Movie Review: Mortal Kombat (2021)

In my look back the other day at the 1995 MORTAL KOMBAT movie, I admitted that I am definitely not part of this franchise’s target audience.  I’ve never played the immensely popular video game, nor am I interested in ever doing so.  I don’t even know if that inner force thing that causes these characters to manifest their superpowers is called “arkana” or “akana”.  My colleague assures me that it’s “arkana” so if I’m wrong, blame him.

Given the enduring popularity of the game, which has seen 11 versions released over the past 30 years, not to mention all the spin-off games that have been come out in the interim, it isn’t surprising that a new film version should come to our cinema screens.  The original film was a bit of a hot mess (and its 1997 sequel even more so) but it did do extremely well at the box office.  Given Hollywood’s penchant for retreading old IP, maybe we should be more surprised that it’s taken so long for a reboot.

MK2021 isn’t exactly a retread though, as it introduces some new characters and storylines that weren’t in the original film.  The film centers around Cole Young (British actor and martial artist Lewis Tan, DEADPOOL 2), a brand new character who is a washed-up MMA fighter.  After being hunted down by Sub-Zero (Indonesian actor and martial artist Joe Taslim), he is brought to the hideout of former Special Forces officer Sonya Blade (Australian actress Jessica McNamee, THE MEG) by her colleague Jax Briggs (American Mehcad Brooks, TV’s SUPERGIRL).  There, he learns that his dragon-shaped birthmark is a symbol that he is meant to fight in a battle to save the world, which is known by some as Earthrealm.  Jax has the same mark on him, as does ruthless scoundrel and Sonya’s nemesis, Kano (Australian Josh Lawson, BOMBSHELL; THE LITTLE DEATH; TV’s HOUSE OF LIES), who is there too, as he has been captured by Sonya for reasons that aren’t explained very well.  Only Sonya doesn’t have the mark… at least not yet.  Kano, meanwhile, knows where the god of thunder and defender of Earthrealm, Lord Raiden (Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano/浅野 忠信, the THOR films), is holed up and he agrees to take the others there for a hefty fee.  Once at Raiden’s cave temple, they meet former Shaolin monk Liu Kang (Chinese-Canadian actor Ludi Lin, AQUAMAN) and his cousin Kung Lao (Chinese-German stunt actor and martial artist Max Huang), who are both charged with whipping this motley crew of champions into shape for the final battle against demon sorcerer Shang Tsung (Singaporean actor Chin Han, GHOST IN THE SHELL) and his minions that include some familiar characters to the game’s fans.

MORTAL KOMBAT (2021) tries to address many of the criticisms levelled at the 1995 film that included low rent special effects, lame fight choreography, a weak plot, wooden acting and cheesy dialogue.  Happily, it succeeds at all that and more.  The film, which is directed by Simon McQuoid in his feature debut, from a story written by Oren Uziel (THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX; 22 JUMP STREET) and Greg Russo, is big, bold, gory and full of four-letter expletives.  It definitely earns its Category III rating here in Hong Kong.  (I think it will be rated R in the US.)  Unlike its predecessor, MK2021 features a number of actors who not only can act, they more importantly know how to throw a very convincing roundhouse kick.  While McQuoid makes full use of his cast’s martial arts talents, there is, unfortunately, a fair bit of shaky camerawork going on combined with ultra-tight shots and dim lighting, all of which detract from the spectacle when the fighting really gets going.  There’s also no shortage of blood in this film, which is something that MK1995 distinctly lacked.

The film is not without humour either, and Lawson delivers most of the best lines as the actor leans into his character’s cockiness in a big way.  Franchise fans will no doubt notice that one key character is not in this film – Hollywood actor Johnny Cage.  One of the film’s producers, Todd Garner, recently said in an interview that Cage was excluded from this film because they wanted to make actors of Asian descent the focal point for this story.  Moreover, Cage is a bit of an over-the-top character and they already had someone in this story (Kano) who is the same.  Fans shouldn’t be too sad over the lack of a White Saviour though.  MK2021 makes it very clear that if there will be a sequel, and there will be, Cage will be in that film.

People don’t go to see MORTAL KOMBAT looking for a thought-provoking storyline or Oscar-baity acting.  They go to see action and that’s what they are going to get here.  While MK2021 is a far better film than its predecessor, that’s a pretty low bar to jump over.

MORTAL KOMBAT (2021) opened in Hong Kong’s cinemas yesterday (April 8th).  In the US and in many other markets, Warner Bros. is delaying its release to the 23rd to give its other big film, GODZILLA VS. KONG, more time to continue earning money at the box office.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, April 9th, 8:30 am HK time!

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