Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Film Review: Mortal Kombat (2021)


Sexuality/Nudity Acceptable
Violence Objectionable
Vulgarity Mature
Anti-Catholic Philosophy Mature

My first thought at the beginning of the new Mortal Kombat movie was:  "This feels like a fan film."

And that isn't necessarily an insult.

Back in the early 2000's as internet videos were starting to emerge and people could do their own computer special effects at home, we saw the emergence of fan films.  While the budgets and the acting were not always great, on many of them you could feel the care and love in the crafting.  The first scene in Mortal Kombat is like that.

The movie begins in feudal Japan with the family of Hanzo Hasashi aka Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) being attacked by Bi-Han aka Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim).  This scene is so well crafted that I was hooked for the rest of the movie.  Sanada is particularly affective in his performance.  It is here that you feel the love for the characters.  In this scene, Scorpion is given a powerful and poignant backstory in a way no other character was given in the Mortal Kombat from 1995.

The movie flashes forward to the present age where nearly washed-up MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), is trying to make ends meet for his wife (Laura Brent) and daughter (Matilda Kimber).  He is approached by military man Jax (Mehcad Brooks) and is soon attacked by Sub-Zero.  Cole is thrown into a strange new world where he must work with military specialist Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), criminal mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson), and martial arts devotee Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) to join the thunder god Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) in defending Earth.  The forces of Outworld must win 10 Mortal Kombat tournaments.  At the beginning of the movie, they have won nine.  Mastermind Shang Tsung (Chin Han) decides to cheat and hunt down the chosen fighters who have been marked from birth or who have received their mark by killing someone else with the mark.  Raiden works with this motley group to help them find their secret hidden power or "arcana" to help them win.

For the first two-thirds of the movie, I was of the solid position that this movie was better than the 1995 version.  Yes, it has massive plot holes and contrivances, but that really didn't bother me.  The openning scene was a good hook, and Cole was a scrappy family man/ underdog I could root for.  The fight scenes were not spectacular, but they were entertaining.  

This was especially true for Lawson's Kano.  He demonstrated more charisma than all of the other actors combined.  His "I don't give a crap" attitude mixed with his incredibly cynical one-liners had me laughing way more than I should have.  But when you get to like a character, you find their humor all the more charming.  There was also something oddly childlike about him, as he sketches himself in violent victory after defeating an enemy.  Having Kano feature so prominently and giving him the best lines of the movie was a great touch.  For that kind of entertainment, I can tolerate some stiff acting (like Asano and McNamee) and inanity about finding an inner power that lets you shoot lasers out of your eyes.

All of the other actors do a serviceable, but not great job.  Brooks is fine as Jax, but Asano has none of the screen presence of Christopher Lambert from the original.  Bridgette Wilson, the original Sonya, was not believable in her role, but she had good chemistry with the other actors.  McNamee cannot seem to do the same, but that may be because the script makes her an exposition machine who is constantly on the outside of the action.  Tan does a decent job, but he would have been better suited to a supporting character, rather than a leading man.

Director Simon McQuoid has a decent eye for the visuals.  I especially like the way he takes familiar settings and twists them, as he does in the final fight of the movie.  

But it was the third act when everything fell apart.  

It is very difficult to explain my critique of the movie without revealing some plot detail, so...


The first turn off is that the movie turns incredibly gory.  There was a great deal of violence and blood up front.  But when things begin to pick up in the third act, things get WAY more graphic.  You see people get cut in half and have their organs spill out.  One character gets graphically disemboweled on camera.  Other such visceral attacks occur.  Granted that the most recent version of the video game are just as graphic, it was still way too jarring to suddenly pivot to this gore so late in the film.  I don't mind violence, but I tend to find graphic body horror a turn off.

The second (and worse) thing is that they ruin Kano in the third act.  To be fair, Kano is never a hero.  But as he journeys along with the main characters, he takes on an anti-hero quality.  The film makers had to know that he was their most likable character.  If they meant his mean quips to turn the audience against him like a wrestling heel, they did a terrible job by casting such a fun actor in Lawson.  You cannot take your best, albeit morally flawed, character and throw him away like that.  It would be like Han Solo showing up at the Death Star run to shoot at look because the Empire paid him more money.  You would feel like all the emotional investment in him was a betrayal.  On top of that, he is set in a showdown with the wet blanket Sonya.  Whereas Kano is funny and cool, Sonya is strident and lacks any sense of fun.  You are "supposed" to root for Sonya, but I was secretly rooting for Kano.  Once I realized that there would be no turn from heel to babyface for him, I began to tune out.


Mortal Kombat also suffers from that same problem that so many big-budget movies have in that they do not tell a complete story.  Instead, this is supposed to be the first chapter of a franchise.  Not to keep going back to Star Wars, but the original film did it right by telling a self-contained epic that could stand on its own or act as the first installment of a larger arc.  But so much Mortal Kombat feels like it is keeping its powder dry for a sequel.

If you are a fan of this franchise and these characters, then the movie might be worth your time.  The first scene is worth the time you take.  But the movie is far from a flawless victory.  In fact, it's lack of cohesion in the final round is its main fatality.

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