Most people consider Paul W.S Anderson’s Mortal Kombat (1995) to be the best video game to movie adaptation ever made. It helps that it’s effectively a remake of Enter the Dragon (1973) with fantasy trappings, that teenagers embraced as a new cultural product full of recognisable characters. And after the dual abominations of Super Mario Bros. (1993) and Street Fighter (1994), anything halfway competent was deemed a success, and kids of the ’90s took Mortal Kombat to their hearts. Bangin’ techno theme tune too.
And that brings us to Mortal Kombat 2021, the directorial debut of Australian filmmaker Simon McQuoid, which is a reboot of the franchise after the atrocious Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997) killed the ’90s saga in its tracks. Renewed interest in these fighting games came with the console releases of Mortal Kombat X (2015) and Mortal Kombat 11 (2019), which were themselves partly a reaction to short-lived web-series Mortal Kombat: Legacy (2011-13).
So with a new generation duly invested in these characters, and with modern-day VFX able to bring the universe to life more plausibly, does the new Mortal Kombat get the job done? And does it steal the crown from its predecessor as the best video game adaptation ever made?
The good news is that Mortal Kombat takes the material about as seriously as you’d want, but leaves space for inside-jokes and tongue-in-cheek quips. The R-rating also means it can be (almost) as bloodthirsty as the source material, with a handful of impressive fatalities and lashings of arterial spray and gore. The downside is that screenwriters Greg Russo and Dave Callaham (Wonder Woman 1984) have opted to avoid the tournament backdrop altogether, rather than use it as the climax once they’ve fleshed out everyone’s motivations and grievances.
The best sequence is the seven-minute opening, which sadly isn’t indicative of the quality to come. A flashback to 17th-century Japan establishes the blood feud between Chinese assassin Bi-Han/Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) and Japanese ninja Hanzo Hasashi/Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada), after the former slaughters his enemy’s family to end his bloodline and send Hanzo to Hell. It’s well-staged, surprisingly emotional, and quickly invests audiences in the two men’s centuries-old rivalry. So it’s disappointing those characters aren’t central to the story going forward, as our attention instead switches to a younger ensemble…
In the present-day, we meet Hanzo’s descendent Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a former MMA fighter with a dragon-shaped birthmark he’s told means he’s been chosen to compete in a mythical deathmatch. He learns more from fellow contestants Jax (Mehcad Brooks) and Sonya Blade (Jessica NcNamee), who’s captured an Australian mercenary called Kano (Josh Lawson), before they’re attacked by goons sent by warlord Shang Tsung (Chin Han). It seems ‘Earthrealm’ now hangs in the balance after nine consecutive defeats at ‘Mortal Kombat’, meaning Tsung’s fearsome ‘Outworld’ realm is poised to invade and enslave mankind.
Mortal Kombat adds a couple of fresh ingredients to the pot, such as the idea of birthmarks deciding Earth’s protectors, and connecting Cole’s story to his ancestor Hanzo. It also helped that Cole is a new character, so learning exactly what his skills and abilities are along the way was entertaining. It’s just a shame Cole’s the ostensible lead and audience surrogate, but is by far the dullest character. Josh Lawson is the only actor whose presence is entertaining, playing a loudmouthed rogue who pokes fun at how insane things are. Still, if your mind starts to wander after a half-hour, there’s at least a steady procession of weird characters and creatures to gawp at—from lightning master Lord Raiden (Ichi the Killer’s Tadanobu Asano) to the four-armed monster Goro (voiced by Angus Sampson).
For a movie that cost a reported $55M, it’s sometimes difficult to see where all that money went. There are no major stars to pay, so it’s disappointing the scope of the movie is smaller than expected. We spend a large proportion of time inside Raiden’s ancient temple, and the titular tournament never begins because the villains are trying to eliminate Earth’s fighters beforehand. This means there are no big crowd scenes typical of tournament movies like Bloodsport (1988), which mean the show lacks a gladiatorial atmosphere during its many fights, which makes everything seem oddly low-key.
The VFX are as good as one expects these days, so no complaints on that score, and the martial arts choreography by Chan Griffin (Thor: Ragnarok, Aquaman) is enjoyable to behold, if a little ripped apart by some rapid-cut editing at times. There aren’t as many gruesome fatalities as the marketing would have you believe (the best involves a ‘blood icicle’), but the tone’s much closer to the games than the PG-13 version from the mid-’90s. It just doesn’t have as much personality, perhaps because it plays things a lot straighter.
Overall, Mortal Kombat is a faithful live-action take on the video games, but the script doesn’t do much with its smattering of new ideas. The lack of an actual tournament is also annoying, but I assume they wanted the planned sequel to take place during the Mortal Kombat event itself. There are also numerous unused characters who could appear next time, so one could argue setting this film before the tournament gets underway shows welcome restraint and foresight.
One for the button-bashing fans, really, but Mortal Kombat is entertaining nonsense if you’re in the mood.
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AUSTRALIA • USA | 2021 | 110 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Simon McQuoid.
writers: Greg Russo & Dave Callaham (story by Oren Uziel & Greg Russo, based on the video game ‘Mortal Kombat’ by Ed Boon & John Tobias).
starring: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin, Chin Han, Joe Taslim & Hiroyuki Sanada.