Review: Mortal Kombat (2021)

While the 1990s Mortal Kombat movie was cheesy fun, it wasn’t quite the film that fans of the game franchise wanted… primarily because it was PG-13, and thus bloodless and tame. It didn’t help that its sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, was one of the most legendarily bad movies of all time.

And so, nearly twenty-five years later, we have been graced by a new Mortal Kombat reboot which promises the fatalities, the gore, and the endless swearing from Kano. Its biggest problem is that it’s a build-up to a tournament that will apparently happen in the sequel, meaning that it’s mostly a lot of people running around fighting with little purpose… but hey, it’s mindlessly entertaining, bloody and acrobatic running around.

The main character is Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a past-his-prime MMA fighter who regularly gets beaten up for $200 a pop. The glaring problem with this character is simple: he’s very boring and generic. There’s really not much to him except his family lineage – he is Completely Normal Guy who serves as an audience proxy.

But then he and his family are attacked by a cryomantic Chinese ninja known as Sub-Zero, who really wants them dead. They’re rescued by Jax (Mehcad Brooks), an ex-soldier with the same dragon marking that Cole has, although he loses both arms in a fight with Sub-Zero. Fellow ex-soldier Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) explains that the dragon marking is a sign of being chosen for a great interdimensional tournament known as Mortal Kombat.

After an attack by a reptilian monster, Cole and Sonya convince a scummy criminal named Kano (Josh Lawson) – who has also acquired a dragon marking – to lead them to the god Raiden’s temple. Once there, Cole and Kano begin training under fellow champions Kung Lao (Max Huang) and Liu Kang (Ludi Lin). However, the evil soul-eating sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) is determined to kill Earth’s champions before the tournament even begins, and invades Raiden’s temple.

If there’s one word to describe the Mortal Kombat reboot, it’s “setup.” The entire movie is essentially a setup for the actual Mortal Kombat tournament, and everything that happens within that movie is a setup for some kind of epic fight scene. And in that regard, it works pretty well – the third act is almost wall-to-wall mortal kombat, with plenty of exploding heads, bodies sawed in half, and the occasional evisceration.

And as far as the plot is concerned, the “setup” status is perhaps its weakness – there’s not really much plot here, just the heroes getting together, trying to develop superpowers, getting their butts kicked, regrouping, and then fighting with the myriad colorful bad guys. The closest to a true plot is the feud between Sub-Zero and Scorpion that spans centuries and dimensional boundaries. That subplot is the powerhouse of the movie, and the epicness of their eventual clash is almost cathartic.

It has a fairly good cast as well – Tan does as good a job as anyone could with his nondescript character, and it has solid performances by Brooks, Lin and Huang. McNamee is a strong female character of the type we need more of – intelligent, fierce, smart, compassionate and moral – and Hiroyuki Sanada is absolutely brilliant in his brief screen-time. Lawson’s Kano is also a complete delight to watch – he is so unabashedly, over-the-top vile that it makes him almost lovable.

It’s light on story and heavy on gory, making the “Mortal Kombat” reboot a film that is best appreciated with your brain turned off. It’s an entertaining spectacle for people who want some gore and guts, but you’ll have to wait for the sequel for any actual tournament action.

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