I’m not going to hold up 1995’s Mortal Kombat as some masterpiece of cinema, but it is enjoyable and doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is more than I can say for 2021’s self-serious, plodding mess that mistakes reverence for authenticity. The Mortal Kombat games caught on not just because they were gory, but because they were fun, and Simon McQuoid’s adaptation never manages to deliver on that simple promise. Instead, the movie shifts between the vaguest sketch of a plot and dull fight scenes that take some of cinema’s greatest martial artists and cut around them like they’re movie stars faking it as best they can. The new adaptation tries to skate by on gruesome fatalities, but as anyone who has played the game can tell you, executing a fatality is a reward for victory. Mortal Kombat never earns the bloody payoff.
The film starts off with a prologue in 1617 Japan where Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) fights Bi-Han (Joe Taslim), a member from a warring clan who has the power to create ice and use it as a weapon. Fans will recognize these two as the progenitors of franchise stalwart characters Scorpion and Sub-Zero, respectively, but then we cut to the modern day and are introduced to new character, Cole Young (Lewis Tan). Cole is a failed MMA fighter, but he has a special birthmark of a dragon. That birthmark is an invitation to a tournament known as “Mortal Kombat” where champions of Earthrealm must defeat the forces of Outworld led by the nefarious Shang Tsung (Chin Han). Sucked into this tournament for the fate of the world, Cole teams up with special forces soldiers Jax (Mechad Brooks) and Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) as well as dirtbag mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson) to find the temple of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) where they can fight alongside fellow warriors Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang). However, the forces of Outworld have no intention of fighting fair and hope to eliminate the champions before Mortal Kombat can even take place.
1995’s Mortal Kombat would seem to be a case of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but screenwriters Greg Russo and Dave Callaham are determined to “fix it” by excising the goofiness of the premise and even the sound structure of copying Enter the Dragon. The movie goes out of its way to deny the audience what they want—the Mortal Kombat tournament—and instead settles on a convoluted structure where Cole and his pals amble along, have an occasional fight, and then near the end of the story you get a fight montage where it’s like they forgot that a Mortal Kombatmovie should have the fighters killing each other so it all got stuffed into the third act. This makes for disjointed and lethargic affair with strong “When are they going to get to the fireworks factory?” vibes. This is in addition to saddling the film with the blandest protagonist possible in Cole, who has no arc and the thinnest motivation of fighting for his wife and daughter.
A Mortal Kombat movie wouldn’t really need rich, interesting characters if it knew how to have a good time, but it falls into the trap that the franchise needs to be respected. In an interview with Polygon, Russo cited the 1995 film as “deliciously cheesy” and that the new version should be “more authentic, a little more realistic,” but in service to what, exactly? The 1995 Mortal Kombat benefitted from the game only being three years old with video games still being largely considered the province of children and teens (hence the film’s PG-13 rating). But now Mortal Kombat is an institution, one of the longest-running video game series around, and it has millions of fans around the world. And to show respect, you must take it seriously which means the entire project is played stone-faced despite having a character who kills people with his hat.
This leads to a film that never seems like anyone outside of Lawson, playing the comic-relief Kano, is having a good time. Lawson gets to crack jokes and pop on the screen, but everyone else doesn’t have much of a pulse or even a character to speak of. They’re just very serious people in the very serious fighting tournament where fighters can acquire superpowers when they tap into their spirit essence leading to the realization for the good guys that the real Mortal Kombat…was love. For a movie where all we really want to see are people with cool special moves fighting other people with cool special moves, Mortal Kombat takes the longest road possible and never makes it even remotely enjoyable.
And while Russo can cast shade on the ’95 movie as “cheesy”, at least it has a personality, which is more than I can say for the soulless studio product of the 2021 version. Loaded down with idiotic mythology (the film bends over backwards to try and explain the special lineage of Scorpion as if anyone should give a shit), the film also studiously avoids even having a personality. Visits to Outworld make the setting look unfinished as the actors sit on a platform with endless pearl sky behind them as if the director never figured out how he wanted this demonic realm to appear. When the fights finally arrive, they’re so rushed that we can never enjoy these set pieces even though they’re the raison d’être for a Mortal Kombat movie.
One would hope that a Mortal Kombat movie could at least skate by on its action scenes, but even here, McQuoid’s movie falls short. It’s kind of baffling why you would get guys like Taslim, Tan, and Lin—guys who can actually fight and know martial arts—and then not trust them with longer takes that can deliver the choreography and kinetics we expect from a movie called “Mortal Kombat”. At no point does Mortal Kombat, with the benefit of how technology and the videogames themselves, have progressed, ever capture the fluidity and brutality of a terrific combo or bone-breaking hit. Instead, most of the fights feel like going through the motions until they land on a fatality.
Perhaps given the dearth of R-rated action films in the past year people will still enjoy Mortal Kombat’s thin gruel of “dumb fun” and mindless violence. People should certainly take joy where they can find it. But it’s hard to come by in a film that takes itself so seriously despite its silly origins and silly premise. Mortal Kombat seems kind of embarrassed to be Mortal Kombat, so it has siphoned off the most popular stuff and then tried to stuff in respectable franchise clothing. But a series that gave us “Babalities” and “Friendships” as finishing moves doesn’t need to be respectable. It needed to be fun.