Mortal Kombat (2021) Movie Review

I have no relationship to the Mortal Kombat IP. If I’ve ever played the video games, I don’t remember (I was more of a Tekken 3 and Soul Caliber II kid, and even after putting about 100 hours into those I was never very good at fighting games). I haven’t seen Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1995 film, either. Really, my knowledge begins and ends with the techno song which opens that film and “Fatality!”

Understandably, then, I found myself fairly lost within five minutes of this film beginning. A prologue set in 17th century Japan launches us into a fight sequence between Hanzo Hasashi (aka Scorpion) (Hiroyuki Sanada) and the film’s main baddie, Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim). And I would have tried harder to figure out the lore behind this fight, but I found myself far too distracted by the choppy editing. The choreography of this fight may have been sound—it appeared so from what I could see. But the fidgety editing posed a problem, as it would throughout the film.

The film jumps to present day, where a struggling mixed martial arts fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan) is picked out by an interested party in the form of Jax (Mehcad Brooks), who notices the dragon-shaped birthmark on Cole’s chest. Cole soon learns that this birthmark is a sign that he is one of Earth’s greatest fighters, a champion worthy of “Mortal Kombat,” a fighting tournament to the death between the “Earthrealm” (aka Earth) and the “Outworld.” The Outworld has won nine straight tournaments—one more, and they will win control over Earth.

Cole winds up tagging along with a military veteran Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and another branded “champion” Kano (Josh Lawson) as they search for Raiden’s temple, so that they may train for the Mortal Kombat tournament. It is here that they meet other champions—Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang).

It is an act full of shoe leather about Cole finding his inner power, because without it Earth will be lost to the fighters of the Outworld. Classic underdog character arcs are established. Classic rag-tag group of unlikely heroes brought together to stop a seemingly unstoppable force. The film doesn’t bring anything new to these formulae, but they have their mild charm here. The first hour provides little more than these conventions, but it does speed by.

Even the training sequences, which are fairly static and set against a backdrop of bland brown rocks, are (shockingly) engaging. They read explicitly like rounds in a fighting video (one character even spams the same combination repeatedly, to comic effect). And the film does do the annoying self-referential thing that video game movies sometimes do where characters mimic soundtrack assets from the game (like “Flawless Victory” or “Fatality”). But the film’s sense of humor yields more hits than misses.

On the flip side, the major selling point of the film (i.e., the fights) are not altogether too exciting. There are moments which are briefly satisfying. But when the entire second half is essentially wall-to-wall fighting, mere moments don’t really cut it. And it doesn’t help that the lion’s share of villains are all introduced in a single scene where they stand in a line while their names are listed off. Only one of these characters has a semblance of personality (and that personality is a less funny version of the unlikable comic relief character Kano).

I would say that the climactic final battle of Mortal Kombat will be a satisfying conclusion for a Mortal Kombat fan, but I’m not sure if that is the case. It isn’t anything that couldn’t be recreated in any of the 11 video games. This isn’t the same cinematic fan wish fulfillment of a “what if Hulk fought Thor” type of scenario. This film presents a lot of lore, but I am not convinced that it amounts to much. But it certainly sets up a sequel like it amounts to a viable blockbuster franchise. I’m not entirely convinced.

Mortal Kombat: C+

As always, thanks for reading!

—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)

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