at least cheekily throws in that iconic theme at the best possible moment.
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Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the fact that because there are so many characters, several notables are used in ways that squander their potential. The biggest casualty is Mileena (Sisi Stringer), who is reduced to little more than a henchman with just a handful of lines, a couple of fights, and absolutely no backstory. It’s a job that feels like it could have been filled by literally any other character, and putting Mileena – a key and fan-favorite player in the Mortal Kombat games – in that role feels like a waste.
That disappointment, though, is counterbalanced by some truly excellent fight scenes that make up the last third of the nearly two-hour movie. This is an all-star cast when it comes to martial arts, and Joe Taslim and Hiroyuki Sanada, in particular, do an incredible job in bringing the classic rivalry of Sub-Zero and Scorpion to life through their intensely physical fights. In addition to just being an impressive display of one-on-one combat, they are also jam-packed with both subtle and overt references to the games that work wonderfully as little bits of fan service.
Mortal Kombat vs. Mortal Kombat
While not an amazing film by any stretch of the word, 1995’s Mortal Kombat movie, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, was still arguably one of the best examples of a video game movie done right and remained so for many years. It featured memorable performances, most notably from Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa, who embodied Shang Tsung so well that Netherrealm decided to capture his performance for Mortal Kombat 11’s version of the character; it had just the right balance of gore and cheesy comedy to nail Mortal Kombat’s vibe of cartoony ultra-violence, and it quite simply understood what made Mortal Kombat such a beloved fighting game at the time.
Comparing the two movies is a bit tricky because the Mortal Kombat games have changed so much between 1995 to 2021. W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat movie was fitting for what the series was at the time, while McQuoid’s is appropriate for what it has become. Overall, though, McQuoid’s Mortal Kombat feels like a more well-rounded film and ends on a tantalizing note that – I sincerely hope – should lead to sequels that turn out better than the dreaded Mortal Kombat Annihilation.