This Mortal Kombat reboot directed by Simon McQuoid is a fun, violent, and mindless romp with fan-service aplenty. Don't go into it expecting the John Wick of video game movies, but fans should be able to find something they enjoy.
As far as film franchises go, there might be none that fascinate me more than the Mortal Kombat films. Ignoring my fandom of the series as a whole, 1995’s Mortal Kombat (which will hereafter be simply referred to as the 1995 film), directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, is generally regarded as a perfectly acceptable movie, especially given its base material.
Many films inspired by video games would follow, but the overwhelming majority failed to clear (or even approach) the admittedly low bar set by their predecessor, including 1997 schlock film Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. I would like for this to be the only mention of MK:A in this review, but deep down in my heart I know that it probably won’t be.
One of the most common criticisms of the 1995 film is a lack of the violence featured in its video game contemporaries. Enter 2021’s reboot of Mortal Kombat, directed by Simon McQuoid.
Right from the opening sequence featuring Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), it becomes apparent that we are in for the proper R-rated bloodbath that a film bearing the Mortal Kombat moniker always deserved to be. This movie delivers the blood and gore in spades, but still allows a decent amount of time for exposition, aiding the audience keeping track of a plot that, for a non-fan, may be somewhat difficult to follow.
The plot in this movie is fine on the outset, but may seem a bit convoluted to some around the second and third acts. Earthrealm has lost nine tournaments to the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) and his warriors. If they lose another, the world will be overtaken by the militaristic Outworld. It’s a pretty basic Mortal Kombat plot, at first glance. However, we discover that Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) is hunting down Earthrealm’s champions, who must train for the upcoming tournament. It’s worth mentioning that Sub-Zero borderline feels like a movie monster with some of his appearances here, almost akin to a Jason Voorhees or a Michael Myers.
I won’t risk spoilers by mentioning more than that bare minimum, but the rest of the plot reaches a weird middle ground between being too messy for the layman, and too barebones for the diehard. The dialogue itself is serviceable, but at times can be somewhat lazy.
The fight choreography in the movie is something that I found somewhat lacking, the climax of the film notwithstanding. None of it is bad, but outside of Sanada and Taslim, it lacks the martial arts expertise that the 1995 film had in notable actors such as Robin Shou and Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa, both of whom were well known for their previous martial arts work going into that project.
But the choreography is definitely not my problem with the fight scenes in this movie – not by a long shot. My problem is that the sheer amount of shaky camerawork going on during the fight scenes nearly made me lose the will to live. That’s obviously hyperbolic, but once I noticed it, I can’t help but feel it hampered my opinion of some of the fight scenes in the film, which is a shame – they’re otherwise pretty enjoyable.
The cast as a whole was decent although I feel that McQuoid could and should have gotten better, less wooden-feeling performances out of his actors. Tadanobu Asano in particular felt very stiff, to the point that I legitimately feel like he was miscast as Earthrealm protector Raiden. I am a big fan of Christopher Lambert‘s portrayal of Raiden but even without that nostalgia, it wasn’t Asano’s greatest showing.
Two actors in particular I was pleased with were Josh Lawson, who, and I cannot possibly put enough emphasis on this, absolutely carries this movie on his back as quick-witted Black Dragon leader Kano, and Jessica McNamee as Sonya Blade. Honorable mention to Ludi Lin as Liu Kang, who portrays him in a more monk-like manner that befits the character far more than Shou’s performance in 1995.
Lawson’s Kano has something to say about absolutely everything, and that alone makes him feel like easily the most human and relatable character of the bunch. He also – as far as I’m concerned – has the best character arc in the movie despite his motivations being about as simple as you might expect.
McNamee wasn’t extraordinary or anything, but she continues the trend that started in the mid-to-late nineties with the first two movies of the actress portraying Sonya doing a good job. Not great, but good. Bridgette Wilson did a good job as the character in 1995, and Sandra Hess put in a good enough performance in Annihilation (there it is) considering the character had to be recast due to Wilson turning down the role in that project, because who wouldn’t?
Now I have to talk about Cole Young, the central protagonist of the film portrayed by Lewis Tan who has never before been seen or heard of in any capacity in Mortal Kombat media or lore. And Tan does as good of a job as he possibly can in this role, but I say that I have to talk about him because, well, he’s the central protagonist. In any given media format, you’re supposed to want to talk about and be interested in your leading character. And I don’t, because he’s boring and his motivations are boring.
You want to know what his motivations are? Spoiler alert that I don’t even care about spoiling, because it’s the dumbest, most milquetoast thing ever: his motivations for everything he does are his wife and his daughter. Who doesn’t love their wife and/or daughter? It’s supposed to make him the relatable everyman, and to that point I guess it does. But therein lies the problem: a relatable everyman has no place in a setting like Mortal Kombat. It doesn’t help that Cole’s entire arc is practically given away very early on in the movie, with any possible twist or satisfying revelation ripped away from the viewer like a heart from their chest.
The soundtrack, while it could have brought more attention to itself, serves its purpose just fine. It features booming percussion and standard-fare orchestral beats married with more electronic elements at times. Every once in a while, you’ll be able to hear throwbacks to the theme of 1995’s Mortal Kombat, Techno Syndrome by The Immortals, which was a nice if not expected touch.
Where the 1995 film succeeded that I feel Mortal Kombat really failed in 2021 is the pacing of the movie, particularly in the third act. Without getting into specifics, it felt like just as soon as our characters (kharacters? Ah, whatever) had faced the slightest bit of adversity and some planning is required on their end, the movie conveniently has everything figured out for them and as a result it’s resolved far too quickly for my liking in order to get us to the end of the film. It’s not even too short of a movie, clocking in at one hour and fifty minutes down to the second, but I feel like another ten or twenty minutes would have prevented the third act of the movie from feeling similar to a homework assignment being finished just as the teacher walks around collecting it.
For as many complaints as I have and as negative as I’m sure I seem, I really did enjoy more-or-less the entirety of my time watching Mortal Kombat. I was expecting dumb, mindless action, with dumb, mindless fights and I’m happy to say that’s exactly what it was. The choreography is solid if unspectacular, the comedic bits hit for the most part, and the plot isn’t too painfully convoluted. It was my first movie seen in the theater since the start of the pandemic, and I had a good time. But just like the Mortal Kombat of 1995, I can’t justify trying to convince someone that the Mortal Kombat of 2021 is a particularly good movie.