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Mortal Kombat (2021)

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-

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