2021 | R | starring Lewis Tan, Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson | directed by Simon McQuoid | 1 hr 50 mins |
Like Tomb Raider and Sonic the Hedgehog, the 2021 adaptation of Mortal Kombat feels like the work of people who have actually played – and are nostalgic for – the game it’s based on. This may sound like a small thing, but after 90s/00s adaptations that used game licenses to sucker bait kids into parting with their cash, it’s a cultural shift in how movies treat video games. Movies and video games are two distinct art forms, a reality that both mediums would do be better to understand more, s0 making a faithful game adaptation doesn’t exactly make a good movie. That’s why I found this Mortal Kombat so much fun and refreshing. It both stays faithful to characters and spirit of the game throwing in heaps of fan service, while at the same time twisting and pulling it into a narrative structure more suited to a movie. It will be an unsolvable problem as long as Hollywood insists on adapting tournament fighting games to film.
Mortal Kombat (a game that at one time was turned into public enemy number one during the 90s political crackdown on video games – Hillary Clinton equating them to lead poisoning- and that’s violence spurred the creation of the video game rating system, the ESRB) hit the screens in 1995 with Paul W. S. Anderson’s PG-13 teen-friendly martial arts movie that was more soundtrack than film. That first-time director Simon McQuoid’s adaptation is R rated and delightfully gory is immediately more satisfying. The first scene, set in feudal Japan is actually, legitimately good, before it descends into modern day, limb-ripping, fun schlock.
The film is presented with a problem I’m not sure how to solve and McQuoid struggles with that tug of war throughout it’s running time (or just slaps the script on the screen, I can’t tell). The reality is a movie about a martial arts tournament (even one with elemental magic) isn’t that compelling a narrative – however, at the same time the more you pull away from that, the less the movie becomes authentically a Mortal Kombat adaptation. I have no expectation that a Mortal Kombat movie can ever really be that good. Even bringing in Gareth Evans to make The Raid with magic probably wouldn’t satisfy fans.
To that end, this adaptation is interesting in how it tries to weave this crazy IP around a Hollywood plot that drops mystics in the modern world. The film follow’s Cole Young (Lewis Tan, Into the Badlands), an MMA gym fighter who learns he is part of a lineage of mystical champions chosen from each planet to compete in an intergalactic tournament in the Outworld when he is attacked by ice-wielding Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), saved by mortal Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and sent on a quest to stop Sub-Zero from eliminating the chosen before the tournament. There is an inherent silliness to watching these characters interact with the real world and it was a silliness I was down for. From Sub-Zero, smartly poised as the movie’s arch villain, freezing snow in the air and launching it through a cafe or a winged villain being introduced and immediately sliced in half by Kung Lau spinning his razor-hat like a saw.
There is a scene in this movie where a character says “I’ve returned from Hell to fight you” and nobody says a word about it. There is also no tournament and a character journey where Cole learns about his heritage instead. Characters literally say game catch-phrases like “Flawless victory”. The sheer blatant ridiculousness of it all is pretty funny.
The opening is legitimately good, the first act is fun, the 2nd act is way too talky for a movie like this and the third act is giddy budget-friendly fan service. I’m not sure if a “good” Mortal Kombat movie can be made, but this one is at least a fun, bloody, step in the right direction. Mortal Kombat is high camp and knows it, nervy enough to set up a sequel nobody will probably ask for. For those in the mood for this level of silliness, it satisfied my Friday night blood-lust.