PLOT: A birthmark in the shape of a dragon signifies certain people who’ve been chosen to fight in a special multi-world tournament that’ll determine the fate of the world.
LOWDOWN: At ten years old, I sat in a dark theater in Chicago Heights and watched one of the most incredible things a kid could see, Mortal F*cking Kombat. I can’t explain how life-changing this video game adaptation was for those who weren’t there or didn’t grow up on the VHS. Of course, I’m now old enough now to see the flaws and changes made by a young Paul W.S. Anderson, but even now, I’d still argue it understands the heart and spectacle of the games, which matters more than its cheesy acting or stilted dialogue.
Besides the short and underrated YouTube series Mortal Kombat: Legacy, every entry into the movie/TV realm has been heavily censored. Twenty-six years after the first adaptation, we finally get the closest thing to the game’s authenticity on film with Mortal Kombat (WATCH IT HERE). Let me be very clear, I grew up on the first three games exclusively and have dabbled throughout the years on the rest, but even I can wholly admit that the “story” and character development for Mortal Kombat has always been silly. Awesome? Yes, but pretty goofy if you dig into all of it. Mortal Kombat has always been a violent fantasy-soap opera fighting game. So unlike some other reviews that populate the World Wide Web, I didn’t go into this expecting character development on the level of Andy Dufresne. Get busy living or get busy dying, and I’m all here for the gore and fights, so I choose dying. Get yourself a shot and a beer, and let us discuss the fun and absurd Mortal Kombat. Oh, and mild spoilers ahead.
Mortal Kombat starts off in 17th-century Japan as it sets up the blood feud between Sub-Zero aka Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) and Scorpion aka Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada). Tonally, this opening bloodbath is everything a Kombat fan could want as these two iconic characters get a proper introduction along with the violence the series is known for. We then flash forward to the present and meet our protagonist Coal Young (Lewis Tan). The story is told from the perspective of Coal, who fights as a losing MMA jobber in his downtime. Now, yes, this should have been Johnny Cage, and though Tan does okay and better than the trailer leads you to believe, there’s no reason why we need someone new to introduce us to the world of Kombat when Cage is, by definition, the “outside” character. At least Cole is better than the original idea floated around 2012. The outsider was originally a “lowly unlucky supermarket employee.” That is 100% true. Look it up.
The story beats are very wham, bam, thank you ma’am, and we never get a chance to slow down and take things in. But at the same time, Mortal Kombat has so much to introduce that I was constantly entertained throughout, even if it rushed some stuff. It is quantity over quality at times, but I was never not entertained. With the number of characters and settings to set up, we don’t get equal time with everyone, and some characters that may be your favorite get sidelined for others. Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) Shang Tsung (Chin Han) are crucial to the overall plot but are in the movie so infrequently; I can’t give an honest opinion on how well the actors did. It’s hard to live up to the classic performances by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Christopher Lambert, and as of this review, I still prefer them as the characters. Asano and Han do fine, but their screen time is cut too short for them to give anything significant to the movie.
Kano (Josh Lawson) steals the show here. Holy sh*t, does this guy not only embody the character but does the comic relief bit so well that he overshadows everyone else. Kano is a major character in the 2021 Mortal Kombat, and hats off to the writers and director for making that choice. He’s mean, offensive, and constantly busting balls. If the world weren’t at stake, Kano would definitely be forced to apologize for some wisecrack because the world is a joke, and life has no meaning anymore. He and Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) play off each other well, and I really dug McNamee in the role of the outsider who can’t compete because she doesn’t have the dragon marking. Sonya gets a more prominent role here, and McNamee delivers.
The fights work for the most part, even if they are a bit short. Mortal Kobat is an origin story, basically a pilot for the actual tournament, so we get mostly street fights and skirmishes. Some battles are made in the edit, while others have a more natural flow, but what people want to see is brutal combat between our favorite characters, which Simon McQuoid doesn’t shy away from. Even if a particular villain leaves someone alive for the reason of a sequel, because there no logical way they would not finish them off, everyone gets the crap beat out of them with some gnarly fatalities and a lot of over-the-top blood and gore. Sub-Zero is the main baddie who transports around murdering mother f*ckers like it’s nobody’s business. Joe Taslim is perfect as the cold baddie and made the character frightening and damn near unstoppable. Sub-Zero is one of the best villains I’ve seen in a while.
On the flip side, there are more than a few issues. Mortal Kombat has a bit of that low-budget feel that makes more than a few things feel cheap. Lord Raiden’s glowing eyes come off like a quick After Effects tutorial, while some of Outworld is an obvious and slightly distracting greenscreen. I know physical sets cost more, but that gave the ’95 version so much personality that’s missing here. While a few fights are amazing, a few others feel cut short by lack of martial arts talent. They make it up by having them more visceral and brutal, but It doesn’t hide the obvious fact that not everyone here has the athleticism needed. And, of course, there is the clunky and silly dialogue. This existed in the Youtube series and the ’95 version, and I won’t fault it too much here. Mortal Kombat has always been ridiculous, and the exposition never feels natural, including here.
GORE: We get more gore than you would expect with an R-rating. Mortal Kombat delivers where it should, and I won’t ruin any of it here.
BOTTOM LINE: Mortal Kombat is a labor of love that’s flawed by its very nature. Now, I can’t stress this enough; I don’t care. It is a great time full of good action, gory fatalities, and a snappy pace that sets up everything well enough to keep you invested. Are the characters deeply developed? Not really, as the screen time for each isn’t equal. Kung Lao (Max Huang) surprised me as one of my favorites, but Mileena (Sisi Stringer) is completely wasted. It is what it is, folks. I still cared enough to be constantly engaged in what was happening on screen. Mortal Kombat is part one of what producers hope will be a multi-part series, which may upset some. But as a mythology-rich world, one movie would never do it, and I’m okay with this being an origin/setup story. Mortal Kombat may be heavy on the fan service, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I had an excellent time, and after twenty-six years, I’m happy to say I got what I wanted out of this adaptation: flaws and all.
Mortal Kombat premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on April 23d, 2021.