The world’s most brutal video game franchise finally made its return to the big screen on April 23 with the release of “Mortal Kombat.” The film was dropped both in theaters and on the HBO Max streaming service, making it easier than ever for moviegoers to watch the first live-action “Mortal Kombat” film since 1997’s disastrous “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation.”
While the hype for the new film was at an all-time high thanks to its amazing trailer, the film itself has opened with mixed reviews. The polarizing nature of the film is indicative of the challenges that come with video game adaptations. There’s certainly much to dissect with “Mortal Kombat,” as the film gets a lot of things right despite making some missteps along the way.
For the uninitiated, the concept of Mortal Kombat — both in the games and in the film — centers around a fighting tournament between different dimensions, or “realms,” held every generation. Each realm must send their best fighters to do battle in single-elimination fights against a competing realm. If one realm achieves 10 straight victories against another, then the winning realm has the right to invade the other.
Interestingly, the 2021 “Mortal Kombat” film chooses to focus on the gathering of Earthrealm fighters in preparation for the tournament as opposed to the tournament itself. The movie opens in 17th century Japan and depicts the bloody origins of the rivalry between Scorpion and Sub-Zero, the franchise’s two most iconic characters.
Unfortunately, the film struggles to find its footing and meanders a bit after its near-flawless opening. Following the bloody setup between Scorpion and Sub-Zero, the film jumps forward to the present day where the audience is introduced to MMA fighter Cole Young, played by Lewis Tan. Young shares an ancestral connection to Scorpion, thus making him a target for Sub-Zero, who is on a mission to hunt down each of Earthrealm’s chosen fighters. Herein lies one of the major problems with the film: Cole Young simply doesn’t work as the main protagonist.
Young’s character and his connection to Scorpion are completely new to the Mortal Kombat franchise. The decision to use a new character as the film’s main protagonist is an odd one, considering that there are nearly 100 other fighters in the series’s catalog to choose from. This places an unneeded burden on the film to develop and maintain an audience’s interest in a character that both fans and first-timers are completely unfamiliar with. Using a new character wouldn’t be an issue if done correctly, but unfortunately, Young’s inclusion in the film falls completely flat.
It almost feels like his character is doomed to fail by being forced to follow the amazing performances of Hiroyuki Sanada and Joe Taslim as Scorpion and Sub-Zero, respectively. Most of Tan’s work prior to playing Cole Young was in stunts, and it certainly shows in his performance. While Tan displays all the physical attributes of an experienced fighter, his acting simply comes across as flat and uninspiring. His stiff performance isn’t helped by his generic backstory and personality.
Additionally, while Young’s wife and daughter are barely given any screen time, the film expects the audience to care about them later on. Narratively, it appears that Young’s greatest contribution to the film is functioning as an expositional tool for Sonya to explain the concept of the tournament.
The focus on Young’s initiation to the Mortal Kombat world unfortunately takes away from some of the franchise’s most iconic characters. Liu Kang, arguably one of the most important characters in the series and Earthrealm’s greatest champion, is somewhat relegated to a supporting role. He and his cousin Kung Lao are simply used as vessels for Young to learn from and completely lack any impacting presence in the film.
While other characters such as Sonya and Jax contribute as much as one could expect, it’s Kano who truly ends up carrying the film. Played by Josh Lawson, Kano’s witty and oftentimes insulting banter makes for some funny moments, but can come across as grating after a while.
Despite the questionable protagonist, “Mortal Kombat” redeems itself with amazing fight choreography, costumes and special effects. The opening scene depicting Scorpion slaughtering a gang of Sub-Zero’s ninjas with his iconic throwing knife is breathtaking. When the two rivals engage in battle, it truly feels like an epic confrontation between two lethal martial arts experts.
Not all the fights are beautifully edited, however. Many of the battles are riddled with cuts to different angles that can disorient the viewer and obscure some of the action taking place on screen. This isn’t a huge problem as much as it is a nitpick, because if there’s one thing a “Mortal Kombat” movie should get right, it’s the fights.
The film is at its best when it focuses on the buildup and release of tension as these otherworldly characters give viewers a taste of what their favorite fighters would feel like in real life. Near the beginning of the film, audiences get to experience a fully-costumed Sub-Zero creepily invading a modern city setting. As the cold-blooded assassin nears, frost ominously forms on the surrounding environments, warning the protagonists of his impending presence. One of the most exciting parts of the film is watching him rain down shards of ice onto cars, buildings and befuddled civilians.
It wouldn’t be a “Mortal Kombat” movie without brutal fatalities, and this film definitely delivers on that end. Anyone looking for the trademark Mortal Kombat carnage from the games won’t be disappointed as arms are removed, holes are blasted through chests, and someone is literally sawed in half with a hat. The cartoonish violence is wonderfully translated into live-action with excellent special effects that would have been unachievable in the Mortal Kombat films of the ‘90s.
This mixture of realism and mysticism translates beautifully onto the screen and shines especially bright with the costume design. Both Sub-Zero and Scorpion’s costumes do an excellent job of maintaining a balance between realism and staying true to the series. The same can be said for other iconic characters from the franchise, with Lui Kang, Kung Lao and Jax looking like they were plucked right out of the game.
Ultimately, “Mortal Kombat” is a mixed bag of a movie. The decision to focus on Cole Young’s character is arguably the film’s biggest downfall. However, the movie does redeem itself with a flawless depiction of Scorpion and Sub-Zero, who could easily carry any future sequels on their backs. For those looking to see their favorite characters beat each other senseless on screen, the film delivers; however, in the process, viewers must bear through some stiff acting and questionable narrative choices. Regardless, fans of the series should look forward to seeing more of the exciting universe this film establishes and all the fatalities that’ll come with it.