Ever since the Avengers movies proved studios could make a billion dollars with an ensemble cast of A-listers dressed up in tights and enough spicy special effects to justify paying for a tub of popcorn at cinema prices, the summer blockbuster season has been changed.
And ever since, nerds and geeks, have found their obsessions become mainstream. Never have we been so relevant!
Everything we’ve had to hide from society — the comics, video games, cartoons, and lore — have now become everyone else’s favorite thing. Even the San Diego Comic-Con, a bastion of geekology — a fortress of nerditude, if you will — is almost impossible to get tickets to thanks to Twilight, the Walking Dead, and other fandoms that have sprouted overnight into giant and lucrative collectives.
Now, has there ever been a more perfect time as this to release a movie based on a violent video game where code-named martial arts combatants in recognizable outfits fight to the death? When even the Justice League and Wolverine are starring in R-rated films, the market for edgier superhero movies has proven that adults don’t mind a large amount of blood splatter on their favorite character’s costume.
The 2021 reboot to the cult-classic Mortal Kombat released way back in 1995 brings back a lot of characters that fans will instantly recognize along with several others who have never before made it to the silver screen.
Cole Young (Tan Lewis), a brand new character who is this movie’s main protagonist, is introduced as a has-been MMA fighter who can’t seem to get back to his glory days. Undisciplined and on a losing streak, he scrapes by making $200 a fight with his daughter as his corner.
Born with a distinct birthmark — players of the video game will recognize it as the video game’s logo — Young comes to realize what it means after he’s attacked by a mysterious figure who can somehow control ice and snow to deadly effect.
Young learns he is the descendant of a legendary ninja assassin, and he has been chosen as one of Earth’s champions in the Mortal Kombat tournament where various realms send their best fighters. As a marked champion, Young has been given a latent power which will only manifest itself for the first time when he experiences extreme trauma, pain, or a dire circumstance. Though his abilities are misunderstood, he will join a rag-tag team of others who must find it within themselves to save the day.
No, this ain’t the X-Men, but it does seem a little as if the filmmakers tried to take the Mortal Kombat story and deliver it in a more familiar package. And while a lot of the elements from the video game are here to make it distinctly Mortal Kombat, the reboot movie suffers from the same flaws that were present in the first X-Men movie — too many characters, not enough development, and a squad of good guys who receive interesting powers that become a crutch and not an enhancement.
Like the X-Men characters in the comic books, the Mortal Kombat fighters from the video game were fantastically skilled, uber-powerful, and capable of causing massive damage. These powers were extensions of their characters. For example, Liu Kang, the canonical winner of the tournament featured in the first video game, was — at first glance — a Bruce Lee clone.
Able to shoot fireballs out of his hand and deliver devastating flying kicks, he was a fighter who — while quite capable of killing — was the only character to not have a fatality. It was this difference that really set him apart, and fans who delved deeper into the canonical story to learn that Liu Kang was the true winner of the tournament understood why.
He was a hero’s hero.
As the video games progressed the character’s storyline, Kang was eventually killed and then resurrected as one of the big bad’s revenants — a twist made more dramatic because of his noted purity and honor before his untimely death.
His movie counterpart, though it wouldn’t be completely fair to compare them due to the extensive storylines carried through the many video games that have been released, seems to be limited in skills and doesn’t have the same presence befitting Earth’s greatest hero. That can be explained by the fact that we have a burgeoning group of new heroes, but the flatness of all the main characters keeps the movie from getting off the runway, so to speak.
The movie version of Kang (Ludi Lin) likes to hurl fireballs that are easily dodged. Meanwhile, his cousin Kung Lao (Max Huang) is the best fighter of the lot, but his sharp metal-brimmed hat seems a bit gimmicky. Jax (Mehcad Brooks) — he loses both of his arms in a fight with Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) — sees his powers manifest when his prosthetics become better… prosthetics.
(Seriously, his functioning metal arms, which are installed by Shaolin monks, become better. At functioning.)
One of the characters who comes to life in the movie and has hardly any story at all in the first video game is Kano (Josh Lawson). Delivering a large portion of the lines in the movie, Kano is a feisty Australian who moonlights as the Black Dragon — a gunrunner with information. He leads the party to Raiden’s temple, and while he isn’t the greatest physical fighter, he does put a lot of effort into his verbal putdowns.
But the potential was there for so much more. Part machine in the video game, Kano was able to shoot a laser out of his robotic eye. Though he remains fully human at the end of this movie, he does receive a laser eye-beam as his arcana power. It’s disappointing that a storyline being ripe for a tin-man — who in this case sports a fatality in which he literally rips out hearts — could have been mined for some juicy dramatic bits. Instead, he betrays his teammates in a short series of events that lead to the movie’s final fight between the forces of Outworld and Earthrealm that’s more blunder than bluster.
Sadly, 2021’s Mortal Kombat feels tethered and fails to find its feet. There’s very little originality here, and the drama feels artificial. The fight between Sub-Zero and Scorpion is the best scene in the entire movie, but it’s an example of what could have been.
The 1995 movie, while not a masterpiece, did more with its smaller budget by going bonkers with the source material. Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa’s turn as the over-the-top sorceror Shang Tsung brought so much life to the character that the video game changed the character’s appearance to the actor.
Chin Han, the current Shang Tsung, never had a chance with the script and story he was given.
In comparing the two movies, it’s plain to see that the newest one lacks the charm and wit of the older movie. In an attempt to create a darker and gorier version that is truer to the violent displays present in the video game, the filmmakers forgot to include the organic heroism of Liu Kang, or the pressures Kung Lao faces as he works to escape the shadow of his legendary namesake. Even the awe-inspiring yet fallible brilliance of Raiden whose power is tempered by his loyalty to the rules of the tournament is missing — he’s the the literal deus ex machina who appears to save the day when all looks lost.
It’s a relentlessly joyless movie that doesn’t make a lot of sense, and the pacing is really uneven. The action looks like it’s in slow motion, and some of the dialogue doesn’t even make sense. Characters talk at each other, and there’s a lack of real organic world-building to give plot points weight.
It’s especially frustrating that the main plot, which revolves around an intergalactic — or is it interdimensional — tournament gets floated around quite a bit, but according to one of the writers who envisioned this as a trilogy, the tournament won’t take place until the second movie.
Imagine that — a movie about Mortal Kombat that takes place in the pre-match warm-ups. This isn’t even the undercard — we’re still at the weigh-ins.
This is a fight I’m no longer hyped for.
Mortal Kombat (2021)
Directed by: Simon McQuoid
Screenplay by: Greg Russo, Dave Callaham
Starring: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Joe Taslim, Mehcad Brooks, Matilda Kimber, Laura Brent, Tadanobu Asano, Hiroyuki Sanada, Chin Han, Ludi Lin, Max Huang, Sisi Stringer, Mel Janson, Nathan Jones, and Daniel Nelson