Mortal Kombat (2021)
Mortal Kombat (2021)

Genre: Action, Fantasy, and Martial Arts Running Time: 1 hr. 51 min.

Release Date: April 23rd, 2021 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Simon McQuoid Actors: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Joe Taslim, Mehcad Brooks, Tadanobu Asano, Hiroyuki Sanada, Chin Han, Ludi Lin, Max Huang, Sisi Stringer, Laura Brent, Matilda Kimber

 


 

I

n 17th-century Japan, at Hanzo Hasashi’s (Hiroyuki Sanada) compound where his wife and son tend to the garden (as well as to the crying baby inside the house), the sudden appearance of rival Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) brings death and destruction. With this foreboding intruder also comes an unnatural coldness: icy magic flows through Bi-Han, allowing him to kill his enemies by instantly freezing their bodies. But Hanzo possesses heightened skills, too, enabling him to spar with considerable speed. And when he attaches a rope to a garden tool (a signature weapon from the video game source material), he becomes a nearly unstoppable combatant. Nevertheless, Bi-Han is still able to defeat Hanzo – a brutal act that prompts thunder-god Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) to materialize and rescue the weeping infant curiously left unmolested inside its bassinet.

In present day (or thereabouts, as this is an alternate universe), Earthrealm is on the verge of catastrophe. Should it lose another tournament in the gladiatorial games dubbed “Mortal Kombat,” staged against its longtime adversaries in Outworld, an invasion is imminent. Of course, an ancient prophecy suggests that Hasashi’s descendant shall present a path to victory, saving the world from total enslavement – but there has been little hope of such a myth coming true of late. And to be certain that nothing stops Outworld from reigning supreme, sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) sends Bi-Han, now called Sub-Zero, to Earthrealm to hunt down and murder potential Mortal Kombat champions – various humans marked with a mysterious dragon-like symbol on their skin.

The story relies heavily on pre-sold audiences familiar with the video games. The lore, locations, centuries-old conflicts, nemeses, set decorations, and character designs are ultimately only interesting – and perhaps meaningful – to viewers who know something about this franchise. Otherwise, not quite enough of it is explained to a fathomable degree; the magical hurdles, the villains, the motives, and the heroes themselves are a touch too random and bizarre without prior knowledge of their extensive involvement in this long-running collection of games, movies, comics, toys, and other media. Spontaneous superhuman abilities are always tough to accept on a whim – unless they’re previously established through a format more easily given to such outrageousness.

“I think there’s another tournament coming.” For hardcore fans, it’s only a matter of time before classic characters, phrases, outfits, armory, moves, fatalities, and other trademark imagery make an appearance. And although not all of it is visually stunning, it’s undoubtedly superior to the previous theatrical adaptations (curiously, a few scenes are surprisingly comparable to the live-action shorts released in 2011-2013, under the moniker “Mortal Kombat: Legacy,” directed by Kevin Tancharoen). The advancements in computer graphics are welcome, as are the upgrades in costuming and props; the cheapness of previous iterations is largely absent. With its bigger budget, this version no longer looks like bad cosplay.

“You just shot a fireball out of your hand!” Fortunately, even with the occasionally nonsensical piece of sorcery, the martial arts are quite the upgrade. Fight sequences are edgier, bloodier, and more intense (yet the choreographers can’t seem to get away from over-the-top wirework). It certainly helps that this film is rated R. But the increase in severity doesn’t fix issues with the dialogue, which is frequently generic or just plain silly (even the nonstop humor provided by Kano [Josh Lawson], funny as it may be, doesn’t always line up with the tone and styling of the surrounding elements – such as when he calls a shirtless Liu Kang [Ludi Lin] “Magic Mike”), or the picture’s ability to stand alone as an independent, sensible fantasy yarn.

Nevertheless, devotees will appreciate the inclusion of recognizable personas such as Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Jax (Mehcad Brooks), Kung Lao (Max Huang), and Mileena (Sisi Stringer), among many others. What is less engaging, however, is the main character, Chicago MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a “human punching bag,” who doesn’t seem lifted from the source material in the same way as the supporting roles (he is, in fact, a new creation specifically for this production). By the end of it all, despite some climactic showdowns, the sustained duels and creative bloodshed aren’t sufficient to distract from the deficiencies in storytelling, pacing, and substance. Intermittent visual fascination can’t overcome a movie that would be more entertaining as an interactive game (during its greatest moments, it’ll inspire viewers to pick up their controllers to mash buttons and grind joysticks once again). It’s the best of the “Mortal Kombat” feature films, but that’s saying virtually nothing.

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10