Mortal Kombat is not a good film. There, I said it. You might have enjoyed it, of course. But it’s still not a good film. Built on a promise for better things yet to come, the latest Mortal Kombat reboot is more interested in setting up a sequel instead of focusing on the first chapter.
This review of Mortal Kombat contains spoilers. You have been warned!
As a fan of the MK video game series, I wanted the new movie to be well made. I wasn’t expecting it to be Oscar-worthy stuff, but considering the passionate fanbase and expectations, I was hoping for the creative team to at least try to offer some level of quality content. Surprise! It didn’t.
Look. I’m okay with things being changed to fit the live-action medium. The latest Shadow and Bone series over on Netflix is a great example of making narrative decisions that, while vary from the source material, help with overall onscreen storytelling. Mortal Kombat, on the other hand, decided to change things up because… who knows? If said changes were any better, this would have been a very different review.
One of the biggest changes deals with the introduction of Cole Young (Lewis Tan). From what I could gather, Cole (who isn’t part of the game series) was created due to studio interference because TPTB wanted someone to ease the audience into the mystical lore of MK. The creative team also made Cole a blood relative of Scorpion (one of the, if not the, most popular characters from the MK game series) to force the audience to care about him. Which, yeah… no. I still couldn’t find myself doing that. Even though she only had a couple of lines, I was more invested in Cole’s young daughter. And I think that shows how boring he is as the freaking lead.
If TPTB wanted a better-written character to help the audience, the MK games already have one. His name’s Johnny Cage. Johnny’s entire introductory arc is about how he slowly realizes he’s in big trouble because all of the paranormal stuff and different realms he’s visiting are real. Also, the final moments of this MK reboot teasing Johnny Cage is set to appear in the next film was just wow.
Coming to the premise, the film opens with a very emotional and enjoyably choreographed fight sequence between Hanzo (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Bi-Han (Joe Taslim). The studio even released the sequence on YouTube to get fans riled up. That’s the kind of MK film I was expecting the rest of this offering to be. Of course, I shouldn’t have expected anything. What I got was Cole, his wife, and his daughter having to run away from Sub-Zero.
Apparently, Shang Tsung orders his minions to kill the Earth’s champions before the tournament. Why the heck doesn’t Lord Raiden put a stop to it? I have no idea because the plot’s paper-thin and so are a handful of characters. They ruined Sonya Blade. But I’ll get to her in a bit.
After Jax (Mehcad Brooks) arrives at the scene to rescue Cole and his family, Cole makes his way to Sonya (Jessica McNamee) and she’s the one who explains how she and Jax have been researching something called the “Mortal Kombat” and how Earth’s safety hangs in the balance. Kano (Josh Lawson) is also in Sonya’s hideout and the writers decided to change his personality. He’s basically the bad-guy version of Johnny Cage.
Anyway, according to Sonya, the selected champions have a special dragon mark on their body. Cole was born with one while Jax and Kano got theirs after killing those who had them. The three have to find their way to Raiden’s temple to learn more about what’s happening. On their way to the hidden temple, the trio meets Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) who explains that the dragon mark means the champions can unleash their “Arcana”, which is basically a power boost.
The Mortal Kombat film is just exposition after exposition as the creative team tries to explain certain plot threads. The entire concept of the Arcana makes no sense. Why does every champion of Earth have to be “magical” to be considered worthy? Also, how does the Arcana even work? If Jax wasn’t given mechanical arms by the healers at the temple, would his Arcana still have been bigger and better mechanical arms? Why do certain people like Cole and Kung Lao (Max Huang) get actual weapons through their Arcana while others like Kano, Sonya, and Liu Kang don’t? Why did the concept of awakening one’s magical Arcana make me think of the Winx Club animated franchise but poorly written?
The concept of the Arcana was also used to do Sonya no favors as a character. One of the reasons I like Sonya is because she’s a normal human being tasked with defending the Earth from opponents who can teleport, use magic, have extra limbs, etc. And yet she perseveres through it all and is considered a formidable fighter.
In this movie, all of her hard work and dedication is considered worthless unless she gets the dragon mark and awakens her Arcana. She isn’t allowed to spar in the temple’s training ground. Mileena (Sisi Stringer) refuses to kill her because as one without the dragon mark, Sonya isn’t worthy of Mileena’s time. Seeing one of my favorite characters from the franchise being constantly pushed down until she is considered “special” disappointed me. A stronger narrative arc would have been seeing Sonya rightfully taking her place as a defender of Earth as who she is.
As far as Mortal Kombat is concerned, you need to have a dragon mark to defend Earth because of destiny. Personal character motivations from the game series (ranging from revenge and greed to actually wanting to be a hero) have been thrown out of the window.
To be fair, I did enjoy some of the fight sequences and Easter Eggs. I also liked how Cole’s wife and daughter weren’t killed off to cause more man pain. Considering the tropes such action movies follow, I was actually surprised Cole’s wife made it out alive. However, such things can only take a movie so far when the narrative structure is close to being nonexistent.
Other gripes and questions:
- Why was Hanzo taken to Hell after being killed by Bi-Han? I would have liked some kind of explanation.
- Where did Hanzo pick up the line “Come over here”? Do they teach cool English catchphrases down in Hell?
- Why didn’t Hanzo come sooner to kill Sub-Zero? What was Hanzo doing since being dead back in 17th-century Japan? Did he really have to wait for centuries for Cole to be born?
- Nitara was wasted as a character.
- Mileena was wasted as a character.
- Sonya being annoyed by Kano came across as quite immature. Very high school level stuff.
- The CGI used to create Goro was just bad.
- Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, from 1995’s Mortal Kombat, continues to be the best Shang Tsung.
- Scorpion manually taking off his mask to talk looked weird. Why couldn’t the mask just magically disappear when he needed to say something?
All in all, the 2021 version of Mortal Kombat serves you an action-flick that’s basically a prequel to the “real” Mortal Kombat movie, whenever that comes out.
Mortal Kombat was made available to stream on HBO Max on April 23, 2021. Against a reported budget of $55 million, it has grossed more than $50 million at the worldwide box office.
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Farid has a Double Masters in Psychology and Biotechnology as well as an M.Phil in Molecular Genetics. He is the author of numerous books including Missing in Somerville, and The Game Master of Somerville. He gives us insight into comics, books, TV shows, anime/manga, video games, and movies.
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