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Mortal Kombat Review

April 23, 2021 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
Mortal Kombat Lewis Tan Image Credit: Warner Bros.
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Mortal Kombat Review  

Directed By: Simon McQuoid
Written By: Greg Russo, Dave Callaham and Oren Uziel; Based on the video game created by Ed Boon and John Tobias
Runtime: 110 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong bloody violence and language throughout and some crude references

Lewis Tan – Cole Young
Jessica McNamee – Sonya Blade
Hiroyuki Sanada – Hanzo Hasashi/Scorpion
Joe Taslim – Bi-Han/Sub-Zero
Mehcad Brooks – Jax
Josh Lawson – Kano
Chin Han – Shang Tsung
Liu Kang – Ludi Lin
Kung Lao – Max Huang
Lord Raiden – Tadanobu Asano
Matilda Kimber – Emily
Laura Brent – Allison
Sisi Stringer – Mileena
Mel Jarnson – Nitara
Nathan Jones – Reiko
Daniel Nelson – Kabal

Mortal Kombat fans have waited a long time for another movie. The original 1995 live-action movie based on the iconic fighting game franchise of the same name was by no means a classic, but at least it represents the possibility that a film based on a video game can be kind of good. Sadly, fans of the games have endured a wide range of awful adaptations when it comes to the Mortal Kombat franchise, from bad TV shows, such as Mortal Kombat: Conquest, to the downright ugly Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. While the new live-action Mortal Kombat film has building blocks and certain elements that would have served a better film, the results are largely bad.

Mortal Kombat begins with a rather decent prologue, but it’s at odds with the rest of the movie. It does not fit what the remainder of the film turns out to be. Regardless, the compelling tragedy of Hanzo Hasashi (Sanada) is short-lived. Enter Cole Young (Tan); the washed-up former MMA champion-turned-back alley, cab driving (TM, Credit Pat Mullen) tomato can who isn’t even good enough to have his losses listed on his Wikipedia page. Cole Young is so washed up that he has to get his hands wrapped by his wife Allison (Brent), and he has to use his daughter Emily (Kimber) as his sole cornerman. The fact that Allison is even his wife is dubious. The development of Cole Young as a character is so threadbare, it’s unclear whether Allison is his girlfriend, wife or baby mama.

It seems Cole Young has been touched by destiny. Since birth, he’s had a birthmark on his shoulder resembling a dragon that marks him as one of the chosen Kombatants for the ancient rite of Mortal Kombat. The chosen Kombatants of various dimensions does battle for dominion. Unfortunately, planet Earth lost its last nine tournaments to Outworld, led by the cruel sorcerer Shang Tsung (Han). Should Earthrealm lose one more tournament, that will grant dominion over their dimension to Outworld. On the precipice of victory, Shang Tsung now seeks to snuff out all the chosen defenders of Earthrealm before the tournament can even start.

So, there’s no tournament. The crux of the plot is that Shang Tsung wants to eliminate his competition, so he can grab an easy win by forfeit. Tsung’s attempt to block the tournament is not the issue, but certainly, the jettison of the whole “Mortal Kombat” aspect of Mortal Kombat is a bold, if head-scratching, maneuver. It makes this movie’s premise more like a pilot for an ongoing television series than a gathering of the universe’s greatest martial artists in an epic battle for inter-dimensional supremacy.

This is commonplace in attempted blockbusters. They tend to dangle the carrot and tease the audience with the idea of what’s desired and save it all for the next movie. The cool things are saved for the next installment that might never materialize. This movie wants to be a franchise starter, but the problem is that the film spends so much time setting up future installments by neglecting the present cinematic experience at hand. So, there’s lots of obnoxious sequel-baiting in Mortal Kombat. Want to see this character? Want a tournament film? Maybe next time.

The largest problem with Mortal Kombat is the center of the movie, and there’s no getting around it: the protagonist Cole Young. Even his name sounds boring. As a game series, Mortal Kombat has managed to endure for nearly 30 years. It’s a fighting game series, and a fighting game series is built on its roster of dynamic, compelling fighters. Throughout the years, Mortal Kombat has built up a sizable roster that ranges from undead ninjas, cyborgs, demons and inter-dimensional despots to anthropomorphic bug people, Tarkatans, Centaurians and even guest stars like RoboCop and the Terminator. For the new Mortal Kombat movie, director Simon McQouid and writers Greg Russo and Dave Callaham opt to invent a new character that has never before appeared in a game. Unfortunately, while Lewis Tan finally gets the chance at the spotlight and a major role, he’s not able to make Cole Young a worthy addition to the Mortal Kombat mythos. All Cole Young does is take away valuable screen time and development from the characters the plot should feature.

Cole Young encapsulates a bigger problem for would-be Hollywood blockbusters, whether it’s video game adaptations, comic book superhero films or genre features. It has long been an execrable convention for films such as Mortal Kombat to force such cookie-cutter audience surrogate characters into their plots. The convention of a fabricated audience surrogate not only shows complete and utter contempt for the very audience the story attempts to cater to, and more often than not serves to undercut the story.

Cole Young is the epitome of bad audience surrogate characters who are forced and contrived into a story where they don’t belong. What’s worse is that Cole Young is forced into a story based on a mythology that is littered with infinitely more interesting and compelling characters that would have served as superior protagonists. Yes, let a character serve as the window into a larger, weaving narrative that’s filled with oddball characters and concepts, but an existing character in established mythology can just as easily serve as the window into that narrative.

Cole Young is bland. Lewis Tan looks like he’s capable as far as the fighting, martial arts and stunt work are concerned, but he’s never really able to bring this character to life. What’s also strange is that Tan has shown superior work before, even in smaller micro roles, such as Deadpool 2 or Iron Fist. So, a lot of the film’s bad acting, stilted performances and dialogue have to be hung on the heads of Simon McQuoid and co-writers Russo and Callaham.

To sum up the acting in Mortal Kombat in a single word is awkward. Everything looks and sounds off. Even Lewis Tan’s forced American accent sounds phony. That’s another problem with these major blockbusters — forcing actors to use bad accents they are not good at. Does it matter if Cole Young is British like Lewis Tan? He’s a made-up character created specifically to talk down to the movie’s audience. The idea of Cole sounding British isn’t as awkward as him using a clunky American accent.

Even worse is the film’s chief antagonist, Shang Tsung, as portrayed by Chin Han. Shang Tsung is one of Mortal Kombat’s most iconic and memorable villains, going all the way back to 1992. In this film, he’s about as menacing as a tiny splinter. To give some credit to Chin Han, he’s had strong performances before. He’s a quality, veteran actor. Additionally, this is a tough role to play. How do you walk the line between being able to take a character like Shang Tsung seriously without making him goofy or ridiculous? Unfortunately, this version of Shang Tsung is not a believable threat.

Tadanaobu Asano is even worse in the hands of a first-time director such as McQuoid. While the filmmakers can’t seem to agree upon any type of internal consistency for how a Thunder God and his powers work, Asano cannot seem to decide on any type of character or personality for Raiden. Even when Asano tries to sound grumpy, he is not convincing.

The best performance in the movie is undoubtedly Hiroyuki Sanada as Scorpion. Unlike Tan’s Cole Young, Sanada has an actual presence. Sanada is convinced of Scorpion’s tragic history, and he shows that conviction here. He’s the closest thing the movie comes to a quality performance.

Also, Josh Lawson is entertaining as longtime heel Kombatant Kano. Lawson’s Kano appears to be the only one having a good time. Lawson’s just gloriously chewing up the scenery and does not care about any collateral damage that gets caught in the fray. For a character like Kano, that works. In a film that’s filled with a lot of unnatural, awkward, stilted acting, Kano’s mirthful charisma is good.

Liu Kang and Kung Lao, two of the greatest heroes in the Mortal Kombat Universe, are present in the plot, but they’ve been marginalized at the price of serving the contrived journey of discovery for Cole Young. What’s fascinating is that there is one scene that provides some decent character development for Liu Kang (Ludi Lin). Liu Kang manages to be intriguing enough to describe an infinitely better premise for a new Mortal Kombat movie than the origin story of Cole Young. Ludi Lin and Max Huang are not great in the roles of Liu Kang and Kung Lao, but they do show enough that the movie probably should have been about them rather than Cole Young.

A lot of people are not going to be watching Mortal Kombat for competent acting. The movie does have copious amounts of fighting, blood and gore. It earns its R-rating, and there are a few kills and satisfying moments. Also, there’s a lot of that goofy, CG blood spatter, which seldom looks good. Blood and gore have long been a trademark staple of the franchise, but it appears to have come at the cost of competent direction and performances.

Another issue with the film is its CG. It’s strange how in the last three decades or so that CG visual effects have become the norm for Hollywood blockbusters, that CG-animated visual effects seem to have only gotten worse compared to the best productions of the 1990s. The CG for Goro’s brief appearance is decent. Sub-Zero’s ice effects look good, but then there’s winged vampire beast, Nitara, who looks like she was yanked out of a bargain bin D movie, cheap CG and all.

Unfortunately, that sense of cheapness pervades a large portion of the movie. Many of the fight scenes tend to happen on very small-scale, claustrophobic sets. The few large-scale setpieces do not appear to have been visually rendered all that well. It’s either that, or a large part of the action takes place in Raiden’s temple. There are attempts to give the temple a large sense of scale and scope, but the only scenes where the characters interact with each other are in tiny, cramped rooms. Even the fighting arena pit in Raiden’s temple looks small and cheap.

Sadly, a number of important characters are wasted. Goro has very little to do here. Sadly, Mileena (Sisi Stringer) gets no backstory. Apparently, the filmmakers are big Kabal fans because Kabal weirdly has more dialogue and backstory depicted in the film than Mileena, despite her history in the lore. Kabal’s dialogue is unceremoniously shoveled into the middle of the movie, when he suddenly shows up about a minute beforehand. The voice that was chosen for Kabal sounds weird, to say the least. Raiden is less useless than usual. The tragic figure of Scorpion is largely left aside; again, to service the emergence of Cole Young’s abilities.

The film’s writers, Russo and Callaham are never really able to gel the plot’s disparate elements. The strong prologue seems like it belongs in a different movie; a Scorpion and Sub-Zero origin story about the ancient blood feud and rivalry between the Hazashi and Lin Kuei clans. Then, there’s the whole inter-dimensional martial arts aspect of Mortal Kombat, where the tournament is eschewed to help establish the Cole Young origin, and Mortal Kombatants unlocking their super powers, or “Arcana” as it’s called here. At the very least, partial credit is due for the writers’ attempt to include and explain characters shooting fire balls or using special attacks, even if it is rather clunky.

To sum up the new live-action adaptation of Mortal Kombat, the best adaptation of the franchise remains Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1995 film. What little potential is found within Mortal Kombat is squandered in servicing an annoying audience surrogate character where the last movie he belongs is one like Mortal Kombat.

The final score: review Bad
The 411
The more obvious character Lewis Tan should have portrayed is stared right in the face at one point during Mortal Kombat, but that irony seems to be completely lost here. For Mortal Kombat lovers, this is not a glorious return to form. That said, for some, seeing some of these iconic characters brought to life might be enough, especially now with some copious blood and gore elements. Unfortunately, the positive aspects of Mortal Kombat are not enough to elevate a bland, forced audience surrogate character, a feckless script and stilted direction with underwhelming acting. On top of that are some rather cheap looking sets and production values, and some really undercooked CG visuals. To put it simply, it has not begun.