Kole Young (Lewis Tan) makes a living earning two-hundred dollars in MMA fighting arenas until he is recruited by Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) to partake in a battle to save the Earth from the Outworld’s Shang Tsung (Chin Han). Kole is grouped with Earth’s other champions: the loudmouth Australian Kano (Josh Lawson), the military expert Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), her former commander Jax (Mehcad Brooks), the fire bending Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), and his cousin Kung Lao (Max Huang) who’s oversized hat is as sharp as a sawblade. Little does Kole know that he has a lineage rivalry with the dreaded ice ninja, Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim).
Mortal Kombat is one of the most historically significant fighting games next to Street Fighter and Tekken. Back in the 90’s, it shocked arcade players and politicians with its more mature character roster and patented fatalities, which eventually led to the creation of the ESRB rating system. It was also one of the first games to receive a film adaptation in 1995 that, despite initial negative reception, has garnered a more positive following for its faithful adaptation of the source material even with its PG-13 limitations. Not to mention birthing one of the best theme songs since Super Mario Brothers. Unfortunately, its 1997 sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation is still one of the most hated video game movies to this day. Thankfully, the series made a comeback with Mortal Kombat 9 on seventh generation consoles and has seen no signs of slowing down with the latest entry, Mortal Kombat 11.
A third movie was condemned to development hell for an elongated period until a reboot was announced in late 2010, following the pitch of Mortal Kombat: Rebirth and the success of the graphically animated Mortal Kombat Legends: Scorpion’s Revenge. Eventually, The Conjuring creator James Wan stepped in as a producer, and unlike the first film, this would commit to a full R rating to accommodate the fatalities, though it did face problems of crossing the NC-17 line. Now released in theaters and on HBO Max, what is the verdict on this highly anticipated chance at righting the wrongs of the past? A victory, but not without a cost.
First and foremost, the special effects are amazing in bringing this series to life in all the fight sequences. Do practical effects have a place in this? For a game series this outlandish and brutal, not really. Many moves require breaking the laws of reality and physics that neither puppets nor animatronics could ever accomplish without the aid of computer animation. One of the characters has four arms for Pete sake. Add a booming soundtrack to increase the intensity of each situation, and you have a formula guaranteed to keep its audience on edge. Admittedly, the fights should’ve been filmed in one shot rather than using the constant edit technique that’s becoming more common in action films these days. The stunts would feel more consistent like in the seven minute prologue and would convey the split-second decision making that goes into each move. That being said, they’re still fine on their own, especially the final confrontation that knows how to balance three battles at once. There’s dedication to the excessive violence, but the R rating feels more earned from the outnumbering F bombs rather than the blood and gore that made the series a household name. Censor all the swearing, and this would probably be PG-13. Knowing this struggled with keeping an R rating, the pacing shows in how little some of the directing has to offer. At first, the establishing shot of the Out World is grand and mysterious that could house so much creative scenery that’s always been a large part of the game’s vast art direction. But after a while it keeps cutting back to the same cliffside with nothing else to add. Judging from this and the fact that there’s no actual tournament, this could be considered a prequel.
Concerning the characters and story, its hard to adapt this series into a two hour movie while cramming in the entire roster. Modern video games are at least thrice as long as Avengers: Endgame, which makes the compressed time difficult to establish everyone with backstories, personality, and their unique fighting styles. This is usually accompanied by exposition, but there’s an attempt at visual storytelling to establish their backgrounds in a short amount of time. Going for the Marvel Cinematic Universe approach in establishing all characters would be demanding too much patience from both demographics when there’s very little lore to work with when stretching out the film series. Everyone is at least decently cast with adequate performances making the most of what they bring to the table. They look and fight exactly like their game counterparts. But with a group this big, there’s a missing comradery that even the first movie knew how to handle better. While it might have been PG-13, it took in account more factors such as world-building and connections when transitioning to film. Kano is surprisingly the stand out of the bunch with his crass personality and unapologetic patriotism. You could have a few drinks with this guy and end up either laughing with him or dunking his head in a toilet. He certainly has more charisma than the main character Kole, who doesn’t get a lot of development despite all the effort from Lewis Tan. As an insert for the audience, he gets the job done, but there could’ve been so much more potential for this film exclusive newbie. Near the end, it looked like he was going to become the new Scorpion, but that’s retconned by the final battle. If that’s the case, there could’ve been so much more development with him by rescuing his ancestor from the NeatherRealm and training under his eye before passing on the family lineage. In spite of all the missed opportunities, there’s still a fun time to be had. This isn’t something that begs to be taken seriously for the next academy awards, it’s a popcorn movie that knows who it wants to please and in doing so is still one of the better live-action takes in a franchise that has been surviving for nearly thirty years.
Mortal Kombat 2021 succeeds at catering to its fanbase, but at the cost of a general audience that’s only now starting to return to theaters. Moviegoers will be left scratching their heads on who all these people are in between the choppily edited fights. Fans however, will definitely enjoy the visual and musical upgrades to the energetic battles and its passionate, bloody, loyalty to the games. It’s not going to surpass Mortal Kombat 9 in story or character, and even the first movie knew how to better handle changes for the sake of a different medium. But in terms of video game movies, this has enough substance and exceeds in style for those who have been following the series since the days of quarters and joysticks. If you’re a veteran of the games, step into the movie theater or subscribe to HBO Max. If not, you have several options at your disposal: either proceed with caution into the new movie or the 1995 original, play the video games, or watch the gruesomely animated Scorpion’s Revenge, if only to see the gritty, realistic Scorpion interact with the starkly different and cartoonishly wild Daffy Duck. Here’s hoping that the next entry is the flawless victory the genre needs for both demographics.