Review: “Mortal Kombat” (2021)

“Mortal Kombat” is by far one of the most legendary video game franchises out there leaving an infamous cultural impact that helped push video gaming even further into the mainstream and into political controversy. Back in the 90s its legacy was further solidified by a Hollywood movie, the fourth western videogame adaptation for the big screen and the first to reach any sort of critical praise souring to over $124 million worldwide. In the years that followed no other videogame movie seemed to reach its level of praise and it remains the only Hollywood videogame movie prior to 2018 to hold a rating above 40% on Rotten Tomatoes. So with the resurgence of videogame movies in recent years it only seemed natural that a new adaptation would hit the screen thus we get the 2021 “Mortal Kombat” reboot. Produced by James Wan and directed by Simon McQuaid in his directorial debut, this new adaptation of the series brings numerous iconic characters from the franchise to the screen as well as a new character, Lewis Tan as Cole Young, who engage in the titular tournament. With Scorpion and Sub-Zero’s legendary rivalry as a background story driving the deeper conflict, this new “Mortal Kombat” is a bloody good time despite being hampered by underwhelming acting, a primary focus on fanfare and a severely flawed screenplay.

Screenshot Courtesy of Warner Bros.

“Mortal Kombat” is truly a passion project made for fans of the franchise, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Let’s face it you’re not going to see this movie because it looks interesting. You’re probably seeing it because you love the long-running game franchise that inspired it. With that in mind seeing these characters on the screen with game-accurate powers and costumes is pretty cool and is one of many great examples of fanservice in this experience. The movie starts off strong establishing the rivalry between two of the franchise’s most famous characters, Scorpion and Sub-Zero, before diverting to years later when a group of Earthrealm fighters are being collected by Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) to prepare for their battle with the Outworld’s Shang Tsung (Chin Hin). Among the characters we get to see realized on screen are Mahcad Brooks as Jax, Jessica McNamee as Sonya Blade, Ludi Lin as Liu Kang, Joe Raslim as Sub-Zero, Hiroyuki Sanada as Scorpion, Max Huang as Kung Lao, Sisi Stringer as Mileena, Josh Lawson as Kano and Daniel Nelson and Damon Herriman working together to portray Kabal with several other characters also making appearances. Lewis Tan plays the original character Cole Young who serves as the hero whose journey we follow throughout the story.

Screenshot Courtesy of Warner Bros.

That story however is the movie’s biggest problem. The screenplay for this film is painfully forced as its clear the filmmakers had more interest in creating a movie that could showcase elements of the characters and the games rather than presenting something coherent and well written to display them. The script is full of clichés and predictable dialogue that rarely gives the actors much to work with short of a clearly scripted F-bomb. This is the kind of film where you just have to check your sanity at the door and go with it because the point here was clearly to find the quickest most painless route from fight scene to fight scene rarely pausing to explore much of anything beyond the most basic surface level characteristics of these fighters. It’s fair to say that anyone going in to this movie isn’t really looking for depth anyways and I’ll admit that they did a good job trying to give each of the characters enough screen time with some actors and characters shining through the haze. Scorpion and Sub-Zero are the most fun to watch and their actors do a pretty decent job capturing their mystique and distaste for one another. Josh Lawson as Kano steals the entire show with witty dialogue that adds some much needed life to the script and Lewis Tan gets credit for portraying a completely original character in Cole and making him feel like a genuine member of the “Mortal Kombat” cast. It’s just too bad the rest of the cast lacked this same life, whit or memorability. It makes me wonder what this movie could have been if the performers were allowed to let loose and escape into the ridiculousness of it all. Sadly, much of the cast feels wooden and lifeless and the story moves at such a brisk and careless pace it’s hard to get invested in anything beyond the action.

Screenshot Courtesy of Warner Bros.

But that action is clearly what the fans wanted to see, and they get plenty of it. While it’s painfully clear that many elements of the game, including the different arenas, one on one combat, special individual powers and bloody fatalities, were forced into the movie it’s these elements that shine the most because they went all out trying to bring that in-game experience to the screen. As predictable and one sided as many of these battles feel, it’s still really neat to see these combatants putting their skills to the test and recreate some fun moments right from the games. While I had some problems with the action choreography and at times it’s clear the actors were fighting dummies or stand-ins as their interactions with the CGI creations aren’t always convincing, the combat is still creative and engaging fitting in well with the fast pace of the mindless story taking place around it. As I said, it’s clear the filmmakers were more worried about getting to the fights than finding logical reasons for these battles to happen and I’ll be honest in saying that when the combat does kick in I really didn’t care how stupid the lead in was. It was just cool to see these people go at it and it made me yearn to play the games themselves all over again. In the end, that was the whole point of this movie and it does a great job giving fans what they want even if moviegoers in general aren’t given anything they NEED to make this worth watching more than once.

Screenshot Courtesy of Warner Btos.

“Mortal Kombat” is exactly what it needs to be, nothing more nothing less. The acting is subpar save for a few select standouts although the writing does the actors no favors. The screenplay is by far the weakest element of the film being completely based on fan service rather than a coherent, well-paced story and while that might be enough to satisfy fans it didn’t do a whole lot for me. That said, the action, fan service and callbacks to the games are what this movie was made for and there’s plenty of that in spades making it a worthwhile experience for fans of the games or those simply seeking some action-based escapism with mind-numbing combat and chaos to waste time. The best compliments I can give this movie are that it is a huge step up from the original movie as well as its much-maligned sequel, it does two of my personal favorite characters in Scorpion and Sub-Zero justice and it puts the fans over the critics going all in to try and satisfy its target audience even at the expense of providing the world with anything of substance. It’s not revolutionary in any way for videogame movies, but in spite of everything I hated about it “Mortal Kombat” was a fun time. It’s just far from the flawless victory fans truly deserve. (Face it, you knew I was going to work that cliché in here somehow)

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