Movie Review – Mortal Kombat (2021)

Principal Cast : Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin, Chin Han, Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada, Max Huang, Sisi Stringer, Matilda Kimber, Laura Brent, Daniel Nelson, Nathan Jones, Mel Jamson.
Synopsis: MMA fighter Cole Young seeks out Earth’s greatest champions in order to stand against the enemies of Outworld in a high stakes battle for the universe.

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The 2021 retooling of the classic arcade game, Simon McQuoid’s South Australian-filmed Mortal Kombat simultaneously satisfies and disappoints. On the one hand, the film boasts some very cool big-screen updating of the classic game characters, and utilises many of the wondrous locations to gorgeous, postcard-beauty effect. It also promises and mostly delivers on that sense of violent, blood-soaked fun and stupidity we’ve come to expect here, the abysmal 90’s effects-heavy entries notwithstanding. Sadly, perhaps more for international audiences than those of Australian breeding, a lot of Mortal Kombat is patently asinine, from the awful dialogue and performances to the inability of the film to feel truly epic, although one suspects that these things aren’t particularly worrisome for a film based off a 2D game played by teenagers three decades ago.

Young MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan – Iron Fist, Into The Badlands) is struggling with his career. He is drawn into a mystical world of a competitive deathmatch tournaments known as “mortal kombat”, as the agents of the Netherworld, led by Shang Tsung (Chin Han) seek to obtain dominion over Earthrealm (that’s us, in plainspeak). Cole, together with former military operative Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee – The Meg, Black Water: Abyss) and the mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson – Becoming Bond, Any Questions For Ben) search for the templae of Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) where they will train to defeat the bad guys. They are hunted by the evil Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim – The Night Comes For Us) and Mileena (Sisi Stringer), henchpeople of Shang Tsung, and are aided by fellow fighters Jax (Mehcad Brooks – Supergirl), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin – Power Rangers, Aquaman) and Kung Lao (Max Huang).

Mortal Kombat plays exactly as you’d imagine a violent fighting game would translate to the big screen. It’s loud, deafeningly stupid and designed purely to shoot nostalgia directly into the hypothalamus’ of those old enough to recall playing the original game back in the mid 1990’s. The slick visual effects are among the best aspects of the overall project, as are the wicked fatalities inflicted upon a few of the characters, but these are drowned out by terrible acting and exposition, as well as obnoxious fight choreography and a refusal to edit the movie in a manner that makes it comprehensible to the average non-fan viewer. Shot locally in South Australia, it’s a pleasant surprise to recognise many (if not all) of the locations used as a backdrop for the globe-trotting story, from the warehouse district of Port Adelaide and the Torrens Island Power Station (which doubles for Sonya Blade’s Indiana-based hideout) to the lush landscape of Kuitpo Forest serving as an ancient Japanese backdrop in the film’s violent prelude, and to his credit director Simon McQuoid utilises the locations and the film’s comparatively limited studio sets well enough. Now I know how people in Atlanta feel watching those MCU films and seeing their nearby busstop representing some other far flung location.

Sadly, however, the enjoyment of Mortal Kombat’s grisly violence and well-earned fatalities wanes as things progress, the majority of which lands squarely on the shoulders of casting Josh Lawson as Kano. I hate to say it, but while Lawson is an excellent comedic actor known here in Australia, I think international audiences will despise his prickly and full-throated performance simply because they won’t understand him. Never has such an ocker Australian character existed in a major feature film that didn’t have the words Crocodile and Dundee in the title. Truth be told, I had more than a couple of loud guffaws at Lawson’s ripe language and off-the-cuff humour, but somehow it didn’t seem to suit the character or the overall film, and given his prominence within the film I think a lot of people outside Australia will find it hard to go with. Comparatively, Lewis Tan and Jessica McNamee offer bland and lifeless turns as Cole Young (a new character to the franchise, differentiating this movie from both the games and the previous two features) and Sonya Blade respectively, whilst the plentiful Asian cast get the chance to snarl and grimace menacingly at the screen as the preschool level dialogue leaps from the screen. Joe Taslim makes a formidable villain in Sub-Zero but his face and physique are hidden beneath a dense and (for me, anyway) impractical costume, while Tadanobu Asano and Chin Han, together with Hiroyuki Sanada form a triumvirate of Eastern screen iconography that works whenever they’re on screen.

The film contains very little in the way of actual dialogue, when it’s just a constant stream of announcements. Exposition is king in Mortal Kombat, exemplified by Sonya Blade’s dry recounting of the franchise’s basic premise and extrapolated out by every single utterance throughout the movie. These aren’t so much characters as they are pieces of violent machinery moved through space to entertain us, including the literal example of that in Mehcad Brooks’ Jax being fitted with a pair of bespoke metal arms after his flesh ones torn off by during an encounter with Sub-Zero. The screenplay moves at a frantic pace with little time for folks unfamiliar with the property; I ought to know, as aside from the previous two films I’ve never really had much interest in Mortal Kombat before, and I had almost no clue what was happening even when things were being explained to me. As the film progressed, and the fights became more and more ludicrous, I began to realise that McQuoid and his team of talented Aussie artisans hadn’t made this film for me. They’d made it for Mortal Kombat fans. Fair play to them, I guess.

In terms of audience reaction to the aforementioned violence, McQuoid knows his audience and delivers some quite brutal kills. One character is sawn in half by the razor-sharp helmet of Max Huang’s Kung Lau in a moment that reminded me of butchering sheep on the farm with my father, whilst another is stabbed with his own frozen blood in one of the movie’s briefest brawls (it plays well in the trailer but occurs only for a second in the finished film); all of the slicing, stabbing, punching, limb-shattering gore and blood was perhaps intended to shock like the original game did back in the 90’s (watch the Netflix series High Score for the backstory on this, as a recommend) but it falls flat here, inexplicably. I love a good death scene on screen and Mortal Kombat has enough to go around but they feel almost anachronistic in their cartoonishness. I know, it’s probably intended to feel like the way you remember the video game, but considering how realistic cinema has become in the last decade or so it all feels a tad fake, too clean and manufactured. This shouldn’t detract from your enjoyment of the various body-shredding moments of blood, however, but it’s a tonal issue I noticed from my personal viewpoint.

If I had a chief criticism that wasn’t to do with performance and/or story, it would be that the film often felt too tightly constrained, lacking the cosmic width a property such as this ought to enjoy. Whilst we glimpsed realms outside of Earth, the film struggled to manifest any real sense of scale outside the immediate plight of the central heroes. The scope of Mortal Kombat seemed small, sadly, despite the sheer ludicrousness of what transpires. Perhaps it was budget, perhaps producer mandate prevented the film from showcasing previous Kombat tournaments or delving deeper into the legacy of the games, whatever it was this opening instalment of Mortal Kombat’s reboot had a smell of small steps about it. The obligatory hint at a sequel could pave the way for wider, grander action to come, but that’s what I wanted to experience this time.

Mortal Kombat has no pretension, no sense of its own self-importance. It’s fast, furious fun with blood, gore and snazzy visual effects (shoutout to local Adelaide VFX firm Rising Sun Pictures!) and more than enough fan service to satisfy the hard-core gamers. Some may baulk at the film introducing a new character in Cole Young, but I found both he and actor Lewis Tan did enough to warrant my emotional investment (comparatively speaking, at least). For a film based on a simple fighting game I didn’t expect Oscar-level writing or performances, just a fun blast of blood, fatalities and people speaking in dire pronouncements instead of actual human conversation. I got what I expected.