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NOC Review: ‘Mortal Kombat’ is Not a Flawless Victory

It’s ironic that this would be a review I’m covering following Godzilla Vs. Kong because it actually has the opposite problem. It’s great from a POC standpoint. But it’s just not a very good movie, I’m afraid. Yes, it’s my unfortunate responsibility to tell you that Mortal Kombat is a dud. It’s a bland entry to the list of barely passable video game adaptations that would ultimately leave Shang Tsung starving, because it has no real soul to suck from it anyway. While not completely atrocious, it is about as forgettable and lifeless as, say, 2018’s Tomb Raider reboot.

Let’s look back at 1995’s Mortal Kombat. Is it a perfect move? No. Is it even really a good movie? Not really. And from a POC standpoint it’s an atrocity, as they white-wash so many characters, and interchangeably cast Japanese actors as Chinese characters without a second thought. However, oddly enough, I actually still remember a lot about it over 20 years later. And it’s because despite it’s massive problems, it has something that’s so sorely lacking here: charm and imagination. Mortal Kombat 1995 coasted on the charisma and chemistry of its likable leads. And while it really ended up being a toothless studio-product adaptation of a video game franchise renowned for its controversial gore and violence, I still remember the fights, the characters, the costumes, the set design, the music, and the fun, kitschy Goro animatronic puppet. That’s what’s actually made it something of an endearing campy cult classic so many years later as various other sites will attest to. A product of its time perhaps, but a memorable one all the same.

I can honestly say, no one will say that about 2021’s forgettable Mortal Kombat. Despite the blood and guts, I honestly ended the movie barely remembering a damn thing about it, save for one or two Fatality scenes and a relatively decent subplot for two characters. At this point I’m going to dive in a bit deeper, so…

Spoiler Warning Starting Now:

The latest film starts out in feudal Japan with an origin story that we’ve been anticipating for some time — the beginning of the rivalry between Sub-Zero and Scorpion. The fight scenes in this intro are great, and the movie starts out on a really strong, character driven note for Scorpion. It also gives the audience a taste of some of the bloody brutality the film is supposed to showcase later on. Then after a fascinating prologue, anything fascinating stops, as we’re taken to modern day America to meet forgettable nobodies Cole Young (Lewis Tan), Jax (Mehcad Brooks), Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), and Kano (Josh Lawson). They all end up at the temple of Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) where they meet the more memorable Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang), who try to help the more forgettable characters discover their “arcana” (aka special powers derived from their dragon tattoos — The Mortal Kombat kind of dragon tattoos, not the Swedish hacker detective kind). While there, Shang Tsung (Chin Han) decides he’s going to break the rules of Kombat, and try to kill Earth’s fighters before the Mortal Kombat tournament can begin, and a bunch of random fights happen without any real context back and forth until the movie ends before any tournament even begins.

That’s right. In this version of Mortal Kombat, which is supposed to be about a tournament called Mortal Kombat, the Mortal Kombat tournament doesn’t even take place! All the fights we get are as random as can be save for any fights between Sub-Zero and Scorpion. This is a film that doesn’t have to do much to get a pass for being brainless and having the most basic story possible — heroes from Earth have to save Earth by fighting in a tournament. AND WE DON’T EVEN GET A TOURNAMENT! How stupid is it that the one thing this movie has to do, they can’t even accomplish? Sadder than that, the fights they do have don’t even stand out.

This is supposed to be the hard-R adaptation of the video game that spawned a huge controversy back in 1993. And while there are fights and the blood and gore do fly, none of it is actually holds a candle to your average John Wick film. Two minutes of Shang-Chi trailer has more innovative fight choreography than two hours or this snooze fest. The movie can’t be bothered to make any of fights interesting, unique, or exciting at all, and that’s what we’re supposed to tune in for. That’s ALL we want to tune in for. Yeah we get fatalities from the game, but apart from maybe Kung Lao’s and Jax’s (the two highlights for me), and maybe Liu Kang’s in one scene, none of them push the envelope in any way.

And that’s what I wanted! I wanted this to be a dumb movie with good fights that throws us buckets of blood at us, Savini style! And yet, it weirdly and stupidly feels completely wimpy in all respects. What does it say when a fight scene from the third episode of Falcon and Winter Soldier or Kevin Tancheron’s eight-minute Mortal Kombat Rebirth short are more memorable and brutal than any of the action or fights we get in this? It’s maddeningly disappointing to say the least. And what’s worse, this film sadly shows the promise of achieving a better level of action greatness with the early Scorpion/Sub-Zero scenes in the intro, but the remaining hour and fifteen minutes just never comes close to achieving that level of suspenseful, well choreographed, fast-paced action. Instead it’s satisfied coasting off a little checklist of Mortal Kombat lexicon and bare minimum fatality move recreations that make it into the movie just to pander to fans.

Worst of all the movie just fails at being the one thing it’s trying to be; cool. Take Cole Young’s character for example. You have a character shrouded in mystery, who everyone suspects is going to be a variation of a fan-favorite character. He’s played by one of the best on-screen film fighters today. And yet, I couldn’t give a damn about him at all. And I’m not talking about his boring lack of character development or family drama. Literally everything about him is just either obvious or lame. His ancestry? Obvious before anything is even revealed. His final “arcana?” So lame. He’s essentially a garbage version of Colossus from X-Men. If the movie is trying to make him compelling or cool, I was honestly left apathetic on both accounts. He’s a dumb character. Suffice it to say, if given the opportunity to pick Cole as a choice for my fighter among 37 other playable characters in the game, I’d honestly never pick him.

Nevertheless, I will give the film credit for a few things. First and foremost from a POC standpoint, the casting of the movie and the crew around it is great. We are no longer dealing with a white Raiden. We have an actual legitimate Japanese actor portraying him (the same actor who played Hogun from Thor), and we have Japanese actors playing Japanese characters, as well as Chinese actors playing Chinese characters. No race swapping here. And to their credit, the actors are giving it all they got! It’s not their fault they’re forced to deliver line after line of bland “tell not show” exposition dumps. There are literal moments in this film where they will stop a scene for a character to tell another character their deal. No one cares. Then it’ll move on to more training.

Again this isn’t Shakespeare, but it firmly puts the spotlight on these actors of color in ways the horribly cast ’90s film, or even recent shows like Iron Fist never did, but should have. For once we have an Asian lead in Lewis Tan’s Cole. And that’s something I appreciate, even though the roles/lines themselves aren’t fabulous. However, this is a bit of a double edged sword, because executives tend to take the wrong lessons on movies like this. And if the film is of poor or mediocre quality, it could make Asian-led and produced projects look bad. And that doesn’t do us any favors.

Second, where this movie succeeds most is everything pertaining to Scorpion and Sub-Zero. One of the most wasted opportunities of the original film were how stupid and robotic the ’90s versions of those characters were. Here Scorpion is a fully fleshed out, completely tragic character. Even though we don’t get a whole lot of him, Hiroyuki Sanada absolutely shines with a tortured, angry performance that is actually more powerful than any performance in this film has any right to be. And Joe Taslim gives a (please forgive me) chilling performance as Sub-Zero. He’s probably the one character in the film that would generate any semblance of suspense anytime he was on-screen.

Why couldn’t this have been a focused movie about those two characters and their bitter war with each other? Wouldn’t that have been a much better story to tell with interesting ways to do some bloody Kurosawa-meets-Tarantino level action? Their fights together, the one in the beginning and the final one, are the only fights that really stand out in a movie about fighting. That’s great for them. And pathetic for the rest of the film that could have been better if it dove into these two a lot more.

Naturally nothing else about the movie matters much, particularly in the character and story department. We’re not really coming to a Mortal Kombat movie for any of that, just like we wouldn’t expect the same in Godzilla Vs. Kong. They just need to entertain, which, for me, this didn’t. You see, unlike Godzilla Vs. Kong this one lacked any semblance of visual imagination or flair. If a movie is going to be dumb, at least give me visually striking. But nope. On the whole, there’s nothing that stands out about the film from a visual standpoint, or from an action choreography standpoint.

The subpar visual effects didn’t do it any favors. The Shrek-looking version of Goro in this movie almost made me pine for the crappy puppet from the original movie. The world-building is garbage as their version of Outworld was literally a throne in front of some rocks, with a floating stone pathway leading up to it. No character or set decor needed apparently. Just rocks. Stupid as a movie like Godzilla Vs. Kong is, the spectacle from the Hollow Earth scenes, to the neon covered battles in Hong Kong are a treat for your eyes. Even in the original 1995 movie, Outworld had a visually interesting otherworldly design with creepy architecture and terrifying statues perched everywhere. There’s nothing captivating like that in Mortal Kombat. The rest of the movie is fought in a regular gym, or a darkly lit house, or a phony looking scrap yard. Hardly what we’d expect for a movie based on a game where settings for each fight are interactive and visually interesting.

And again, all that would be fine if the action showed even a semblance of dynamic gusto to generate a “whoa” factor for its audience ala a movie like Mad Max Fury Road. But, to summarize my thoughts based on the above, it just doesn’t. And the film focuses too much on really stupid things like Cole’s family or the characters training to obtain their “arcanas,” rather than give us tournament style battles of blood and carnage. So what we get instead is all stuff I could care less about.

At the end of the day, though it does seem like I was horribly offended by the film, I can honestly tell you that’s not the case. Horrible movies that offend you tend to live rent free in your brain for hours after you see them. Mortal Kombat couldn’t make it past Round 1. Alas, no. Mortal Kombat is just another less than mediocre video game adaptation that will be lost among a barrage of others like Assassin’s Creed or Monster Hunter. The best thing I can say about it is it’s at least world’s better than Mortal Kombat Annihilation. But that’s ultimately a shame, because this was a necessary reboot. Like the original movie, the film hilariously tries to set up a sequel at the end, probably for some delusional designs for a multi-film franchise. However if this first film is any indication, and what we can expect is more blandness to come, honestly Warner Bros? Don’t bother to ‘Finish It.’

Overall Score (on an entertainment level): C-
Overall Score (on a representation level): B+

Mortal Kombat premieres April 23 in theaters and on HBO Max.

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