Mortal Kombat (2021)

Released: April 23, 2021
Watched: April 30, 2021

“The word ‘combat’ isn’t even spelled right.”

This movie has absolutely no right to be this good.

The premise: Earth’s only hope against invasion is for a rag-tag team of powered humans to participate in and win a deadly one-on-one tournament called… Mortal Kombat.

The video game franchise started in October 1992 to capitalize on the popularity of Street Fighter II. Its’ main schtick is being particularly gory and violent (MK3 introduced brutal “fatalities” finishing moves); it was involved in many complaints and lawsuits leading to an industry-wide adoption of “Entertainment Software Rating Board” (ESRB) system to help inform parents about potentially violent or sensitive content.

It’s standard convention that video game movies are not great.

Often it feels like the production team had never played them, making movies around the basic premise in hopes that it’d be a cheap cash cow drawing in fans of the franchise. A few exceptions aside, the results are either so mediocre that they’re forgettable, or so entertainingly bad they’ve reached cult status on their MST3K-riff-worthiness. Case in point: Monster Hunter.

I suppose with 20 years since the last (appallingly bad) Mortal Kombat movie, the franchise was due for another reboot. But nobody knew it was being made until the first trailer dropped in February. That’s not a good sign. Even if the trailer looked passable, I kept very low expectations because…. it’s a video game movie that nobody knew was being made.

Holy shit.

This is one of the best video game movies I’ve seen.

Maybe my expectations were so low to begin with, but I was honestly surprised at how legitimately good (or at least above average) the movie was.

At the very least, it’s obvious that the production team at least actually played the game, and knew exactly what kind of tone to strike to make the film accessible to both franchise fans and people who enjoy action movies.

The martial arts and fight cinematography is smooth and faithful to the games. There are no frenetic cut-aways creating confusing fight scenes and conveying a false sense of actors having competent combat skills. True to the games, the fights are less about deflecting and dodging, and more about who can take and dish out the most pain. There is a clear sense of brutal life or death fights and each fighter has a distinct fighting style and plenty of opportunities to show off their signature moves and fatalities.

The fatalities? Oof. Brutal. About on par with the video games. Definitely not a movie for people sensitive to violence or gore. I found myself squirming from discomfort a few times.

The premise is just ridiculous enough that the writers were smart to make sure the tongue was firmly in cheek throughout the movie, giving characters (especially Kano, who practically carries the entire movie) plenty of opportunities to quip. Lines like “KANO WINS!” or “FLAWLESS VICTORY,” convey a clear sense of nostalgia for Mortal Kombat fans, and an overall sense of levity and fun for nonfans. Case in point: there is a great moment during the training montage where Liu Kang repeatedly beats Kano with leg sweeps. This is both accessible as an action movie trope of knocking someone down a peg with basic skills, and an very specific Mortal Kombat reference of leg sweep being a very safe and spammable move to win matches.

I appreciated that the writers tried to play with audiences’ expectations and nothing against Lewis Tan himself, but I am not completely sold on using Cole Young, a brand new character written for the film and a descendant of a ninja killed in the opening scene, as the main character. The movie kept subverting my expectations for his character arc — I had Cole pegged as Liu Kang (before he was introduced as a supporting character) or as a reincarnation of Scorpion (before he appeared as himself). On one hand, it works because Cole functions as a proxy for a viewer who knows nothing about Mortal Kombat. On the other hand, it felt like a missed opportunity; the roster already had a few characters who would have provided the same vantage point. The writers could have had Jax/Sonya stumbling upon the dragon tattoo during a failed mission and researching the legacy of the Mortal Kombat tournament.

The movie poster prominently displays Scorpion and Subzero. I haven’t played the games in a long while, but I grew up with the notion that Sub-Zero was heroic and Scorpion was at best, an anti-hero. So I was surprised when the movie subverted that by portraying Scorpion as an tragic figure and Sub-Zero as a villain. Reading up on their video game biographies informs I was operating on outdated information. (There are two brothers who’ve taken on the mantle of Sub-Zero: the elder villainous one who killed Scorpion and would later become Noob Saibot, and the younger heroic brother.) The movie opens on Scorpion’s assassination, so I anticipated the movie to focus on the Scorpion/Sub-Zero dynamic. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t do much with it except to set up the climatic Sub-Zero vs. Scorpion fight. It would require an complete overhaul of the script, but it would have been a fresh, original take to center the Mortal Kombat tournament around the Sub-Zero brothers’ complex relationship with Scorpion and with each other.

These are honestly just minor quibbles and does not personally take away from the overall film for me.

I hope this movie is successful enough that the studio green-lights sequels. If they can maintain this quality of combat cinematography and tongue-in-cheek script, I’m invested!

IMDB: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0293429/

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