‘Mortal Kombat (2021)’ Review: Blood, Guts, but Where’s the Heart?

Centuries after the brutal murder of his ancestor and his family, Cole Young (Lewis Tan) is attacked by the same mysterious assassin (Joe Taslim). He soon learns that he has been selected as a champion for the crucial tournament fought between warring realms. The heroes of earthrealm train hard to defeat the champions of outworld as the evil Sorcerer Shang Tsung plots to undermine the entire tournament and claim Earthrealm for himself.

The second attempt to adapt the lore-rich, long-running Mortal Kombat videogame series is certainly more likely to please fans. In fact anyone unfamiliar with the mythos and characters will probably find themselves fairly confused. After a fabulously self-contained and very involving opening sequence we cut to such bizarre places as the Netherealm and outworld without any fanfare or explanation. In one particularly egregious example the characters assert they must find Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) who has yet to appear in the film. From this declaration we cut to a woman with twin Sai blades on her back. Anyone would be forgiven for thinking this is the only-just aforementioned Ms Blade. Such traps are manifold.

This isn’t to say that the film is entirely faithful, however, and there are some decisions that will prove controversial. Firstly the choice to introduce a new character to serve as audience surrogate recalls action-adventure adaptations of the 80s and 90s, and seems particularly unnecessary as the pre-existing characters are both sympathetic and crying out for more screen-time. Similarly the need for fodder for the gory kills means that a few characters are greatly reduced to the role of henchmen. Most difficult for me was the decision to explain away all of the extraordinary abilities of the fighters as stemming from one source. The games featured characters who acquired their unique traits from their unique backgrounds, here it’s something akin to the force in which power is acquired only through self-realisation or expression. Most comically is Jax’s ability to grow robotic arms. This makes the universe feel smaller and less interesting.

However, taken as a standalone action-martial arts movie it has to be said that the film is fairly entertaining. The fight sequences struggle against the considerable handicap of having been filmed by a Hollywood film crew. Consequently there is excessive editing that disguises any choreography, breaking the fluidity and impact of the fighting, and the reliance on CGI doubles over actual stunt work. It is, however and in spite of the film makers best efforts, some impressive ability on display from the cast and stunt team. The gore may be nearly entirely computer generated but it’s inventive and excessive enough to be entertaining nevertheless.

The plot is mostly arbitrary, eschewing even the tournament structure of the original game and it’s remake. Instead we have a prolonged training montage and then a sudden final confrontation. The cast all look the part but only a few performers really bring their characters to life. In particular, Josh Lawson steals the show as the psychotic Australian mercenary Kano who manages to be both funny and threatening. In an absolutely tiny role, Daniel Nelson is more memorable as Kabal than many of his more prominent co-stars. Tadanobu Asano plays Raiden with a benevolent glee that recalls Christopher Lambert’s cheeky performance. But whilst comparing to the 95 film, it has to be said that Chin Han comes up short when compared to Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in terms of moustache-twirling glee.

Mortal Kombat (2021) is sure to make some fans happy, with a few reservations. For everyone else there is a learning curve that is just about worth struggling through. It’s an entertaining adventure with a few memorable characters and the odd well-shot fight sequence. It is frustrating that there is such potential within the world and characters of Mortal Kombat to make something not only completely absorbing and fun, but also surprisingly moving as the games have started to grapple with meatier themes. For now, this is a superior adaptation, though the victory is hardly flawless.

Three Stars

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