For generations the story of ‘Mortal Kombat’, and Outworld’s attempt to conquer Earthrealm, has been passed down. With nearly thirty years of video games, movies, TV shows, comics and more, one would expect a 2021 film adaptation to have plenty of material to create a truly spectacular film that breaks away from the notorious ‘video game movie’ curse. Yet, while Mortal Kombat manages to capture the explosive essence of the fighting game franchise with plenty of fan-service and gore, it falls short in effectively illustrating the rich history and lore of the franchise.
Mortal Kombat, directed by Simon McQuoid, follows Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a MMA fighter who learns that he’s one of several others, chosen to protect Earth from the clutches of the evil sorcerer, Shang Tsung (Chin Han), and the Outworld, a realm hell bent on conquering Earth.
Driven to protect his family, Cole and Earth’s champions, which include the interesting lineup of Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Jax (Mechad Brooks), Kano (Josh Lawson), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang), band together to defeat Shang Tsung and his henchmen.
Mortal Kombat also somewhat follows the story of the bitter rivalry between Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) of the Japanese Shirai Ryu ninja clan and Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) of the Chinese Lin Kuei assassins clan.
With two major stories within the ‘Mortal Kombat’ lore to explore, it’s no wonder that the film’s story-telling is inconsistent with a lack of cohesion. Though the beginning of the film teases an expansion of the rivalry plot line, which would have set up the brilliant clash between Scorpion (Hanzo) and Sub-Zero (Bi-Han), the storyline unfortunately falls flat. It comes across as lacking given that the film immediately switches to the Cole Young plot, something that felt incredibly jarring without a smooth transition to truly explain what had transpired over the centuries following the opening scene of the film.
Given that the film is catered toward both fans and those new to the franchise, the lack of care in character development, with virtually no backstory explained, made it challenging to appreciate the film. Despite a twenty-six year gap between this version of Mortal Kombat and the very first Mortal Kombat feature film in 1995, the latter managed to craft a better, more satisfying tale than the plot-hole ridden 2021 film.
The absence of character development was disappointing. With each character featured in the film coming from a rich background, as portrayed in the source material, skirting over their history and what drives them made it feel as if the film failed these characters.
The assumption that audiences should already know these characters intimately, while introducing a brand new character to essentially retell the story of ‘Mortal Kombat’ for newcomers, felt contradictory. It was almost as if Mortal Kombat couldn’t decide what kind of film it wanted to be. What’s more, having incredibly notable characters simply be thugs to do their master’s bidding, felt unnerving.
One of the main reasons behind my love for ‘Mortal Kombat’ stems from the fact that the mere mortals of Earthrealm were capable enough to defeat monsters, sorcerers and supernatural beings of Outworld. Their abilities stemmed through sheer dedication to their craft. From memory, the human characters didn’t need to unlock any magical powers in order to go up against their enemies. In this most recent adaptation of the franchise, not only were the characters underdeveloped, but some ‘unlocked’ their powers through moments of ‘intense emotion’ (I use the word intense very lightly given these moments didn’t feel all too intense at all). This made them appear weak and unable to withstand supernatural enemies on their own. Changing the characters’ abilities and essentially what makes them who they are in the ‘Mortal Kombat’ universe destroyed the hope that mere mortals could save the world.
Now, while story, character development and essentially the heart of the film was disappointing, Mortal Kombat still managed to be an entertaining action film worthy of the big screen. Right from the get go, the fight scenes were tremendous and incredibly well choreographed. Each character fighting in the film truly illustrated their martial arts abilities well, in a way that was seamless and astonishing to watch on screen.
The eye-catching combat, coupled with brutal gore, fitting of ‘Mortal Kombat’ was unmatched, making it by far one of the best action films I’ve seen in some time. This of course, was aided by the striking visual effects and costuming, which only made the film more visually appealing. It was impossible to take your eyes off the characters, especially during combat scenes. Next to combat, costumes and visuals, what really helped save the film for me, was Josh Lawson’s Kano and Max Huang’s Kung Lao.
Kano’s quick wit, casual arrogance and full on Aussie ‘bloke-ness’ was exceptional. Then there’s the stoic arrogance of Kung Lao. Where Kano’s charm came from being brash and comedic, Kung Lao’s appeal came from his prowess with his razor rimmed hat and his ability to get on Kano’s nerves. Furthermore, the brilliant choice of casting Asian actors to portray Asian characters, was what truly made Mortal Kombat special given the lack of Asian representation in cinematic films in the past. It was brilliant to see well versed actors being given protagonist roles that allowed them to shine and bring justice to their characters (despite the script holding these characters back).
Overall, Mortal Kombat is a film that I can’t decide whether I liked or disliked. The film managed to overcome the ‘video-game movie curse’ with its action packed combat scenes and visuals, entertaining audiences with plenty of fan service to keep them coming back for more. However, the entertainment factor comes at the cost of substance.
I’ll be watching the film again on the world’s biggest screen at IMAX Melbourne. Hopefully a second viewing on a much larger screen will allow me to settle on a decision of whether I enjoyed the film or not.