Mortal Kombat and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros
Directed by Simon McQuoid
Honestly, I was never much of a Mortal Kombat fan. More of Tekken guy when it came to fighting games, but there’s no denying the cultural impact that the franchise has had and it’s impressive just how long they’ve been going with the series for it to only get better and better as time goes on. I remember Mortal Kombat 9 being an excellent reboot that got me into the series for a bit, but even at the games’ peak it still can’t touch that AWESOME 1995 movie directed by Paul WS Anderson! I just rewatched that movie like a year ago and it still holds up as a fantastic martial arts movie that finds the right balance between what fans want from the games and making into a coherent movie. There have been other attempts since then to get the series off the ground in non-video game forms, but this is the first big step WB has taken with it since acquiring the franchise in 2009. Does this bring Mortal Kombat to the big screen for a whole new generation of fans in a bold and exciting way, or will we all still be clutching our VHS tapes of the original film by the end of this movie? Let’s find out!!
As you’d expect from a Mortal Kombat movie, the story is set right before the start of the tenth Mortal Kombat tournament where Earth Realm’s greatest fighters try to overcome the unstoppable warriors of Outworld, and after nine consecutive losses in a row it’s Earth’s last chance to avoid complete and utter devastation as Outworld will finally be able to invade Earth if they win this time! So who exactly will be participating in this generation’s tournament? Well we’ve got some of the classic standbys from the franchise like Liu Kang, Jax, and a begrudging Kano (Ludi Lin, Mehcad Brooks, and Josh Lawson), but the real hope for humanity comes in the form of Cole Young (Lewis Tan); a new character for the series and someone with an unexpected history to this tournament that slowly reveals itself as he is recruited by Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) to seek out Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) and his crew so he can learn the techniques and Mortal Kombat Magic necessary to win this tournament! All is not as cut and dry however as Outworld’s leader in the tournament Shang Tsung (Chin Han) has his own crew of Mortal Kombat characters and is not waiting for the tournament to begin before sending them out to destroy the fledgling Earth team. With opponents such as Sub-Zero, Mileena, and Goro (Joe Taslim, Sisi Stringer, and Angus Sampson) hunting them down, do these heroes of Earth even stand a chance of MAKING it to the tournament; let alone becoming strong enough to win it? What is Cole’s history with this tournament, and will it be the key to Earth finally getting one over on Outworld? You know, most Fight Camps are AT LEAST eight weeks, so shouldn’t Raiden have gotten these guys together BEFORE the tournament was like a week away? And we all wonder why Earth Realm lost nine times in a row!
There’s a remix of the superb Mortal Kombat movie theme that they play during the credits with bits and pieces of it popping up here and there in the movie. I would suggest that if you’re here for consumer advice as to whether or not to see the movie, then listen to that theme and then listen to the original. Whatever you think about the difference between the two themes is a pretty accurate barometer for how you will feel about the movie, because so much of what is good about this reboot and what is lacking about it is there in the song as well. The remix may be more polished and does a few interesting things with the original theme, but in the process they lost the grit and shamelessness that made that song and that movie so iconic in the first place. This new movie just doesn’t HIT you the same way that the goofier version was able to almost thirty years ago and trying to cram all of Mortal Kombat’s ridiculous nonsense into the generic franchise blockbuster mold means that a lot of it just doesn’t fit well together. There’s just not enough FIRE in this movie; not enough GUTS and EXUBERANCE to make it work outside of fits and spurts here and there. It’s not a disaster and I wouldn’t be surprised if the younger generation of Mortal Kombat fans find things to love about this movie the same way us old folks enjoy the original Paul WS Anderson movie, but it’s just too hampered by it’s clear intent to be a multi-film franchise that it doesn’t have enough time to really shine and stand on its own
Perhaps the most galling thing about the movie is that it’s simply not even a tournament movie as Mortal Kombat, the tournament that will decide the fate of Earth, is not the setting that we spend most of our time in but a vague destination to justify our characters training to be super heroes; complete with inexplicable magical powers. I’m not OVERLY down on Cole as a character and I think having SOMEONE in here to differentiate itself from the games is a good idea (it certainly worked for the Resident Evil films), but he’s just not given any room to stretch outside of the generic hero mold that we already get in a hundred other movies. To once again, go back to the nineties film, Liu Kang in that movie already HAD his powers and skills which allowed his character arc in the movie be about something more than getting his power and left more time for awesome fight scenes and fun character beats with the characters. Instead, most of this movie is watching them train and learning about this new “Arcana” concept which is how they retrofit everyone’s powers into some sort of destiny nonsense and the whole concept makes the universe feel much smaller than it needs to. Instead of these characters being badass and cool for reasons unique to them, whether it’s Liu Kang’s training at the Shaolin temples or Jax having robot arms and being in special forces, everyone’s just digging their strength and plot relevance from one boring clichéd well. Once again, the film is just smoothing out all of the interesting edges of the Mortal Kombat franchise to fit into a nice digestible franchise film which is the last thing we need more of right now.
So unfortunately the majority of the film’s runtime is dedicated to basically everything you DON’T want in a Mortal Kombat film. Lots of exposition for things that in the grand scheme of thing don’t need an explanation and decidedly NOT having a tournament to instead focus on the same training montage/hero’s journey arc we’ve seen everywhere else. Still, it’s not all bad as the parts of Mortal Kombat’s wacky world that DO make it in here end up shine the most. It’s very much a pick and mix as the film doesn’t have much consistency, but some of the action scenes are fun if others are kind of stale, some of the characters are fun if others are obnoxious, and some of the story works even if the whole thing feels like it’s edited together with a weed whacker. The Mortal Kombat tournament that the eventually get to IS a fun little bit of ultra-violence so they at least deliver in that regard (and the R rating is definitely in effect which is one of the few things it has over the 1995 movie), but it feels so utterly token and last minute that it’s almost like they did it on sufferance. I think that where Cole’s story eventually goes IS pretty interested and I’m curious to see what the future holds for him, but his overwhelming presence in the movie kind of sucks the air out of everyone else; especially Liu Kang who seems to not have anything to do now that he’s no longer the main character. Still, I’d say that the performances across the board are good; even from Josh Lawson who as the unenviable task being the ANNOYING character as the completely insufferable Kano. My personal favorite though has to be Damon Herriman as the voice of Kabal. I don’t know who this Kabal guy is as I thought he was one of those Sektor robot dudes, but I’ve confirmed he’s been in other games and he is SO much fun for the few scenes he shows up! He’s a complete anachronism as the one Outworlder with robot parts as well as a freaking Jersey accent, and it’s the kind of goofy tongue in cheek nonsense that this movie needed so much more of!
But of course there’s one more aspect of this movie that I have yet to talk about and I figured I’d save it for last because despite all my complaints about the movie up to this point, this is what ultimately makes the movie worth watching despite all the poor decisions and sloppy editing throughout. Sub-Zero and Scorpion, already the two best things about the franchise, are PERFECTLY realized in this movie and every scene with them is worth watching; particular Sub-Zero who gets more screen time and is utterly captivating every time he shows up. His costume looks amazing, he ice effects are the most creatively executed in the entire movie, and Joe Taslim is absolutely PHENOMENAL in the role. There’s a lot that he has to convey within the constraints of his character (not much dialogue and not even a real mouth to use for most of it), and yet the dude makes it work with an astounding amount of presence; like a god looking upon the world of mortals with bewildered amusement. He’s sinister and malicious in a way that makes him easily hated but instantly iconic and if they don’t get Joe Taslim his own Sub-Zero series, then it’s clear that WB has no idea what it’s doing with this franchise. Hiroyuki Sanada’s Scorpion sadly doesn’t have as much screen time, but when he finally gets his confrontation with Sub-Zero it brings that heart and excitement that was missing from the rest of the movie. The SEETHING hate he has for Sub-Zero is palpable as is the filmmaker’s ambition to get this moment right and they freaking NAIL it! The final fight of the movie is an absolute sight to behold and frankly deserved a better movie than the one it got. If there’s one area that the 1995 movie fell short it was the kind of token way these two were in it as sub-bosses rather than central characters, and seeing them done so well in this is what COMPLETELY saves the movie!
Looking back, it really is the stuff that l enjoyed that has stuck in my mind while everything else just kinda fell out of my brain; and on top of that, the new remix is really starting to grow on me! I’m feeling REALLY kind to this movie which I may regret if I watch it again, but I think it’s worth checking out; certainly if you have HBO Max, but if you’re vaccinated and it’s a safe thing for you to do it’s probably even worth seeing on the big screen. That final fight is absolutely jaw dropping and while I wish the whole movie was as exciting it’s just enough to be worth the asking price! I honestly don’t know if a sequel is going to fix the problems of this movie, even IF they add characters like Johnny Cage to the mix, as the issues seem pretty inherent to the overall plan for the franchise which is why it’s disappointing that so many movies seem to be going for this very stale template. Still, what works about this movie can easily be carried over to the next film and if nothing else just giving us MORE of that would hardly be a bad thing as far as I’m concerned.