“Mortal Kombat”- Movie Review

Truth be told, my only exposure to the Mortal Kombat franchise is through that awesome theme song. I have never played the games, nor have I seen the notorious so-bad-they’re-good film adaptations from the 90s (though I’ve seen YouTube reviews of the movies, so technically I have seen them). Everything I know about Mortal Kombat comes from the song- the tone, the characters’ names, the fact that it’s about testing one’s might, I guess. Given how little I know about this franchise, you can imagine how lower than low my expectations were for its latest venture to the big screen.

Based on Ed Boon’s and John Tobias’s hit video game franchise of the same name, Mortal Kombat 2021 adopts a fish-out-of-water type of story to re-introduce its audience to this universe. Leading us through the narrative is Cole Young (played by Lewis Tan), a former MMA champion who’s chosen to participate in a fantastical tournament called, you guessed it, Mortal Kombat. The tournament brings together Earth’s finest champions and pits them against enemy fighters from the mysterious Outworld led by the villainous Shang Tsung (Ng Chin Han). With the fate of the universe on the line, Cole realizes he has two choices- accept his destiny, or run and risk setting the Earth on course for total destruction.

Mortal Kombat 2021 is exactly what I’d expected it to be- dumb fun. It finds a happy medium between gritty realism and over-the-top fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it takes its concept seriously enough to craft an overall good experience for us, the audience. That being said, it’s not too good a movie. A “meh” movie at worst. Its lackluster narrative and weak character work can’t be disguised by cool action scenes. They are, however, made tolerable by them, just as a flavory sauce can improve an otherwise bland meal.

It’s a fun movie to watch. The action sequences are well choreographed and finely shot. The acting as a whole is pretty good, though some are admittedly stronger than others. Joe Taslin and Hiroyuki Sanada are awesome as Sub-Zero and Scorpion. They’ve got the best chops, performance-wise, and their characters’ rivalry is the most engaging aspect of the film. I also want to give shout-outs to Ludi Lin as Liu Kang (whom you might recognize as the black ranger from the 2017 Power Rangers movie) and Josh Lawson as Kano. Overall I’d say the supporting roles in front of the camera, the tone and the general filmmaking style are pretty good, which is a welcome surprise considering what we usually get from video game adaptations.

shirtless man fighting in cage
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The only thing that brings the movie down is the lead character, that of Cole Young. The problem isn’t with the actor portraying him, Lewis Tan (though it is a teensy part of it). The issue is with how the character is written. In the grand scheme of things, there is no reason for him to exist. Mortal Kombat has a plethora of pre-existing characters, so why not just pluck one of them from the roster and have them navigate us through this world and this story? Honestly, it would’ve made more sense to have either Sonya Blade or Liu Kang take the lead. As thinly written as they were, at least they had motivation. At least they had engaging personalities.

Cole Young is just there, free-floating in a vacuum until the script needs him for a fight scene. The dynamics of his personal relationships aren’t made clear from the get-go (it wasn’t until the third act when I realized the young girl wasn’t his younger sister but, in fact, his daughter), and he doesn’t really engage with the fantasy world he’s thrust into. At least with the Harry Potter series, for example, when the main character, Harry, is introduced to the wizarding world, he engages with the new environment. He reacts to it with awe, shock, disgust, curiosity. He asks questions, he gets involved in the action, and he’s eager to learn more about how that world works. That kind of drive is absent in the Cole Young character. The film doesn’t establish a motivation for him. We don’t know why he wants to fulfill his destiny and compete in the tournament. The impression is that he wants to because, well, just because.

Despite having a lead as engaging as a dish towel, Mortal Kombat is a thoroughly pleasant sit. I didn’t go into it expecting greatness, and if you do, you’re heading into the wrong movie. Sure, it takes its concept seriously, but at its core it is a pure popcorn flick, plain and simple. It could’ve been stronger if the focus of the narrative was on something or someone other than the protagonist we got. Also, it’s disappointing that the Mortal Kombat tournament wasn’t featured in the film. But from what I’ve heard, this is supposed to kick off a five movie franchise An ambitious plan, for sure. If that’s the case, then I can understand why they’d want to save the actual tournament for later on. Nonetheless, this is a fine first chapter of a would-be series. It’s a film that feels perfectly suited for straight-to-streaming, yet whose follow ups I wouldn’t mind seeing on the big screen. 

Cosmic Grade- 3.3/5 Stars

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