*Caution: Review contains some spoilers!*
When it comes to movies based on video games, the sub-genre is usually seen in a pretty negative light. As a fan of both video games and movies, I sadly can’t really disagree, because for the most part, video game movie adaptations have sucked. To be fair, in their earlier years during the 1990s, they had something of an excuse, as adapting video games to the silver screen was a new concept. And with how fundamentally different video games are from movies, it’s easy to understand why the earlier efforts didn’t stick the landing. Later efforts didn’t have the same scapegoat, however, and with how cinematic video games have become in the years since, there’s really no excuse as to why video game movies have remained as bad as they’ve been, leaving many to jokingly refer to the sub-genre as being cursed.
Though to say the video game movie is entirely cursed would be to turn a blind eye to 1995’s Mortal Kombat, one of the earlier video game movies, and the only one that was genuinely good (though I’d argue 1993’s Super Mario Bros. and 1994’s Street Fighter were “so bad they’re good”). Sure, it may not have been a cinematic classic, but the Mortal Kombat movie was a satisfying action flick modeled after kung fu movies, and it paid respect to its source material while other video game movies seem embarrassed by it. In recent years, the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie has been seen in an even more positive light than it was in its day, for the well done fight scenes as well as the aforementioned fanservice done right, and also for being one of the few Hollywood movies in the 1990s to star an Asian lead. Sadly, the film’s 1997 sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, was a cluttered mess of a movie, and effectively killed the hopes of any further sequels. With the one good video game movie’s own sequel failing to deliver the goods, it made the 1995 film even more of a diamond in the rough.
In the past couple of years, however, it seems the video game movie curse has been broken, at least to some degree: 2019’s Pokemon: Detective Pikachu was a surprisingly fun family adventure, as was 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog, with both films also showing respect to the video games that inspired them. Now seemed as good of a time as any to reboot Mortal Kombat’s place in the movie world, and lo’ and behold, 2021’s Mortal Kombat has given us three consecutive years containing a good video game movie adaptation, and a worthy reboot of the 1995 film, even if it does contain a few more hiccups than its predecessor.
The overarching plot here is mostly the same as its always been for the series: the evil realm of Outworld seeks to invade Earth, but ancient laws laid down by “Elder Gods” prevent it from doing so, unless it can win ten consecutive contests of Mortal Kombat, a tournament pitting champions of Earth against those of Outworld. Naturally, Outworld has already won nine tournaments, with a tenth looming on the horizon, making Earth’s victory absolutely necessary for its survival.
There is a bit of a twist to the plot this time around, as there is now an added prophecy that the descendant of a legendary ninja named Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) – better known by fans of the series as Scorpion – will help aide Earth in victory over Outworld in the Mortal Kombat tournament.
Centuries ago, Hanzo Hasashi and his family were murdered by the Lin Keui clan, lead by Bi-Han (Joe Taslim), a ninja who wields the power of ice. Hanzo’s infant daughter, who was hidden from Bi-Han, is rescued by the thunder god Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), ensuring Hanzo’s bloodline will continue.
Fast-forward to the present, and we meet Hanzo’s descendant, Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a former MMA fighter who was born with a dragon-shaped birthmark. He soon becomes hunted by Bi-Han, who now goes by the moniker Sub-Zero after being recruited by Outworld sorcerer Shang Tsun (Chin Han). With the help of a man named Jax (Mehcad Brooks), Cole manages to get his family to safety, and learns that his birthmark is actually the symbol of the fighters chosen for Mortal Kombat, with Jax bearing the same mark. With Jax staying behind to face Sub-Zero, Cole soon meets Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), who has been studying the Mortal Kombat tournament’s history, though lacks a mark of her own. Sonya has recently taken a mercenary named Kano (Josh Lawson) hostage, and after the three of them are ambushed by Reptile (one of Shang Tsun’s assassins) they set out to find the temple of Raiden, where they’ll find fellow Earth champions Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang), as well as Lord Raiden himself.
It’s admittedly quite a bit of setup, but I’ve watched the movie three times now and enjoyed the build, as well as the training scenarios and fight scenes that follow. The film’s inclusion of an original character in Cole Young as the film’s central character has been divisive (I mean, making an original character the focus in an established franchise is kind of fanfiction-y). But to the film’s credit, he’s constantly learning from the established characters, as opposed to outshining them like Milla Jovovich’s character in the Resident Evil movies.
I actually find myself quite enjoying the fighting scenes in the movie, which is definitely a big plus, given that this is a Mortal Kombat movie. Being the first R-rated Mortal Kombat film, it’s also the first to include the series’ controversially violent “fatalities.” This is a much gorier film than the 1995 original, with some (not many) moments bound to have some viewers covering their eyes to avoid queasiness. On the downside, some of the CGI in the film looks well behind the times. Sub-Zero’s ice effects look great, but the blood effects just don’t look right. Maybe that was intentional? To balance out the violence, make the blood and guts look as fake and cheesy as possible, to keep with the over-the-top nature of the video games? I don’t know.
Sadly, one of the film’s big flaws is carried over from Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, albeit maybe not quite to the same degree: the film simply features too many characters from the games, to the point that a number of them have disappointing showings. This is especially true of the bad guys, with Shang Tsun introducing us to all kinds of colorful villains, only for them to be killed off after a minute or two of screen time. I guess that’s the pitfall of trying to appease fans of a long-standing franchise is a single film, some characters are going to get shortchanged. Sure, certain characters are always bound to get less screen time than others, but when Goro – one of the main boss characters from the original game – is hinted at in silhouette over halfway through the movie, only to show up for a single fight and written off moments later, you can’t help but think he should have stayed in his silhouette in this film, and been properly utilized in a potential sequel. Sometimes, it’s better to keep fans’ hope alive with what could be, over disappointing them with a lackluster execution.
With that said, the characters who do get to shine, do so rather brightly. This is particularly true of Scorpion, Sub-Zero and Kano. Though Scorpion’s screen time is limited, the film definitely gives him the proper respect as a fan favorite, particularly in its buildup to his eventual return (that’s not much of a spoiler, Scorpion was always an undead ninja, so he was bound to bounce back from death in the film). Sub-Zero, meanwhile, is the de facto main villain, seeing as Shang Tsun isn’t an active participant in Mortal Kombat. And the added element of Hanzo’s bloodline in the plot puts all the more importance on good ol’ Sub-Zero. I mean, Scorpion and Sub-Zero are the two characters everyone remembers from Mortal Kombat, so you may as well build the film around their rivalry.
It’s Kano who perhaps gets the best treatment in the film (at least for the most part), being given the most personality and humor in the entire movie, as well as the best lines. After ripping Reptile’s heart out of its chest, Kano proceeds to draw his own “Kano graphic novel” recounting the confrontation. How can you not be won over by that?
Unfortunately, Kano’s character is also put in a weird place. He’s always been a villain in the games, and the movie addresses that he isn’t a good guy, but it does put him in a position that places him on the side of the good guys, at least for a good while. So when he does inevitably play the role of a villain, it comes across as too abrupt after the film made us enjoy the character way too much.
Another downside to the film is that – without spoiling too much – the tournament itself never actually takes place in the film. Shang Tsun is constantly cheating by using his assassins to try and take out the competition before the event even occurs (if this tournament is so sacred, maybe those Elder Gods should be paying a little more attention to it), and by the film’s third act, the good guys just kind of say “screw it” and have Raiden force them into one-on-one fights against their Outworld opponents. So while the fights technically take place, Mortal Kombat does not. It’s not a big problem in itself (it gives us something to look forward to in the sequel), but sadly, I do think this approach leads to many of the final fights feeling a bit rushed, which plays into the aforementioned sporadic entrances and exits of the film’s villains. Who’s going to be left on Shang Tsun’s team come Mortal Kombat 2? The movie wisely realizes it doesn’t have room for Johnny Cage – one of the original Mortal Kombat heroes – and simply doesn’t feature him. But it does hint that he’ll play a role in the sequel. Perhaps it could have done something similar for some of the bad guys?
2021’s Mortal Kombat is ultimately – like 1995’s Mortal Kombat – a lot of good, goofy fun. And, along with the 1995 film, Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog, is now one of the few video game movies that seems to understand and respect the game that inspired it, which means it will be doubly enjoyable for fans of the franchise. Now here’s hoping the sequel doesn’t end up being a repeat of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation…
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