Mortal Kombat (2021) Review

It sure took a new Mortal Kombat movie long enough to materialise after nearly decades of development hell. Blame it on the abomination of a sequel a.k.a. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation back in 1997. That movie, of course, responsible for single-handedly ruined the franchise for good. Not to mention chances of getting a third Mortal Kombat movie was shelved altogether.

Instead of attempting to continue the franchise initiated by Paul W.S. Anderson in 1995, the new Mortal Kombat movie happens to be a reboot after all. The movie follows a young MMA fighter named Cole Young (Lewis Tan) who made a living by taking a beating for money. He also happens to have a mysterious dragon marking on his chest — a symbol that made him a wanted person when he learns about an otherworldly warrior nicknamed Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), who comes from another realm called Outworld. Sent by the iron-fisted sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han), Sub-Zero is tasked to hunt down the best Earthrealm (Earth) fighters who bear the same dragon markings.

With Sub-Zero subsequently arriving on Earthrealm, a Special Forces Major named Jax (Mehcad Brooks), who has the mark as well, tells Cole to seek for Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee). From there, Cole learns about the ancient fighting tournament known as Mortal Kombat. Long story short, in order to protect his family, Cole soon finds himself joining the other chosen warriors including Kano (Josh Lawson), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang) to train hard at the temple of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), the thunder god and protector of Earthrealm while unlocking their respective arcanas — the inner powers that come within their souls.

Lewis Tan plays Cole Young in "Mortal Kombat" (2021)

For such a tournament-based video game movie like Mortal Kombat, the primary goal is to give what fans are expecting the most in the first place. And that is lots of cool fighting moves as well as the signature gore and brutality that made the Mortal Kombat game series so phenomenally popular.

The good news is, this reboot made the right choice of eschewing the audiences-friendly PG-13 (P13) previously seen in the first two movies in the 1990s in favour of an R (18)-rating just like the game itself (except in the case of our local censorship board, some of the gorier scenes have to be forcefully magnified to certain angles to avoid showing the obvious). Fans of the video game can expect some of the trademark fighting styles (Scorpion’s “Get over here!” spear-throwing chain) and finishing moves (Liu Kang’s flaming dragon fatality comes to mind) appeared in this movie. It helps that the special effects look visually spectacular, with Sub-Zero’s ice-based powers particularly impresses me the most.

Mortal Kombat doesn’t forget to throw in some of the game’s famous catchphrases either including the aforementioned “Get over here!” and others like “flawless victory”. Most of the actors look the part, with Joe Taslim’s Sub-Zero and Hiroyuki Sanada’s Scorpion particularly deserves mention here. For the latter, at one point in the movie, Scorpion’s appearance includes a sure-to-please fan service — the needle drop of The Immortals’ “Mortal Kombat” techno beat. However, Chin Han’s antagonist role as Shang Tsung hardly feels intimidating and certainly no match for Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s iconic role in the 1995 version.

Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang) in "Mortal Kombat" (2021)

Whereas the action is both gory and violent as it should be, Simon McQuoid — an acclaimed commercial director making his feature-film debut — got so carried away with his insistence of taking a grounded approach in his movie. In other words, the movie takes itself too seriously for its own good. The first time when Paul W.S. Anderson was in charge of directing Mortal Kombat back in 1995, he got the tone just right. What’s preventing him the most from turning the movie into a flawless victory (no pun intended) of a video game movie is the obvious lack of budget and the toned-down rating. But you have to give him credit for embracing the pulpy, B-movie fun — something that McQuoid should have known better in the first place.

Besides, attempting to turn the otherwise over-the-top Mortal Kombat game into something “grounded [and] more realistic approach to the epic adventure” as described in the official production notes isn’t exactly a wise thing to do. As a result, the movie tends to feel unnecessarily glum and weighty with McQuoid’s further attempt in translating Greg Russo and Dave Callaham’s equally heavy-handed screenplay into a modern superhero film-like vibe populated by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy.

The movie also suffers from choppily-edited and sometimes incomprehensible action sequences, with McQuoid favouring lots of frenetic camerawork to mimic the so-called intensity of each fight. But this is a Mortal Kombat movie we are talking about. A movie where the fight scenes aren’t just about fulfilling the game’s visceral impact but should allow us to appreciate the elaborate choreography as well.

Frankly, I hate to say this but the Mortal Kombat trailer did a better job in anticipating so much potential and promise than the movie itself. Towards the end of the movie, there’s an obvious tease of a sequel. If Mortal Kombat manages to make enough money to warrant another movie, here’s hoping that whoever ends up in charge of the sequel would improve significantly upon the largely dour reboot.

ALSO READ: Revisiting the First Two Mortal Kombat of the ’90s