Mortal Kombat is video game royalty, and if you were a Millennial that grew up in the 90s, then you likely have your own personal connection to this bone-crunching franchise. Released in 1992, the halcyon decade of fighting games, the arcade game gained notoriety and parental infamy for its photo-realistic fighters and for the over-the-top violence. Players could finish off their opponents in brutal and bloody fashion, drawing the condemnation of parents and politicians and only making teenagers want to play the games even more. I can recall my disappointment over the Super Nintendo port of the first game lacking the blood and gore of the arcade, something my Sega Genesis friends could lord over me with their faithful port (there was a code where you could turn the copious amount of sweat red, but it wasn’t the same). This was corrected with the release of Mortal Kombat II, and I think I devoted two whole years of my teenage life to playing that game, memorizing every player’s special moves and deadly finishes. I never really kept up with the franchise after the third game, and from what I’ve seen with the newest versions, I can safely say they just aren’t for me anymore. The gore of the 90s games was campy and ridiculous and the gore of the current games is too medically graphic for me (I’m not alone; apparently the game developers also needed therapy as they suffered trauma from their research and detailed recreation of the intensely destructive violence upon human bodies).
I can recall seeing the 1995 Mortal Kombat movie at the local drive-in with my friend and fellow fan of the franchise, and we lapped it up eager to see any live-action version of our video game obsession. We were so excited and ignored the faults of the film, and we weren’t alone. It gained the reputation as one of the “better video game movies,” which is a criminally low bar to clear. I never watched the 1997 sequel, Annihilation, but it’s widely regarded as a so-bad-it’s-good farce and definitely an insult to fans of the games. From there, fans have been savoring the day another Kombat film could find its way to the big screen, something to wash away the taste of the cheesy 90s movies that were both PG-13 and lacking the signature gore of the series. The new 2021 Mortal Kombat movie is firmly rated R and is chiefly made for the diehard fans. It’s a fun and bloody movie with some flaws, but I don’t know what more I should have expected from a franchise that, from its very beginning, has literally spelled “combat” with a K.
The plot is straightforward for a game centered around a super-powered inter-dimensional fighting tournament. The Outworld has won nine tournaments in a row and with one more victory they will gain control over Earthrealm. Sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Sun) is the ruler of the Outworld and has the bright idea that if he kills all of Earth’s chosen fighters ahead of time, it will make his next tournament victory that much easier. He sends powerful assassins to Earth to locate the Chosen One, an MMA fighter named Cole Young (Lewis Tan) who doesn’t know he’s the descendant of a destined family line of warriors. Cole is taken under protection by Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), where he is trained to reach his true potential. He needs to unleash a hidden superpower to compete with the best of Outworld.
First off, if you’re looking for a Kombat movie that is faithful to the atmosphere of the games, then you should walk away happy. Nobody is going into this movie and expecting Oscar-level material. We’re here for the fights, the crazy characters, and the gasp-inducing gore effects, and to that end the third film incarnation of Mortal Kombat mostly delivers the goods. Compared to the 1995 movie, populated with majority white actors with varying degrees of martial arts skills, and “varying” might be charitable, this is a clear winner. These are actors here from The Raid, Wu Assassins, Into the Badlands, The Twilight Samurai, Mongol, and plenty other worthy martial arts spectacles, so the filmmakers clearly valued having actors who could credibly perform the complex fight choreography. It’s also worth noting that we have Asian actors playing Asian characters, so that’s a bonus for authenticity and reverence as well.
The opening six minutes of the movie really sets up how serious and potentially great it can be. It’s the early 1600s, and we’re introduced to the quiet family man, Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), a member of a Japanese ninja clan that is being hunted by Bi-Han (Joe Taslim), a dangerous warrior from a rival Chinese ninja clan. The opening is patient, thoughtful, and eerie, and when the fighting breaks out it’s done in longer takes where we can watch the actors strut their physical stuff. The fighting makes specific use of each character’s skills and is a satisfying start. The movie never quite lives up to these artistic heights again, at least for a sustained duration, but this taste of a legitimately good Mortal Kombat movie is enough to make you believe we can return here again.
The rest of the movie is decidedly fun and clearly doesn’t take itself too seriously (they even make fun of the “combat” with a K spelling). It’s got characters that can shoot lasers from their eyes, invisible monsters, four-armed strongmen, metal arms, and just about every character introduction is another opportunity for the movie to shrug and just accept its inherent weirdness of its rogue’s gallery. There’s a lady with dinosaur wings and another guy with a really sharp hat. What you want is for the filmmakers to present a world where these characters work, something that didn’t succeed with the goofy 1990s movies. I think the script by Greg Russo and Dave Callahan (Wonder Woman 1984) accomplish this feat and presents a world that finds a credible middle ground between campy indulgence and self-serious blather. It’s serious enough to not break out into derisive laughter but it’s still not too serious that the filmmakers have forgotten what the audience has paid to see. The gore effects are sticky and impressive and gross without being offensively so. The creative process for this movie was likely crafting a list of all the red-strewn finishing moves from the games and figuring out how best to squeeze them into the royal rumble. Every character gets a signature move, along with plenty of clunky catchphrases also crammed in for fan approval. If you’re a fan of the games, they’ve designed this movie with your demands primarily in mind.
Where the movie falters are with decisions of pacing, structure, and some editing. Centering the story on a newcomer seems odd when any other established character could have sufficed, until you realize they’re setting up Cole Young to inherit the legacy of his ancestor and likely become the Scorpion we know so well from the games. Except that’s not quite what happens, which makes the decision to center him as an entry point perspective more confusing. It’s not like Cole is that interesting on his own. He’s a boring MMA fighter who wants to protect his family and that’s about it. He needs to summon his special power, and when he does, prepare to be underwhelmed. Another issue is that the second act is far too long and protracted. It’s mainly comprised of training exercises and people being told, “You’re not ready,” and vague force fields and teleportation powers that invite questions over whether they could have been used earlier. It’s too much training without the bloody reward of the gnarlier fights. This leaves the final act to be rushed and many of the climactic one-on-one fights are pushed into a measly montage. Finally, the editing of the fighting can become too choppy and jumbled to fully appreciate the onscreen action. The opening sequence is an example of where careful edits can highlight the choreography.
The new Mortal Kombat movie is fun, cool, bloody, and probably exactly what diehard fans would hope for from a big-screen rendition. It’s ridiculous but not tongue-in-cheek in tone. The visuals and special effects can often be weirdly beautiful especially with the crystalizing powers of Sub-Zero, the game’s popular ninja with the power to freeze and create deadly daggers of ice. There are some standout “wow” visual moments, like when Sub-Zero freezes a bullet firing from the blast of a rifle, or when he freezes his opponent’s spurting blood to form a knife. There were as many moments that brought a smile to my face as made me check the time. The dialogue is flat and the only actor who seems to really be enjoying himself is the proudly profane Josh Lawson as Kano. But when it comes to the fighting, the fatalities, and the franchise’s glorious selling point, it might not be a flawless victory but it’s still a victory nonetheless for fans.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I never would have fathomed that a movie with both “ninja” and “assassin” in its title would barely hold my interest. This is a movie I got up and did the dishes through. Over-the-top never felt so boring, and perhaps it comes down to the flimsiest of stories strung together to connect the various ninja fights. It really does the bare minimum narrative-wise to get to the next opportunity for bloodletting, and oh what bloodletting! This is an extremely bloody movie but its power is undone because the violence is too stylized. Blood sprays like geysers and every slash of the flesh unleashes a balletic dance of painterly, soupy blood. The movie might work as disposable trash if only the action sequences were exciting. This isn’t a ninja movie but some half-assed video game. These aren’t Bruce Lee Ninjas, these ninjas can literally vanish into thin air before your eyes and they blend into the shadows. They are supernatural creatures that defy our traditional notions of what defines a ninja. This ain’t it. The characters all take such brutal beatings, and they spill tanker truckloads of blood, that it’s a wonder they can even stand let alone fight. There are a fee snazzy fight sequences but only thanks to choice in geography. The choppy editing only makes matters worse. I expected much more from the director of V for Vendetta. Ninja Assassin is just an un-engaging, hyper violent cartoon with a dimwitted story and little reason to care. The action isn’t even that good because the editing and lighting conspire to make sure you won’t be able to comprehend what’s going on. The best part of this entire damn stupid movie is the animated segment at the start of the closing credits. So have fun washing dishes until then, folks.
Nate’s Grade: C-
I have been a Batman fan since I was old enough to wear footy pajamas. I watched the campy Adam West TV show all the time, getting sucked into the lead balloon adventures. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was the first PG-13 film I ever saw, and I watched it so many times on video that I have practically worn out my copy. Batman Returns was my then most eagerly anticipated movie of my life, and even though it went overboard with the dark vision, I still loved it. Then things got dicey when Warner Brothers decided Batman needed to lighten up. I was only a teenager at the time, but I distinctly remember thinking, “You’re telling the Dark Knight to lighten up?” Director Joel Schumacher’s high-gloss, highly stupid turn with Batman Forever pushed the franchise in a different direction, and then effectively killed it with 1997’s abomination, Batman and Robin. I mean these films were more worried about one-liners and nipples on the Bat suits. Nipples on the Bat suits, people! Is Batman really going, “Man, you know, I’d really like to fight crime today but, whoooo, my nipples are so chaffed. I’m gonna sit this one out”?
For years Batman languished in development hell. Warner Bothers licked their wounds and tried restarting their franchise again and again, only to put it back down. Then around 2003 things got exciting. Writer/director Christopher Nolan was announced to direct. Nolan would also have creative control. Surely, Warner Brothers was looking at what happened when Columbia hired Sam Raimi (most known for low-budget splatterhouse horror) for Spider-Man and got out of his way. After Memento (My #1 movie of 2001) and Insomnia (My #5 movie of 2002), Nolan tackles the Dark Night and creates a Batman film that’s so brilliant that I’ve seen it three times and am itching to go again.
The film opens with a youthful Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in a Tibetan prison. He’s living amongst the criminal element searching for something within himself. Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) offers Bruce the chance to be taught under the guidance of the mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), the leader of the equally mysterious warrior clan, The League of Shadows. Under Ducard’s direction, Bruce confronts his feelings of guilt and anger over his parents’ murder and his subsequent flee from his hometown, Gotham City. He masters his training and learns how to confront fear and turn it to his advantage. However, Bruce learns that the League of Shadows has its judicial eyes set on a crime ridden Gotham, with intentions to destroy the city for the betterment of the world. Bruce rebels and escapes the Tibetan camp and returns to Gotham with his own plans of saving his city.
With the help of his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine), Bruce sets out to regain his footing with his family’s company, Wayne Enterprises. The company is now under the lead of an ethically shady man (Rutger Hauer) with the intentions of turning the company public. Bruce befriends Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the company’s gadget guru banished to the lower levels of the basement for raising his voice. Bruce gradually refines his crime fighting efforts and becomes the hero he’s been planning on since arriving home.
Gotham is in bad shape too. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), a childhood friend to Bruce, is a prosecutor who can’t get anywhere when crime lords like Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) are controlling behind the scenes. Most of the police have been bought off, but Detective Gordon (Gary Oldman) is the possibly the city’s last honest cop, and he sees that Batman is a figure trying to help. Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy) is a clinical psychologist in cahoots with Falcone. Together they’re bringing in drug shipments for a nefarious plot by The Scarecrow, a villain that uses a hallucinogen to paralyze his victims with vivid accounts of their own worst fears. Bruce is the only one who can unravel the pieces of this plot and save the people of Gotham City.
Nolan has done nothing short of resurrecting a franchise. Previous films never treated Batman as an extraordinary character; he was normal in an extraordinary world. Batman Begins places the character in a relatively normal environment. This is a brooding, intelligent approach that all but erases the atrocities of previous Batman incarnations. Nolan presents Bruce Wayne’s story in his typical nonlinear fashion, but really gets to the meat and bone of the character, opening up the hero to new insights and emotions, like his suffocating guilt over his parents murder.
Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer (the Blade trilogy) really strip away the decadence of the character and present him as a troubled being riddled with guilt and anger. Batman Begins is a character piece first and an action movie second. The film is unique amongst comic book flicks for the amount of detail and attention it pays to characterization, even among the whole sprawling cast. Nolan has assembled an incredible cast and his direction is swimming in confidence. He’s a man that definitely knows what he’s doing, and boy oh boy, is he doing it right. Batman Begins is like a franchise colonic.
This is truly one of the finest casts ever assembled. Bale makes an excellent gloomy hero and really transforms into something almost monstrous when he’s taking out the bad guys. He’s got great presence but also a succinct intensity to nail the quieter moments where Bruce Wayne battles his inner demons. Caine (The Cider House Rules, The Quiet American) is incomparable and a joy to watch, and his scenes with the young Bruce actually had me close to tears. This is by far the first time a comic book movie even had me feeling something so raw and anything close to emotional. Neeson excels in another tough but fair mentor role, which he seems to be playing quite a lot of lately (Kingdom of Heaven, Star Wars Episode One). Freeman steals every scene he’s in as the affable trouble causer at Wayne Enterprises, and he also gets many of the film’s best lines. Oldman (The Fifth Element, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) disappears into his role as Gotham’s last good cop. If ever there was a chameleon (and their name wasn’t Benicio del Toro), it is Oldman. Holmes works to the best of her abilities, which means she’s “okay.”
The cast of villains are uniformly excellent, with Wilkinson’s (In the Bedroom) sardonic Chicagah accented mob boss, to Murphy’s (28 Days Later…) chilling scientific approach to villainy, to Watanabe’s (The Last Samurai) cold silent stares. Even Rutger Hauer (a man experiencing a career renaissance of his own) gives a great performance. Seriously, for a comic book movie this is one of the better acted films of the year. And that’s saying a lot.
Batman Begins is such a serious film that it almost seems a disservice to call it a “comic book movie.” There are no floating sound effects cards and no nipples on the Bat suits. Nolan really goes about answering the tricky question, “What kind of man would become a crime-fightin’ super hero?” Batman Begins answers all kinds of questions about the minutia of the Dark Knight in fascinating ways, yet the film remains grounded in reality. The Schumacher Batmans (and God save us from them) were one large, glitzy, empty-headed Las Vegas entertainment show. No explanation was given to characters or their abilities. Likewise, the Gothic and opulent Burton Batmans had their regrettable leaps of logic as well. It’s hard not to laugh at the end of Batman Returns when Oswald Cobblepot (a.k.a. The Penguin) gets a funeral march from actors in emperor penguin suits. March of the Penguins it ain’t. Nolan’s Batman is the dead-serious affair comic book lovers have been holding their breath for.
The action is secondary to the story, but Batman Begins still has some great action sequences. Most memorable is a chase sequence between Gotham police and the Batmobile which goes from rooftop to rooftop at one point. Nolan even punctuates the sequence with some fun humor from the police (“It’s a black … tank.”). The climactic action sequence between good guy and bad guy is dutifully thrilling and grandiose in scope. Nolan even squeezes in some horror elements into the film. Batman’s first emergence is played like a horror film, with the caped crusader always around another turn. The Scarecrow’s hallucinogen produces some creepy images, like a face covered in maggots or a demonic bat person.
There are only a handful of flaws that make Batman Begins short of being the best comic book movie ever. The action is too overly edited to see what’s happening. Whenever Batman gets into a fight all you can see are quick cuts of limbs flailing. My cousin Jennifer got so frustrated with the oblique action sequences that she just waited until they were over to see who won (“Oh, Batman won again. There you go.”). Nolan’s editing is usually one of his strong suits; much of Memento’s success was built around its airtight edits. He needs to pull the camera back and let the audience see what’s going on when Batman gets physical.
Another issue is how much plot Batman Begins has to establish. This is the first Batman film to focus solely on Batman and not some colorful villain. Batman doesn’t even show up well into an hour into the movie. As a result, Batman Begins perfects the tortured psychology of Bruce Wayne but leaves little time for villains. The film plays a shell game with its multiple villains, which is fun for awhile. The Scarecrow is really an intriguing character and played to gruesome effect by the brilliant Cillian Murphy. It’s a shame Batman Begins doesn’t have much time to develop and then play with such an intriguing bad guy.
Batman Begins is a reboot for the film franchise. Nolan digs deep at the tortured psyche of Bruce Wayne and come up with a treasure trove of fascinating, exciting, and genuinely engrossing characters. Nolan’s film has a handful of flaws, most notably its oblique editing and limited handling of villains, but Batman Begins excels in storytelling and crafts a superbly intelligent, satisfying, riveting comic book movie. The best bit of praise I can give Batman Begins is that I want everyone responsible to return immediately and start making a host of sequels. This is a franchise reborn and I cannot wait for more of it.
Nate’s Grade: A