MORTAL KOMBAT (2021): Fatalities Do Not a Compelling Narrative Make

Some elements of brilliance punctuate the mediocrity

It started out so strong.

The always good Hiroyuki Sanada (Hanzo Hasashi/Scorpion) duking it out with legend-in-the-making Joe Taslim (Bi-Han/Sub-Zero) in 1600s Japan with real human tragedy on the line had me hooked. Even the over-the-top gore and fatalities so tantalizingly promised in the marketing of this film seemed to fit into what could be a compelling dramatic narrative for this legendarily violent arcade cabinet video game adaptation.

Instead we’re ultimately given what amounts to the cinematic equivalent of roll call.

Perhaps a compelling plot or emotional connection is a little bit much to ask of a fighting game turned into a movie in which the cast of characters are most of what matters to the intellectual property as a whole. But part of the challenge of adapting a wildly popular thing from one medium to another is to find a way to make what works in an arcade cabinet work for the passive watcher of the silver screen. I read that co-writer Greg Russo is a genuine fan of the Mortal Kombat game series and knew deep down what fans of the franchise were really hoping to see and worked hard to be faithful to the game lore. And I suspect he may very well have been on to something and that many massive Mortal Kombat fans will find much to like in this latest big screen adaptation. General audiences, on the other hand, may scratch their heads at a sprawling cast of characters all defined more by a costume, catch phrase, or signature move than any crucial narrative reason for them to exist.

But, never fear Mortal Kombat fans… most of your favorite heroes and villains will indeed make an appearance on screen in 2021’s edition of the franchise. And in many cases they’ll at least be played by actors of similar lineage to the characters (i.e. it’s not a white dude playing Lord Raiden). Most of them will provide a somewhat slavish representation of the characters you know from the games. They’ll perform some kind of familiar fatality or martial arts move that you may recognize. They’ll probably say something like “test your might” or “flawless victory.” Russo is either giving fans what they want or just cramming as many game references as possible into his movie.

I’m coming across quite negatively and ultimately that’s because I found little to grab onto in Mortal Kombat. I think some of the gravely serious dedication to silly lore about an ancient tournament between realms, with the wicked Shang Tsung (Chin Han) and his villains poised to forever destroy Earthrealm and only Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) and his chosen Earthly fighters marked with a supernatural dragon tattoo can stop it is quite endearing, honestly. But that overarching narrative never does much more than introduce us to a bunch of familiar characters as seen through the eyes of audience surrogate lead character Cole (Lewis Tan), who I believe is a new character not found in the games. Yes, you do get to see a variety of characters fight one another and occasionally murder one another gratuitously. Yes, there will be lots of swear words. But plot progression will never reach the early heights of our two semi-immortal ninja-like warriors Scorpion and Sub-Zero duking it out before the opening credits.

Many hands were wrung in the 1990s when Paul W.S. Anderson’s initial big screen adaptation opted for a PG-13 rating, eschewing the blood and gore that’s perhaps the most iconic element of the game series. This year’s adaptation does offer a more slavish devotion to game lore and unapologetic gore (which I will admit occasionally had me grinning), but it almost certainly isn’t as fun as Anderson’s take. And the presence of such stellar talents as Taslim and Sanada somewhat highlights the stark difference in performance quality between some leads versus others.

If watching one character get a dragon tattoo because they’ve killed a chosen fighter, then watching another character gain a super power, then seeing that same arc rinsed, washed, and repeated over and over is compelling drama to you, then this may really hook you. And I don’t mean to dismiss you if it does work for you. Hardcore game fans (I am only a casual one) may get a lot out of this film being structured in this way. I really didn’t.

And that dulls, ultimately, the impact of the action. Quite a few fight sequences here are well done, or visually interesting, or tinged with just a bit of the ultraviolence. And for a while that was sustaining me. But it’s hard to come to this film and assess it purely as an action film because it uses its cast of characters as a crutch and doesn’t quite highlight the martial arts on display.

I hate to come across so negative because Mortal Kombat ’21 honestly goes down pretty easily. You’ll probably laugh a few times, especially at some of Kano’s (Josh Lawson) one-liners. You might pump your fists at a great fight or two (especially if Joe Taslim is on screen crushing it as Sub-Zero). You may point at the screen like Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood when you recognize a particularly brutal fatality. And that may be all you need. For that level of entertainment, Mortal Kombat awaits you in theaters or on HBOMax, beckoning “get over here.”

And I’m Out.

Mortal Kombat is available in theaters or on HBOMax April 23rd, 2021

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