Immortal Combat: The Code (2020)
In many ways, the Cleveland-made indie Immortal Combat feels like a bigger version of what a bunch of little kids might accomplish with a camera, a backyard, a bunch of pretend weapons, and a lively imagination fed from martial arts epics and actions movies of old. There is a certain charm to it, escaping into the pure play of childhood, including wrist devices that are merely tapping your bare wrist, but as an actual movie, it might have some problems. Look, this is a martial arts action movie. You watch a martial arts action movie to be entertained with the feats of action, and that’s what you should be looking for with any movie with “combat” in the title (albeit in a misguided font that looks like a child’s chalk). On that front, Immortal Combat is flawed but still passable entertainment, though it feels like a project that was never intended to entertain more than its own select cast and crew.
Neil (Ben Zgorecki) is a member of the villainous Four 11 gang. He’s tasked with infiltrating the rival Five Elements gang but he turns against his former gang. The Five Elements have come into possession of a code that will save humanity from environmental disasters. The world is running low on breathable air and implantable medical devices are malfunctioning. The gangs are going to war to control this code and thus control the trajectory for mankind’s future.
The performers have physical skills they have honed over years, and director Johnny K. Wu (Innserself) emphasizes angles and cuts to fully appreciate those skills. There are extended shots where you can admire how much the performers practiced and memorized their routines. However, that deference also comes at the expense of the vitality of the action as depicted on screen. Because we’re at a medium range or farther distance, because there are longer takes, we’re watching the actors perform and realizing just how slow everyone is with their pacing. Without quicker cuts, the energy level of these fights comes across as too often lackluster, with many of the fighters just kind of hanging around and treating these battles as less life and death and more like a grocery aisle they cannot commit to. I can appreciate someone doing a fancy spin kick from a technical standpoint, but it feels less impressive when everyone else around them seems gassed or drugged in response. There is a lot of fighting in Immortal Combat but the editing and staging choices make it feel less believable, exciting, and potent. That’s why it feels like a bunch of grown-up kids running around, falling over, and continuing their pretend fighting rather than something, say, along the lines of a John Wick, an action franchise that is built around the appeal of expertly executed fight choreography.
The plot of Immortal Combat, written by Wu, Andras Zoid, and Linda Robertson, ignores the first rule of hidden conspiracies and alternate fantasies, which is to shepherd your audience gradually and not to make assumptions. I see this plenty of times with fantasy films that incorrectly assume an audience has as much understanding as the filmmakers do about the histories of their world, the intricacies, the rules and challenges, etc. A new world, or a conspiracy, needs to be unraveled slowly and in pieces to be accessible, to not overwhelm the audience. We need the right components as if they were building blocks, creating a sturdy foundation to attach new information and new rules and lessons. If you have a mysterious Chosen One, you don’t vomit up every last bit of expositional know-how right away, you have to draw things out at a natural, inclined pace. With Immortal Combat, we have an entry point into this new world through the rather non-intimidating character Neil (a.k.a. “Cloud”). He’s our learning curve. The problem is that Neil just runs with any information at once and this presents a confusing overload. The world of Immortal Combat resembles ours except there are martial arts gangs, some of them with elemental powers, or at least names, and a vast corporate conspiracy with implanted medical devices and environmental disaster, but the communication of these elements is so muddled that I kept having to rewind the movie to try and follow. Take the opening narration as an example:
“IN OUR future, one simple breath could mean life or death. As we search for a solution, pollution engulfs our world. If we don’t find an answer fast, all living things shall perish. We are the Five Elements, we strive to protect humanity… Years ago, many warriors came to us seeking change, joined our way of life. Right after, A Code was discovered that could save the world and was injected into one of us. We even lost one of our clan’s mate. Now we must fight for our lives to bring the code – to the world…or die trying. With the MediCan Research Corporation and The FOUR 11 gang on our tails….We must protect the code….AT ALL COSTS.”
I guess the pollution is killing everyone, yet we don’t really get a sense of this impending and immediate danger because life seems pretty normal; people are hanging out at bars, strolling around, not rationing what might be their final breath. Because of this pollution, a corporation is looking for a solution for its implantable medical devices, yet why is this even introduced except to provide another batch of shadowy bad guys with a plot crowded with shadowy villains? The corporation wants a solution, a code, which is what the heroes have, and the heroes want to get the code out to save humanity, so why aren’t they actively working together? Why introduce two sides who have the same goal if they are never going to meaningfully interact? I suppose the evil corporation would exploit the code for profit, but why not express this through actions? Also, why is this world-saving code only injected into one person rather than, say, uploaded to the Internet? Why risk your only vessel containing the world-saving magic code getting hit by a bus? If the goal is proliferation, there seems to be more safety in diversifying the code-carriers. The rival evil gang, the Four 11s, are a criminal syndicate but their leader has a sick child. Wouldn’t this code also help cure this child? Why are all these organizations working against one another? The world building of this universe feels cluttered and confusing and lacking narrative purpose. It resembles a little kid making up the rules as they go for a game you didn’t recognize.
As Neil is introduced into the Five Elements gang, we’re inundated with names but not so identifying personalities and things to better cement the deluge of characters. We have Cloud, Water, Earth, Fire, Wood, Gold, and if you forced me to identify who was who I would not even under penalty of law. There are so many characters in this movie and very few, if any, leave a favorable impression at all. They are repositories of kicks and punches and the occasional grunt. Water (the exquisitely named Crystle Paynther Collins) keeps bringing up her dead sister to the point that I waited for her to reference it every time she was onscreen, and she did not disappoint. Naming your main character Neil, and sticking him in khakis to perform martial arts, made me laugh. It’s not that his code name “Cloud” is that much more intimidating. When you introduce characters in movies, it’s a good idea to give them a moment to set them apart, and through action, which will better convey who they are and through visual storytelling. This is one of those movies where a character says, “You need to see Earth and Gold or else Wood and Fire will combust,” and you just shake your head and try and determine who these people are and what are their connections. It’s clumsy writing and there are too many characters to keep track of without stronger involvement. After watching 80 minutes, everyone just blurred together into People Who Kick (except for Neil and his mighty fighting khakis).
The problem with Immortal Combat is the same I’ve seen with other low-budget indies, namely that these movie projects were not made for a mass audience. They play like an insular group project for friends and family of the production, people who are already in the know and on board, and the writing and development are tailored for this narrow band rather than a broader outside audience. To make a movie for others, you’d have to carefully explain your plot in a way that would be engaging, clear, and escalating, with characters distinguishable by personality, goals, and choices, and you’d want to integrate them in meaningful ways that also push our protagonist or heroes to victory. You’d have to put the work in to make it an actual movie. Immortal Combat feels like it was made strictly for its friends and family, like finding excuses to squeeze in extras for gang group shots despite the fact that the very presence of “non-threatening-looking” members calls into question the hiring practices and determination of this vicious martial arts gang. When people who look like your ordinary neighbors are in a martial arts gang, do you fear them? This also extends to our invisible special forces team. Some of these guys have a noticeable deficit in their effort or duty to their job. There’s nothing wrong with creating art with a small intended audience. I’m sure corporate offices make little videos all the time only intended to play to their employees. If you’re thinking beyond your immediate circle, however, then you must put more thought into your storytelling choices and make the plot and characters matter rather than finding room for everyone to fit onscreen.
Immortal Combat plays like an overextended martial arts demo reel and a plot was strung together to justify more and more exercises, resulting in a calamitous collection of confusing characters that are nearly interchangeable and often extraneous and expendable. The impact and excitement of all that martial arts choreography is blunted somewhat by the choices how to present the fighting and revealing the lackluster energy levels of some of the performers. I know in reality that fight sequences are often at a slower speed when filmed, same with car chases that typically only go at speeds of 30 miles per hour, but you make choices to obscure those nagging parts of reality to maintain the illusion that these kicks are furious and these cars go fast. It’s the same thinking when it comes to casting and crafting a story that naturally widens rather than simply polluting it with more names and faces that will only leave a dent for making dents. It looks like the actors and people behind Immortal Combat had fun making a movie, and to that end I have no qualms with any of them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the elements to reach beyond its circle.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Side note: the poster for this movie is wildly inaccurate. Like amazingly inaccurate. There are no characters in the movie resembling those on the poster, which definitely seems designed to be the Asylum version of Mortal Kombat.