Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Mortal Kombat (2021) dir. Simon McQuoid

In theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, 4/23


I admit that I don’t know much about Mortal Kombat. The game was in my periphery when I was growing up, but if you weren’t immersed in it since impressionable childhood, it might take longer to know the characters’ names, their backstories, and their A-B combo moves. However, the research is out there, and easily obtainable for any action scene enthusiast. I liked Enter the Dragon enough, and grew up on three-episode fight sequences in DBZ, so this assignment was a piece of cake. Before watching Simon McQuoid’s adaptation, I prepared through the following:

  1. Rewatched the 1995 film. At some point in the movie, I realized that I actually tried watching this a couple of months ago, and vaguely recalled some of the scenes because I fell asleep and woke up in time for the ending. Good news: you can watch it free on Peacock without subscribing to The Office top-tier package.
  2. Watched an IGN primer video of all the characters featured in the video game series. There’s a lot to remember, and, predictably, I can recall very little.
  3. Started the 2020 animated adaptation, Scorpion’s Revenge, on HBO Max. While complaining that they should have gathered all of the MK movies in its selection, as they did with the DCEU, I found the 1997 sequel, Annihilation, in their collection and proceeded to hate-watch it.
  4. Watched the trailer for the first and only time before watching the movie.

Maybe I’ll sound stupid for attempting to introduce Mortal Kombat, but at the very least, there are a few truths that can be handed over between scripts. Mortal Kombat is about fighting, characterized in the same essence and skillset written in the fighters’ genetic codes. Scorpion and Sub-Zero are enemies.* For the sake of the fandom, “fatality” needs to be uttered somewhere. Any film adaptation that follows these truths can then decide how intricately involved it wants to be with the video game lore, while balancing the mindless violence in the same planar existence. The ratio of these ingredients will determine if it’s going to be a half-baked concept, or a decent brownie cake if you just enjoy eating the edges.

Still, we are in the era of remakes that replace substance, and sometimes humor, for obsidian-tinted gloss. Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1995 take was as corny, delightful, and tastefully faithful to the original source, before Annihilation‘s lack of wits struck the series down to developmental hell. Here’s what I can tell you about this Mortal Kombat: Lewis Tan plays the film-original character and audience surrogate, Cole Young, who is a loser MMA fighter with a dragon emblem on his chest. An upper-extremities-intact Jax (Mehcad Brooks) finds Cole, but before he is able to explain their connection, Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) interrupts their meeting. Before he knows it, Cole’s family is threatened and he must find Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) to find the meaning of these logos and the upcoming Mortal Kombat tournament. As legend goes, if the Outworld villains win this tournament for the tenth time, bad things will happen.

So, before we go any further, it’s important to mention that there is no tournament.

If it had been advertised as an origin story, I’d kinda get the exclusion. Most of the deathmatches will be on the same remote arena, and instead of relying the movie’s value solely upon action sequences (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), Mortal Kombat chose to expand on knowing the characters and changing the environment (Sonya’s “shithole” trailer, Cole’s fighting cage) as different fighting terrains, which comes in handy for the eventual one-on-ones.  In a way, it does break up the linear conversation-fight-conversation pattern of films before, but this adaptation is comprised of numerous abrupt jumpcuts, which end up being both detrimental to its supposed original intent and sometimes nonsensical. Jax is in about four scenes that don’t quite line up with where everyone else is at the movie; in his last scene, he’s part of the group huddle in which the unanimous decision to not take on Sub-Zero alone becomes contrary to Cole’s brash decision in taking Sub-Zero alone.

Getting that out of the way, I have arrived to the conclusion that Mortal Kombat is kinda great and kinda bad. Listen, it’s easy to trash some of the plot holes (and literal plot armor) as we can do with most blockbusters. Kitana’s absence weirdly contrasts with her sister Mileena’s appearance, while the dearth of Scorpion’s scenes (played a very underutilized Hiroyuki Sanada) feels almost painful when he shows up for his deserved screen time. While I have a soft spot for Tan after he lost the lead spot for Marvel’s Iron Fist, it’s unfortunate that he (or Cole, I’m not even sure) dropped the ball in his first leading movie roll. Cole’s inclusion may have been the film’s worst mistake, because there are other established characters that could have taken his screen time and would have added to the film just by their existence.

But honestly, I had a fun time. Most of the main characters were independently enjoyable, and didn’t share the necessity of copycat phrases or dwellings of the original characters in order to be watchable. Sonya? Fun! Kano? Fun! Kung Lao? Flawless! Sub-Zero? God put a little extra time on his fight scenes, because that blood dagger move shall be immortalized and Joe Taslim needs to be in more action movies immediately. While there are some nods to the video game’s mechanics (such as Liu Kang v. Kano), it doesn’t feel misplaced in a movie’s narrative flow. I overall felt whelmed, but that should be tallied as a positive experience that can be casually recommended on a feisty night. If you can accept this as the unclaimed prequel, then maybe it won’t hurt too bad.

In the 1995 film, Outworld sorcerer baddie Shang Tsung takes their souls and has them working for him, so technically here, they’re co-workers that didn’t try to kill each other.

Mortal Kombat
dir. Simon McQuoid
110 min.

Now playing in theaters, and streaming on HBO Max through May 23

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