Mortal Kombat (2021) Review

“It’s an invitation to fight, for something known as Mortal Kombat.”

(This review is mostly spoiler-free, but as always, if you want to go in completely blind, do not read this.)

So you know how sometimes, you’ll be playing a fighting game, and after a strong start, you choke away half your life before somehow lucking into a win? No? Just me? Either way, that essentially sums up the 2021 reboot of Mortal Kombat, the shockingly violent fighting game franchise that was previously adapted for the silver screen with 1995’s Mortal Kombat and 1997’s Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. 2021’s Mortal Kombat, helmed by first-time director Simon McQuoid, isn’t a cinematic masterpiece, but thankfully rises above every other video game movie in a gleeful gore-fest of entertaining proportions.

Let’s not kid ourselves: Mortal Kombat, as a franchise, is never going to win an award for deep storytelling or emotional beats, even if more recent installments (looking at you, MK9-MK11) have improved upon this. It lives and dies upon how gory each game is, and with that in mind, Mortal Kombat excels at almost everything. With a simple and serviceable, if choppy, screenplay by Dave Callahan and first-time scribe Greg Russo, Mortal Kombat is light on plot or character development and heavy on blood, guts, and delightfully over-the-top martial arts. Mortal Kombat‘s simplified story will undoubtedly alienate some hardcore fans, but for complete newcomers or casual fans, it’s a perfectly acceptable gateway into the soon-to-be 30 year old franchise.

Mortal Kombat starts off strong, with an electrifying cold open that sets up the iconic blood feud between Hanzo Hasashi/Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Bi-Han/Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), but stumbles awkwardly around in its first act, spewing exposition like blood during one of the franchise’s infamous Fatalities. Mortal Kombat, while being completely faithful to the games in that many characters are thrown together without proper origin stories, will most likely confuse many moviegoers who don’t have the benefit of playing the games to familiarize themselves with said characters, and that’s the weakest aspect of the film by far.

Mortal Kombat finds its footing once the action picks up, though, and while it’s clear that rookie director Simon McQuoid doesn’t have anywhere near the experience needed to make fight sequences as brutal and well-choreographed as something like The Raid, he still does an excellent job compared to other mainstream action films. It also doesn’t hurt that this is an all-star cast when it comes to martial arts, with Sanada, Taslim, and lead Lewis Tan, who plays the new original character Cole Young, the standouts in their fight scenes. While Mortal Kombat has a modest budget by Hollywood standards ($55 million), it uses that $55 million well, with surprisingly crisp CGI and with mostly practical effects and locations (for people praying that Goro looks better than the 1995 animatronic, don’t worry). As for the franchise’s trademark gore, the Fatalities and Brutalities absolutely deliver, with sequences that look like they were directly ripped out of the games, and some moments that made me (someone who plays the games!) recoil in glee and shock from how gruesome they were.

Mortal Kombat would be a far weaker film without its cast, though, and while some characters suffer from weak writing and are underutilized, almost everyone is extremely well-cast, with the best examples being Sanada’s Hanzo Hasashi/Scorpion and Taslim’s Bi-Han/Sub-Zero. As in the games, Bi-Han (the first Sub-Zero) is much more villainous than his successor, and Taslim is a force of nature as the brutal cryomancer, with shades of Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees as he gives the film a physicality that’s only matched by his counterpart, Sanada’s Scorpion. Although Scorpion is painfully underutilized, that only makes his scenes all the better, as the 60-year old (!) Sanada anchors the film with both raw emotion and being able to match Taslim blow-for-blow in Scorpion and Sub-Zero’s visceral showdowns. Compared to the laughable depictions of the franchise’s iconic duo in the 1995 adaptation, both actors are perfectly cast here.

New original character Cole Young (above), played by Lewis Tan, is unfortunately nowhere near the dizzying heights of Scorpion and Sub-Zero, even if there have been far worse video game movie protagonists. Tan gives the role his all, with outstanding fight scenes and perfectly acceptable acting, but it’s clear that Cole just isn’t a very well-written or thought-out character, and it doesn’t help when half of the cast gets better dialogue than Cole, who functions as the poor man’s Johnny Cage/audience surrogate the whole time.

Besides Cole, everyone else is exceptionally cast, with the standouts being Josh Lawson’s Kano (above) and the two Shaolin monks, Kung Lao (Max Huang) and Liu Kang (Ludi Lin). Lawson’s Kano in particular is a scene-stealer, practically carrying the movie for much of the second act. Spitting out almost every curse word and insult known to mankind, Lawson brings some much-needed levity to an otherwise dour film, also serving as an excellent foil to Jessica McNamee’s Sonya Blade (above).

Although fans of the games and Robin Shou’s Liu Kang in the original movies might turn their noses up at the idea of franchise hero Liu Kang not being the protagonist for once, rest assured, he’s not relegated to background character at all. Ludi Lin, of Power Rangers fame, plays Liu with a much quieter and somber touch than the character’s ever had, whereas Max Huang’s Kung Lao gets to finally be the confident and hyper-competent idol that the other Earthrealmers look up to.

Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) and Shang Tsung (Chin Han) are regrettably less than serviceable, with the thunder god being limited to delivering necessary information to further the plot and Shang Tsung’s entire character consisting of vaguely threatening dialogue that feels like it was ripped out of a straight-to-DVD Liam Neeson film. Neither franchise heavy hitter is given the opportunity to do much in terms of kombat either, and so Mortal Kombat essentially relegates the two to being the cheerleaders for their Earthrealm and Outworld teams, respectively. Jax (Mehcad Brooks) is treated much better, and although he’s absent for a chunk of the film, Brooks makes the most of it, helping to ground the story alongside its more fantastical elements along with McNamee’s Sonya.

Other supporting characters, like Mileena (Sisi Stringer), Goro (Angus Sampson), and Kabal (Daniel Nelson) are mostly consigned to one or two fights, with not much else to do besides stand there and look cool while Shang Tsung prattles on. It’s a shame too, as Kabal in particular surprisingly has one of the livelier personalities in the film during his limited screentime, and Mileena is completely wasted in the role of “henchman” despite being one of the most complex characters in the franchise’s long history (although it is hard to do much without the presence of Kitana as well).

All of the characters in the film have amazing costumes and character designs, which makes the underutilization of many of them that much more disappointing. I mentioned this already, but everyone is very well cast, and I commend producer James Wan and director McQuoid for going out of their way to seek out actors and actresses who can handle the fight scenes well, rather than going for A-list talent like many productions might. Lastly, it is so refreshing to see a big-budget Hollywood action film to finally have such a diverse cast, with actors who are accurately representative of their characters’ ethnicities instead of a film whitewashing almost all, if not all, of them.

Verdict: Mortal Kombat shakes off the wicked sophomore slump that plagued Mortal Kombat: Annihilation to deliver a brilliantly violent and gory spectacle, and while it won’t draw any praise for deep storytelling, efficiently and effectively reboots the Mortal Kombat story for a new audience.

Score: 7/10

Let me know what you thought of the film in the comments below!

Disclaimer: I do not own any of these photos. WB and New Line Cinema own them! Some of the images here were taken from https://www.cap-that.com/

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