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Film Review: Mortal Kombat!

By Daniel Shaw:

That’s right, that title has an exclamation point; because nobody just says “mortal kombat, yeah, whatever . . . blah.” No, even within one’s mind, that title is always shouted proudly and unfettered. And why not? The legacy of Mortal Kombat is as undeniable as it is visceral. Its characters are wildly diverse, its world expansive, and its lore impressively deep; enter the movies.

In 1995, a feature film starring Robin Shou, Linden Ashby, and Bridgette Wilson (Liu Kang, Johnny Cage, and Sonya Blade, respectively) hit theaters. The trio was originally signed on for a three-movie deal, provided their subsequent sequel was a success. Unfortunately, that sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, underperformed and was critically panned, thus the third installment entered the dreaded shadow realm of . . . production HELL!!! There the film remained, enduring endless script rewrites and character revisions. Production was even further delayed by bankruptcy lawsuits and even Hurricane Katrina decimating one of the New Orleans shooting locations. Suffice it to say, Mortal Kombat 3 was very unlikely to happen. MK’s limbo state carried on into 2010, with director Kevin Tanchareon producing an eight-minute reboot pitch to New Line Cinema, which appeared to be a success. New Line hired Tanchareon as director with a reported budget of $40–50 million. However, as promising as this new take was, it too would ultimately fall by the wayside. Tanchareon backed out due to budget constraints, and the film once again drifted.

That is until James Wan (producer) and Simon McQuoid (director) signed on in 2015, and with them, Mortal Kombat was given new life.

What everyone—newcomers and MK veterans alike—must understand is that Mortal Kombat (2021) is unlike the previous iterations that we’ve seen. The tournament format of the story is largely ignored in this new film. As I write this, I fully expect some to begin rolling their eyes. Because, of course, this must follow what other video game adaptations have always done: take bewildering divergences from the source material. In this case, what we have here is the makings of a hopefully well-laid plan. The idea behind McQuoid’s vision is that this is but the first part of a new planned trilogy; the first movie being the pre-tournament, then the tournament itself, followed by the aftermath. Sounds goods, but does it deliver?

YES! ......... I just have a few notes.

I’m gonna level with you, dear reader, this one’s plot is about as basic as biscuits. The more well-done and engaging aspects lie with Scorpion and Sub-Zero’s story. It opens the film and really—inaccurately—sets the stage for what is to come. It’s so well done, in fact, that I found myself wishing this "prequel" movie had been entirely about them. The rest of cast is filled out with many classic characters, such as Liu Kang, Sonya Blade, Jax, Shang Tsung, Kabal, and Raiden. Not to mention the most revered of Mortal Kombat alumni: Kole Young.

Wait, what?

Alright, we’ve finally reached it, ol’ King Kole. Kole, played by Lewis Tan, has never appeared in any previous MK game. He was invented entirely for this film. Now, one would naturally assume this was done to provide the audience with a logical proxy. Fresh blood like him could constantly ask about any wacky development without breaking any rules. The problem, however, is twofold. One: the original film used Johnny Cage to fill this role to great effect. Two: they forgot to provide Kole with a much-needed personality. I haven’t seen much of Lewis Tan’s work, but he barely registers in this outing, and all while fiends of Outworld attack him and his family at a Denny’s. Even when his secret power is fully realized, it still comes off as underwhelming and pure window dressing compared with everyone else's. You know we’ve missed the mark a bit when Prince Goro knocks down his front door and he still has that same gormless look on his face.

We do have standouts, though, and we must first mention Josh Lawson as Kano. This guy is an absolute legend! Kano’s a world-renowned mercenary, and of the many crimes he is wanted for, the one we immediately get to see is him stealing every scene he’s in. The man’s jam packed with one liners, classic moves, and a great sense of bravado. There’s almost too much of him to be contained in one movie. Perhaps a solo film or a Kano, Sonya, Jax trio movie could be in the works. You know what we want, Writers!

Rounding out the martial arts muscle is Joe Taslim as Bi Han/Sub-Zero and Hiroyuki Sanada as Hanzo Hasashi/Scorpion. By far, these two represent the most interesting element in the movie. Their longstanding rivalry, the murder of Hanzo’s family, the dueling history of their respective clans all remains as presently untapped potential for a great movie. An animated film, Scorpion’s Revenge, did precede the 2021 movie. However, the live-action tease that we’ve had with Tanchareon and McQuoid only makes us wonder what could be on the big screen. Still, the characterization is strong with these two and certainly better than any previous Hollywood outings.

My last quibbles must lay with Raiden and Shang Tsung. When long-time fans wax lyrical about the original 1995 movie, they’re almost always unified in their love of the god of thunder, played by Christopher Lambert, and Outworld’s sorcerer, played Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. From that day onward, Tagawa’s face has been almost as synonymous with MK as the character himself. His every line is delivered with class and sophistication, even a hint of seduction. When Tagawa talks, you listen. Period. It remains to this day one of my favorite performances by an actor. Then there is Lambert as Raiden. No, Christopher Guy Denis Lambert, is not Asian . . . at all. Does it matter? NOPE. Because Lambert took complete ownership of that role. Throughout the movie, he pops up here and there in the background, always keeping an eye on things and giving us the sense that he is watching out for our heroes. My point with both of these actors is that they brought something to their roles that I think their new counterparts lack: personality.

Chin Han (Shang Tsung) is very talented, and I’ve enjoyed his work ever since I first saw him in The Dark Knight. However, I feel like he plays Shang Tsung like he’s barely awake and not in any way with the same level of hamminess that made Tagawa’s portrayal so enjoyable. Likewise, Tadanobu Asano’s Raiden doesn’t leave much of an impression either. He’s powerful and a force to be reckoned with, sure, but he’s not very fun to watch or be with. Lambert always came off as a mischievous mentor who would constantly make fun of you but still have your best interests at heart. On the other hand, Asano’s Raiden feels more like an irritable schoolteacher who’s annoyed by the fact that Kole’s sock has more personality.

Beyond that, the story largely serves as a simple tool to move us from one fight to the next; Earth Realm has only one chance left to stop Outworld from invading by winning the Mortal Kombat Tournament. If they lose, Outworld invades, and the entire world turns into downtown Detroit. That’s all there is to it, nothing more, nothing less. And who cares really? Because before anybody begins shouting “betrayal,” let’s continue being honest and accept the plot really has little to do with what’s going on here. We were promised a flashy display of game-accurate gore and violence, and in that, Mortal Kombat (2021) certainly delivered. While the movie can’t portray the game’s most insane fatalities (look up any YouTube montage to understand why), it manages to capture the spirit that we’ve come to know and love. That being said, this is most definitely something for the fans and not so much for a layperson. Earth and Outworld are intercut very regularly and almost always without warning, likely leaving a newcomer in the dust as to where exactly this all takes place. The blood splatters and the bones crunch in just the way you’d hope for. It’s a shame really that so much was condensed in this way, given the proposed series of movies to come. MK actually has quite an expansive lore and would likely take well to an expanded cinematic universe.

So, do I recommend this new Mortal Kombat? Oh, yes. I feel like it takes itself just seriously enough while allowing itself to look and feel like the game. Liberties were taken, clearly, but it was still in good faith and with the movie’s best interests at heart. If profits look good, we could be seeing more movies in this series, and that’s a good thing. I think other fans will agree the film is in competent hands that have at least a basic understanding of what’s to be expected in this franchise. And from a genre that’s given us adaptations like Assassin’s Creed or Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, this truly feels like a breath of fresh air. So, does Mortal Kombat (2021) turn out a flawless victory? Naaa, but it’s still pretty damn good.

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