Mortal Kombat (2021) (Review)

It would not be a cynical reboot if Mortal Kombat didn’t spend the whole film setting up a much more interesting sequel. This frustrating trend reaches perhaps its zenith in this non-movie that could exist as the opening act of a more interesting film, or could be ditched completely. We spend an hour and thirty-nine minutes (long credits make this film thankfully shorter than it seems) getting known characters to the point that you recognise them, as opposed to just starting off with this familiarity. It is an onerous process, even if it does lead to a fun final fight. Though, this final fight could have been the opening to a much better film.

In this video game adaptation, we are taken through the world of Mortal Kombat by an audience-surrogate, new character: Cole (yes, not Kole). He’s your classic everyman: an MMA fighter with a supportive family, you know, everyday stuff. He also has the marking of the Mortal Kombat logo on his skin and is sure that it’s a birthmark. Turns out it is a symbol that selected special people have that indicates their suitability for a fighting tournament across different planes of existence (realms) and their ability to have super powers. This is not from the games. This is made up nonsense, and bad nonsense. Rather than just having characters be characters here, we have formative sketches of known players who have a birthmark and then randomly get a signature move or look later. And this happens mid-fight or out of nowhere. The most egregious example is when one character, who we spend so much of the movie focusing on how he must find his true self and unleash his inner something or other, just suddenly grows magical armour and two melee weapons. Then just disembowels somebody (well, disembowels a major character from the games – but that character looks awful here, so the quick dispatch is maybe okay). Why make a film all about establishing characters if you are going to magic character development onto everybody?

Of course, this is all an excuse for a sequence of fight scenes that make homage to the video game. There is, admittedly, some pleasing attention to detail throughout this process. In the opening battle they not only nail Scorpion’s spear move from the game, they even put in the exact right punch after it and then have him combo slightly out of the move. There is a sense that some people that made this actually understand the game and want to put legitimate details in there. As a big Mortal Kombat fan, I really enjoyed this. Characters do, mostly, the right moves and the combat (or Kombat) sequences show a knowledge of the fighting system. There’s a great moment with a repeated swipe kick that is very funny. Yet, this is hampered by lacklustre filmmaking. Yes, this is action scene after action scene but scenes uniformly lack impact – though there are some cool moments. There is some ingenuity and flair to the fighting but it is masked by fast cuts and irritating camera movements. The fights never just play out, we have to be looping around or matching camera movement to character movement – which saps a lot of the impact. It is also CG overload and, while I am not anti-CG, the reliance on computer generated violence takes away any weight. You see the things from the video game done to real people but they just look like the things from the video game, which is bizarre. There is no physicality to the ripping bodies so it feels a bit flat. A famous fatality happens part way through and just does nothing.

The handling of characters is also a problem. Little to nothing is done with them and the plot gets too strangely complicated whilst also being barely a plot – it’s just a mess, really. The performances are shoddy across the board, apart from Josh Lawson as Kano. Kano is awfully written and used quite poorly, but the performance is really engaging and adds a lot of fun to a character that barely works. Lawson says terrible lines but brings a swagger and presence to the role that makes the film work more than anything else does. The Scorpion and Sub-Zero incarnations are pulled off well enough, though exist in tertiary roles. This is another example of how the film builds up to the film it should be, rather than starting from it. Damon Herriman is also good as the voice of Kabal, another character that shows more promise than the movie. There is the feeling that Kano and Kabal are from a different and more interesting movie, especially considering how their characters are linked. They seem to just be doing that film in the background and I wanted to watch that one.

So, while there are pleasing moments of fan service and moments of creative violence (there’s a moment with a frozen blood knife that rules), this film is severely disappointing. It is all build-up with little to no pay-off and, at the end, feels entirely superfluous. Nothing is really gained from watching it but, also, it is not a terrible time. It is often serviceable and the action, though mediocrely handled, is viscerally entertaining.

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