BANALITY! — Mortal Kombat
The original movie came out on my 13th birthday. It’s a day I remember distinctly, because honestly it’s extremely rare for good movies to get released that particular week in mid-August. The “blockbuster” season is effectively over, and the studios aren’t ready to start putting out the prestige fare just yet, so for the last two weeks of August, at least in the 90s, we got a sort of second wave studio dump of franchise properties or B-movies in which they have no real confidence. Case in point, that same exact birthday, alongside Mortal Kombat, was the release of the cinematic adaptation of The Baby-Sitters Club.
Objectively, the first MK movie is bad. The acting is hammy at best, there’s no organization to the titular tournament, and it’s PG-13, which means all the gore that made the video game series so popular was nowhere to be seen.
And yet, because I was a fan of the games and at the exact perfect age for the demographic targeting, I loved it. While there were plenty of flaws, I felt like I was watching the game play out on the screen. The martial arts choreography was awesome to my newly-teenage eyes. Princess Kitana helped usher me into puberty. Johnny Cage’s one-liners were hysterical to me. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa was absolutely perfect as Shang Tsung. Goro’s design and puppetry felt more realistic than it had any right to be. And of course, having seen The Highlander as a kid, Christopher Lambert as Raiden was everything to me.
As an adult, I know it’s not a good movie, but even now, the camp value is through the roof. I loved it unironically as a kid, but now I still appreciate how silly it is, while still recognizing that there are structural flaws to the execution, particularly the lack of viscera and the fact that the tournament had no real rules and refused to follow the few it did set out.
So it was fun for me then, but I would never classify it as a good video game adaptation. When I saw the trailers leading up to the new reboot, I was cautiously optimistic. It seemed like Warner Bros. was putting some real money behind the production values, and as an R-rated film, we were going to get the blood and guts we’d all been pining for.
It sucked ass.
The new Mortal Kombat film does deliver in a few areas, which I’ll go over in a minute, but for the most part, it’s a poorly-executed, boring movie that fails to live up to even the lowest of expectations. What could have been a truly awesome bit of popcorn fare was sadly almost completely phoned in, with even more glaring flaws than its more kid-friendly predecessor.
Things start out promisingly enough, with the introduction of Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Bi-Han (Indonesian action star Joe Taslim), who will eventually become Scorpion and Sub-Zero, respectively. In a forest village in the early 1600s, Bi-Han of the Lin Kuei clan attacks Hanzo’s Shirai Ryu family in bloody fashion, using a combination of samurai assassins and his own ice powers in an attempt to end Hanzo’s bloodline. There’s some pretty decent action here (with one major problem, which I’ll note later), and the movie does a good job establishing the oldest rivalry in the series’ mythos.
But for all the goodwill this opening 10 minutes engenders, it’s completely squandered as soon as we jump to the modern day, where we meet new character Cole Young (Lewis Tan of Iron Fist and Deadpool 2), a washed up MMA fighter who always loses because he’s constantly attacking and never defending. He also has a wife and child because… pathos/easy target for future murder. I don’t know, pick one. He is attacked by Sub-Zero (we never learn how he stopped aging for 400 years) because he has a distinctive dragon birthmark on his body, and Sub-Zero has been dispatched by Shang Tsung (Chin Han) to kill anyone bearing that mark, as it is the sign of an Earthrealm champion destined to compete in the Mortal Kombat tournament. Like the first movie, Outworld has won the tournament nine times in a row, and if they get a 10th consecutive victory, the Elder Gods will allow them to invade and conquer Earth.
If you think that means we’re going to see an awesome fighting tournament with all our favorite characters, think again. While there’s on-screen text about the importance of the tournament, and it’s referenced several times by several characters, the tournament never takes place in this movie. One of the writers, Sam Russo, revealed in interviews (which no one who saw this film bothered to watch or read, because why would you?) that the reboot is intended as a trilogy, with this film being the preparations for the tournament, the next film being the tournament itself, and the third film being about the aftermath and fallout. Does the film ever explain this? Of course not. Otherwise we wouldn’t pay our money to sit on our hands for two hours wondering when we’d be getting to the fireworks factory.
So Shang Tsung’s entire purpose is to eliminate every Earthrealm fighter before the tournament even takes place, thereby somehow skirting the rules and conquering our world via a loophole. Whatever. Anyway, Cole and his family are saved by Jax (Mehcad Brooks), who explains that he too has a marking, which appeared on him after his military unit took out an international criminal. When he killed the target, that person’s mark passed to Jax.
Okay, this is an interesting angle. The first film just had the main cast get invited to the tournament with scrolls, and the original games just mentioned in their brief stories that everyone had a reason to simply enter the tournament, not knowing what it really was. This at least expands the mythology a bit, positing that supernatural forces can choose the Kombatants, but life and death can transfer the opportunity to other people. Does the film really go any further in exploring this? Nope. Instead, it becomes a “You’re not good enough” trope for Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee from Battle of the Sexes), as she doesn’t have a mark for the bulk of the action, but participates as an aid and ally anyway.
The group eventually heads to the temple of Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) to train, alongside Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang), and Kano (Josh Lawson). Now, you may have noticed that this roster seems woefully incomplete, and you’d be right. There’s no Johnny Cage. If you look closely in the gym when Cole is introduced, you can see a movie poster for a Johnny Cage film, and if you miss it, it gets a zoom-in at the end for sequel bait. That’s it.
Fucking FAIL! I don’t mind having Jax and Kung Lao in the movie, as they’re iconic characters from the video game series, and Jax was involved (first as a cameo, then as an actual character) in the 90s movies. But you HAVE to have the Original Seven. It doesn’t make a lick of sense to exclude one of them. This is Fan Service 101, people, and you failed.
Of course, one could interpret Cole as an updated version of Johnny Cage, and that might have worked, if Cole weren’t so incredibly flat and boring. He’s like a puppy being led around throughout the plot, searching for his “arcana,” which will grant him supernatural powers. Gee, I wonder what will drive and inspire this FAMILY man who has a FAMILY that he’s trying to protect, because he believes in the power and strength of FAMILY. That’s right, his arcana is the Fast and the Furious franchise. Cole is a wooden Mary Sue with muscles, constantly competing with Raiden for the least amount of personality. At least the thunder god has pretty cool glowing eyes.
It’s like every time this movie scratches the surface of a good idea, it backs off. Kano is by far the best thing about this entire affair, because Josh Lawson has amazing comic timing. If you don’t believe me, watch his Oscar-nominated short film, The Eleven O’Clock. It’s fucking brilliant. Kano gets all the best lines, all the jokes, and he’s even in the one truly inspired meta bit of the whole film, where Liu Kang spams the leg sweep on him. We all know the asshole who spams the leg sweep. But in exchange for that, Kano gets no character development, and his ultimate fate in the film feels like an afterthought.
I’m glad that there’s some blood and gore in this movie, because that’s why the game series became (in)famous to begin with, and the opening between Hanzo and Bi-Han showed a lot of promise. But as the film wore on, I was basically just waiting for the next big moment, and apart from one fatality, it never really came. It also didn’t help that all of the fight scenes — including the good one to start — are edited horribly, with dozens of cuts and angle changes that do nothing but confuse the viewer. I remember one of Sonya’s punches somehow required four cuts. FOUR CUTS FOR ONE PUNCH! Again, the cost of the goodness is far outweighed by the crap. Top tier characters are disposed of with the same casual attitude as obscure one-offs from Mortal Kombat 4 that no one cares about. Goro barely has more than a cameo despite his imposing history, and he’s a complete CGI abomination, inside and out.
And then there’s the plot, such as it is. The opening sequence could have set up a number of directions for the film to take. We could have gotten the beginnings of a Scorpion/Sub-Zero blood feud that lasted the entire film, either in the background or the fore. Nope, just a couple flashbacks of bad CGI and a mildly entertaining payoff in the film’s climax. It could have established the rules for the tournament, because the lack of structure in the first film was frustrating. Instead we dispense with the tournament entirely until the sequel. It could have been a primer for all the violence and viscera that was to come. Instead it was a 10-minute tease. But hey, we’ve got time for Cole’s daughter (Matilda Kimber) to make him a friendship bracelet, so, yay?
There are some things that this movie gets right, but so much more that it gets wrong. We got the gore, but we lost the entire point of the fights that create it. We got some attention on characters that were shuffled to the background in earlier films, only for them to have no real payoff or relevance to the overall story. We got some cheeky humor, but it’s wasted on characters who won’t be back for the next film. This reboot, whether it wanted to be a serious R-rated bloodbath or a kitschy B-movie with better special effects than its 25-year-old counterpart, had near limitless potential, and it was all for naught, as we went with an even more nonsensical plot led by a made-up protagonist that barely serves as a cheap imitation of the one original character the movie inexplicably left out. When I was 13, I irrationally loved a bad movie because I was at the perfect moment for it. Now that I’m in my late 30s, I was hoping for a fully-committed update with lessons learned from decades of failed video game adaptations. Instead I got a movie that might have been flashier, but was even worse than before.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Who’s your favorite character from the games? Have you ever told someone “Your soul is mine!”? Let me know!
Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on April 29, 2021.