REVIEW: ‘Mortal Kombat’ is Almost a Flawless Victory

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Mortal Kombat live action

Oh, video game movies. While many, critics and fans alike, chide announcements of new video game films, I find myself excited for each and every one of them. The possibility of a video game movie that can be beloved and unironically enjoyed starts with the first Mortal Kombat live-action film. Now with Mortal Kombat (2021), we get to see a stellar adaptation of video game mechanics, one-liners, and camp that made the original live-action a cult favorite.

Directed by Simon McQuoid, written by Greg Russo, Dave Callaham, and Oren Uziel, with James serving as a producer, Mortal Kombat (2021) is a long-awaited film for fans of the original cult classic and video game alike. The film stars Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Chin Han, Joe Taslim, Tadanobu Asano, Ludi Lin, Max Huang, Mehcad Brooks, and Josh Lawson. With each one bringing to life both fan-favorite characters and deep cuts as well.

In the film, MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan) is accustomed to taking a beating for money. But Cole isn’t just a washed-up fighter. Instead, he has a heritage connected to “Mortal Kombat” and now, Outworld’s Emperor Shang Tsung (Chin Han) has sent his best warrior, Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), an otherworldly Cryomancer, to hunt him down. Fearing for his family’s safety, Cole goes in search of Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) at the direction of Jax (Mehcad Brooks), a Special Forces Major who bears the same strange dragon marking Cole was born with.

Soon, he finds himself at the temple of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), an Elder God and the protector of Earthrealm, who grants sanctuary to those who bear the mark. Here, Cole trains with experienced warriors Liu Kang. Kung Lao and rogue mercenary Kano, as he prepares to stand with Earth’s greatest champions against the enemies of Outworld in a high stakes battle for the universe.

Now, you should go into Mortal Kombat (2021) knowing that the main character Cole Young is an original character made for the film. He serves as a way to deliver exposition and allow audiences who haven’t played the fighting game franchise a pathway into the film. This isn’t a new tactic, but one that the film does well enough that even die-hard fans can accept the character into the canon.

Does Mortal Kombat (2021) try to push a deeper story about revenge and family that isn’t necessary? Yes. But at the same time, the small narrative hiccups are greatly made up for by the attention to in-game details brought to life in the film. While I was scared that McQuoid’s comments about “elevating” the video game would leave the game by the wayside, once the fights with Outworld opponents began happening the worry had vanished. Not only that, but the characters bring costuming elements of their in-game counterparts.

Plus, while the opening of the film, the first act specifically, is focused on telling a “deep” story, by the time the crew reaches Raiden’s temple, the film embraces the game. Bringing to life stages, fatalities, and the cheesy one-liners, this time said by more than just Shang Tsung.

In fact, the choice to use actors with backgrounds in martial arts and fighting makes the action sequences sing. There aren’t excessive jump cuts, there isn’t over-use of slo-mo, instead, we just get actors with incredible physicality and skill getting to fight. In every action sequence, each actor is given the same ability to shine, which is incredibly important given that most American-made action films don’t allow for the fast-paced fight sequences that male characters have to be done by women. Here, both Sonya and Mileena (Sisi Stringer) get chances to fight fast and fight well.

Mortal Kombat live action

For me, Sonya is exactly what I want her to be and, so is Kano. Their back-and-forth and fights are some of the best parts of the film with both characters using in-game signature moves in real life. But gosh, I would be lying if I wasn’t mad at this film making me actually want to see Kano on screen. A nasty character overall, both with what he says and his background, Kano isn’t a good guy, and honestly, I can’t stand him in any iteration. But in Mortal Kombat (2021), Lawson brings him to life with a charisma that pisses you off in just the right Kano-way.

Additionally, Tan as Young makes the most out of his story, even if it’s paced awkwardly. Tan throws everything he has into every scene and it pays off. Cole Young is new to Mortal Kombat, but I can easily see him finding a place among the greats if this film produces sequels – like its ending sets up for.

All of that said, the true backbone of Mortal Kombat (2021) are icons Sub-Zero and Scorpion. More specifically their actions sequences are worlds above the other characters and set the bloody tone for the film in just the first seven minutes. Taslim has a charm and swagger that makes it hard to root against him, even if he is murdering Earthrealm’s warriors.

Whether his face is shown, or he’s behind a mask, it’s hard to keep your eyes off of him, and more specifically, the way that his fight choreography took into consideration his ice powers is flawless. Small notes of ice while Sub-Zero is fighting nod to the video game and the larger uses of his powers throw in dynamic uses of setting.

On the other side, this iteration of Scorpion brings the signature brutality by infusing it with more elements, reimagining some weaponry but keeping the face-melting finisher we all know and love. As Scorpion, Hiroyuki Sanada doesn’t get many scenes but when he does, he blows them out of the water.

Without giving away spoilers, Mortal Kombat (2021) is a near flawless victory for existing fans of the franchise, with only a little chip-damage coming through. Sure, its narrative is shaky, and at some point, there isn’t a need to push a larger story outside of Outworld Vs Earthrealm fights, but just when you start to get tired of narrative driving conversations, a fight scene happens and pulls you right back in.

While critics without a background in the game or the way it’s impacted gaming culture may scoff at this film, it’s clear to me that Mortal Kombat (2021) will earn its place at the top of the video game live-action adaptations. And while sure, that’s a pretty short list, it’s still important.

Mortal Kombat is in theaters and HBO Max on April 23, 2021. 

'Mortal Kombat' is Almost a Flawless Victory
  • 7.5/10
    Rating - 7.5/10
7.5/10

TL;DR

While critics without a background in the game or the way it’s impacted gaming culture may scoff at this film, it’s clear to me that Mortal Kombat (2021) will earn its place at the top of the video game live-action adaptations. And while sure, that’s a pretty short list, it’s still important.