Mortal Kombat (2021)
Released: April 23rd, 2021
Series: Mortal Kombat
Intro: Mortal Kombat is one of the most popular fighting game series since the days of the SNES and Genesis. In fact, the original game led to the creation of the ESRB, who sets the ratings for games. Over the years it has evolved from motion-capture sprites to 3-D models with 3-D gameplay to 3-D models with 2-D gameplay, and a few spinoffs. It also spawned two feature films, several different TV shows and cartoons, toys, and comics.
After the success of Mortal Kombat (1995) and then the hardcore failure of the sequel Mortal Kombat Annihilation (1997), talk of a second sequel or a reboot was in limbo for ages. After living in development limbo for so long, finally a reboot was decided on, and that gives us Mortal Kombat (2021). There will be spoilers.
Story: Nobody watches a movie based on a fighting game with the expectation of a five-star narrative turned epic saga. Mortal Kombat has a ton of lore in its world, but there are so many contradictions and rewrites and retcons it is near impossible to keep up. What Mortal Kombat (2021) does is take bits and pieces of the lore and melds it into a new tale that acts as a prequel and obvious setup for a franchise.
The basic plot starts with the historical final battle between long-time nemeses Scorpion and Sub-zero, which was a great way to draw the viewer in right away. Scorpion and Sub-zero’s past rivalry has always been one of the center plot points in the gaming lore, and they did a decent job of showing that here. It was gory, brutal, and everything I wanted to see from this movie. My only complaint is that there was no explanation or throwaway line that set up why these two clans were rivals. As far as we knew, they were like the Hatfields and McCoys.
After a strong start, it moves on to focus on new original character, Cole Young. In a series with literally around 70 playable characters, they choose to use an original character as their lead, however it does make sense plotwise later, but it does seem off-putting at first.
Over the first half of the movie we get some awesome fights with Sub-zero v/s Jax, Sonya, Cole, and Kano v/s Reptile, Sonya v/s Kano, and a one-shot of Liu Kang v/s Kano.
Over the years the origin of Jax’s super powered arms has changed often, but I really like what they did here, choosing to use Sub-zero to shatter them, showcasing how dangerous he is compared to a seasoned fighter like Jax, and also how merciless he is.
The fight against Reptile was fun, and for the first time in the history of Mortal Kombat showed Sonya and Kano fighting side by side, albeit not by choice. Kano also performs the first of many fatalities in the movie, a callback to his MK1 heart-rip. He even adds a very cheesy ‘Kano wins’ to it, proving that this movie is not taking itself too seriously. The fights versus Sonya and Liu Kang can hardly be called fights, but for the life of me I will not understand why Sonya did not take her chance to kill Kano and take his mark. My theory is that she was trying to prove that she isn’t a merciless killer with no soul, which is exactly what she perceives Kano to be, but in this kind of situation you have to put aside your morals to an extent. Shortly after, Liu Kang enters and blasts the Aussie with fire, insisting his is not an enemy when Kano brandishes a weapon.
Meeting Lord Raiden was a fun moment, as he definitely does not accept Kano’s foolishness and is definitely annoyed at his fighters, unlike some other iterations where Raiden practically dotes over his chosen ones. My only regret about this Raiden is that we did not get a true fight from him by the end of the film, even though he did send Shang Tsung packing.
Liu Kang and Kung Lao training the fighters to unleash their arcana, or inner special power, was a little meh, but it was a legit way to explain away their unique abilities. I just find it hard to believe someone’s innermost power is to teleport through a hat that also acts as a giant saw blade. That’s an incredibly specific inner power. But hey, at least they tried to explain the concept moreso than the previous films, who largely ignored superpowered abilities from our characters.
Kano’s betrayal was no surprise, although I was kind of weirded out by Kabal’s manipulation. As I recall, Kabal had actually turned to the good side after his injury but again this is a reboot and he is a creepy looking character that fits in with Outworld.
Mileena kicking Sonya’s butt and then determining her to be worthless was a good moment, further solidifying how her lack of marking made her almost irrelevant. It explained her determination later on when she finally does finish off Kano with a yard gnome. Reiko against Jax was almost laughable; that was like rock fighting scissors. The best part of this segment though was when Shang Tsung sucked the soul out of Kung Lao. Very emotional for Liu Kang, but also gave us a glimpse into why we should be so afraid of Shang to begin with. Until this point he had done nothing to prove he was a real threat. It was sad, but necessary to show Shang’s worth as a villain. At least he was made to be more threatening than Goro, who was reduced to cannon fodder with four arms.
The rest of the film was an incredibly weak plot- the plan to split up the villains and fight them was a hard stretch to force one-on-one battles in a tournament-like fashion. They made it seem like Raiden could teleport anyone anytime anywhere, and if that was the case then he could just teleport them all to the bottom of a trench and crush them. It would have made more sense had they shown him teleporting his fighters to the villain’s locations, not vice versa. The matches were pretty cool though, even if they were a little short. We did get to see some awesome fatalities straight from the game though, and that was awesome.
Things came full circle when Cole took on Sub-zero and ended up bringing Scorpion back to life to face off his old foe. The fight was awesome but what was almost unforgivable was the fact that one of the best parts of the fight was spoiled in the trailers. Seeing the segment where Sub-zero basically acts out a ‘fatal blow’, even using Scorpion’s own blood to stab him should have been an awe-inspiring moment of the fight, eliciting moans and ohhs and ahhs from the audience. And it did… when it was shown in every trailer for the movie. Major fail on the part of the people in charge of the trailers.
I loved seeing Scorpion’s victory and the link between he and Cole explained the latter’s involvement, but it was still a little weak plotwise. I have to wonder how they will proceed in the future with that.
Overall, the story was off and on, but I expected that and am relatively okay with it. It was simple, fun, and at least made sense for the most part. It was by far an improvement over Annihilation, not that it would take much…
Characters: This was a very interesting mixture here. Generally we expect to see Liu Kang, Sonya, Kano, Johnny Cage, Raiden, Scorpion, Sub-zero, Shang Tsung, Goro, and maybe Kitana in an initial chapter, but in this case we did not see two major players- Johnny Cage and Kitana. Instead, we were treated to appearances by Reiko and Nitara, two characters much lesser known but good choices for cannon fodder since they didn’t have a huge effect on the overall story of MK lore compared to others.
Do I feel like they made some odd choices for villains? Yes. It’s not the lineup we are used to, but it feels like they chose foes that might not be missed much in future installments. Kano died but will most likely return for a sequel- his actor was so much fun to watch and he really sold the comedy. Mileena might return in a clone fashion, and I hope she does because I really want to see her relationship to Kitana explored a little more. Do I give two hoots that Kabal died, or even Goro? Nope. Don’t care if they come back. Sub-zero? It is obvious he will be back, but the way Shang Tsung stole away his body makes me think they may not follow the story of a younger Sub-zero taking up the mantle, unless they go the Noob Saibot route.
Should they have killed off Kung Lao? Yes and no. I really enjoy how Max Huang played him, and I will miss seeing him in a future installment. I get why they did it though; they needed to kill off one of our heroes, and we needed to see Shang Tsung as a threat with this soul stealing abilities, but Cole, Sonya, and Liu Kang were definitely not options, Raiden is a god, and that left Kung Lao.
I have never been a fan of the character of Liu Kang, either. I hated him in the original movies, I hated him in the games; I just always found him to be boring and uninspired. I found the other characters to be so much more interesting. However, Ludi Lin has made me appreciate the character for once. I like that he was not the main character, and I liked that he was humble and dedicated. I believed in him as a real genuine character much better than in previous iterations.
Now let’s discuss Cole. I have strange thoughts regarding Cole. On one hand I find it incredibly annoying that out of 70+ characters they decided to make an original to be the main character, but he’s a likable guy and provides us with a way to learn about the concepts introduced in the film. Could they have done that through another ore-established character? Yes. I think they chose not to, however, because they wanted the Scorpion heritage angle, and no existing character has a connection to Scorpion’s lineage. I would like to see him take a backseat in future installments and focus more on the other characters we have grown up with however.
A lot of people seemed to freak out that Raiden was cast as an Asian man and Mileena as a black woman. I actually am okay with these changes. Raiden has never been explicitly stated to have one racial look over another, and he is supposed to be a god worshipped by Asian monks, so it makes sense. Mileena is from Outworld, so technically white and black are not races there; instead Tarkatan and Saurian are among the races they have. I think the actors did wonderfully, and I love their casting. If they bring in Kitana though, they need Sisi Stringer to play her to keep up with the twin angle, if they choose that arc. Mortal Kombat was always supposed to be about characters from all over the world and from other realms; it only makes sense to have casting from various races to emphasize that.
I ask however that if they do indeed proceed with sequels… DO NOT RECAST. One of the reasons Annihilation was so awful was because except for Liu Kang and Kitana, every single actor was recast and very poorly.
Visuals: I thought the effects used in the film were great. Blood and gore all over the place, just as I expect from MK. It’s always been over the top in the gore arena and they kept up with that, and it truly made it all the more enjoyable.
The arcana abilities were well done; especially Liu Kang’s fire and Sub-zero’s ice. The intensity of the flames looked real, and the way the ice took on a life of its own was amazing to look at. Raiden’s lightning even looked great, and lightning is far too often messed up in visual effects of movies.
One of my favorite effects was the soul suck from Shang Tsung. It was much more drawn out than in the original movies and it kept the terror there a little longer. Seeing Kung Lao’s body begin to sort of rot as his soul was taken was a nice addition too. My other favorite effect was Liu Kang’s fire dragon. That can only be described as cool as all get out.
My only complaint was Goro. He was an improvement over the obvious puppet from the original movie, but he still didn’t feel believable to me. Maybe because his character got no development, but I just left like he was still too animated. I am curious how they filmed him; if he is a suit actor with effects, or if he is purely drawn into the scenes. I feel like it was the latter.
I also enjoyed the selection of locations. Outworld felt dead despite being a barren pit, and Raiden’s temple felt ancient and weathered. There was a nice variety of places and each of them had their own beauty, creepy or not.
Sound: Effects were fine, matching what they were supposed to, but what this movie lacked was a compelling soundtrack. The original had numerous hardcore rock and electronic music, and that worked for it. I don’t think that would have worked here, but they could have used some more cinematic tracks to better sell the scenes. Even during the most exciting fights there was not much for background melody.
Overall: Mortal Kombat (2021) was a very fun popcorn movie that I will watch over and over again, and already have. (Four times as of this writing). It isn’t deep cinema, it’s a fighting game movie, but it delivers on what it promises to be and doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s a good balance of character and violence, with very little down time. It was two hours but felt like less as it never seemed to stop for long. I definitely hope to see sequels that focus more on the tournament aspect and some of the plotlines from MK2 and MK3. This was a good starter for a franchise and I am a total fan of this reboot.