For your reading pleasure, this review is totally spoiler-free
Let’s be honest, I thought that the Sonic the Hedgehog film had somehow made a dark bargain to achieve the success that it did, cursing video game properties to a thousand years of cinema darkness. While Monster Hunter wasn’t an entirely dreadful film, it did have enough questionable decisions within it that I pondered the level of excitement I should allow myself for something I was truly looking forward to – Simon McQuoid’s Mortal Kombat. I was effectively smothering my own anticipation with a nice comfy pillow, in the hopes that if I kept my expectations critically low, I could walk away pleasantly surprised with even a mid-range stinker.
Mortal Kombat as a property has a special place in my heart. I have written many an article on the bloody tapestry that paints its colourful (mostly red) history. I never imagined I would find myself in the position I am in now – having watched 2021’s cinematic entry, and now preparing to share my thoughts. I am appreciative that the talented people that put this film together have made my job a fun one, because I was dreading the thought of being the bearer of bad news. Spoiler: It’s good.
I bet Raiden can fast charge his phone without using a cable
It is a relief to say Mortal Kombat is more than merely competent. Such a blasé descriptor represents the very lowest end of the benchmark, where the media does the bare minimum to meet expectations. Instead it revels in a well thought out interpretation of the absurd MK mythos – resplendent in its many elemental ninjas and ancient prophecies – to deliver an experience that gives established franchise fans plenty to chew on, while also allowing the curious newcomer enough breathing room to grasp that the conflicts have a purpose, regardless of how silly it may be.
And it is conflict that serves as the sturdy, un-ripped spine of this film. While the narrative may have a handful of pacing issues, the fight scenes that punctuate it erupt from the screen with such intensity that you are quick to forgive any exposition-heavy dialogue. For many, they will accept that the plot is a cautionary tale of revenge and mystical forces wishing to invade earth – and the only cure is a healthy dose of well-placed biffo. This aforementioned biffo is shot with such care and attention that I was clearly able to understand who was fighting who at what time, precisely where the upper hand in the fight may be at any given moment – and finally that once the film called for the spilling of blood, it did so in a manner that acknowledged that the film is indeed rated R18+ without being gratuitous or overtly showy. I may be a fan of Mortal Kombat …but I am not in the camp of people that equate the property with the visual of a decapitated body showering blood for a solid 30 seconds like some grotesque lawn sprinkler.
Add some rugged 90s electro-techno and it’s a PARTY
To me it feels obvious that director Simon McQuoid has a background in the time-critical arena of advertisements, because the masterful way he communicates amazing visual beats in such short periods of time is immensely impressive. These miniature timespans maintain a super clean and readable method of moment-to-moment narrative that suits the universe of Mortal Kombat perfectly – the film is clear in its intentions and wholly aware of the limitations it may face. The biggest scenes are very deliberately presented so as to make the most of the impending ‘wow’ moment, and end up as genuinely memorable water-cooler conversation topics. On the other hand, establishing shots throughout the film can oddly linger a beat or too longer than required, or incorporate perhaps one cut too many to set a scene. Nothing overtly grating – but noticeable.
Visual effects are also given careful consideration and implemented in a way to ensure that the film feels grounded throughout. I was delighted to find that character bouts in the film relied heavily on proper choreography, eschewing the concerning thought of the film devolving into a blurry mess of CGI characters slapping each other. When a fight does call for a more fantastical element to be present, the CGI budget is carefully allocated to make sure that these assets uplift the existing action, rather than replacing it entirely. However this does come with the trade-off that during its quieter moments, the film’s CGI will quietly shift down a gear to merely be a solid ‘presentable’ rather than ‘impressive’.
Kabal was basically a shoo-in once people realised his name started with a ‘K’
I am grateful to partake in a film that does not have a massively inflated run time – doing so would have resulted in an experience that seems to…drag on (geddit?). However it does feel like some breathing room would have been welcomed to better represent some of the grander ideas within the franchise. The concept of multiple dimensions and realms is relegated to minor expository comments and on-screen cues to explain where a conversation may be taking place – perhaps leaving the opportunity for a more impactful reveal in a sequel? Who knows? It’s arguably not the focus of this film specifically.
In my opinion the film’s writing was much stronger than I expected. Low expectations abound in the Mortal Kombat franchise, for no other reason than the truth that the property has existed in development hell (Netherrealm?) for countless years with doubt setting in that its story may ever grace a screen once more. It comes as no surprise that that any film based on a videogame property would be interpretive in nature, with the quandary being ‘what changes are necessary?’ versus ‘what can remain true to existing fans expectations?’. For me, I found that the more dramatic concepts introduced in the film did a lot of work to make the stranger MK koncepts more palatable, while also giving ample space to insert a lot of care and attention to detail where it mattered.
The raw power of the cryomancer ninja felt insurmountable to our heroes, and had me itching for the inevitable throwdown
It is at this point that I feel indebted to make a comment about the new face in the room – that being Cole Young, the washed up MMA fighter-cum-family man that serves as the main protagonist of the film. Much maligned and oft spoken about with the gnashing of teeth, all who have a passing interest in the Mortal Kombat franchise drip with venom at mention of this individual – after all, how dare he come to freshly materialise in a realm rich with established cyborgs, ninjas and sorcerers ripe for the casting? While I see truth in this sentiment – after all, his presence must surely mean that we have been denied an existing Mortal Kombat character – after having watched the film, my own simmering unrest has been quelled. Sure, Cole is not an established character (he exists solely within the movie, after all) but his journey within the movie provided an element of mystery that I would not have otherwise experienced. In a world full of recognisable characters that I have seen developed over literal decades, Cole represented a wildcard within the film that humbled my long term fanhood. Of course I could sagely nod as Liu Kang threw a fireball, or smile with glee when Kung Lao’s razor sharp hat came ZIIING’ing onto the screen; these are concepts I was familiar with! Cole however would delicately massage my curiosity as I questioned what otherworldly thing he would end up doing to justify his rubbing of shoulders with such kombatants. Even if he was a painfully mandated ‘audience insert character’, the truth is that his implementation was done in a way that did not irritate me in the slightest. I actually wouldn’t mind seeing him in a future game.
Also, to share my own controversial take – across the long and curious history of the Mortal Kombat game franchise – there have been far shittier CANON characters than Cole Young (looking at you, Stryker).
Putting the ‘bloody’ in YOU BLOODY RIPPA
Honestly all of the characters within the film had great personalities that felt genuine and fun – I could see a real duty and passion coming from each actor as they entirely devoured their roles. It would have been so easy to simply mire the film in a 90s era campiness, but finding the ideal balance of stoicism and fantastical nonsense across the talented range of actors did so much to cement the truly entertaining nature of the film. A particular highlight can be found in the role of Kano, portrayed by Aussie actor Josh Lawson – who may be the most out-there Australian character ever committed to film. Long after the initial novelty of the film wears off, I will definitely continue to watch Kano scene collections on YouTube – his reactions to the more serious elements of Mortal Kombat history are brilliant (and colourful). In contrast, Joe Taslim as Sub Zero brought a chilling presence (heh) to the character, making his every appearance feel like the panicked moment in a horror film when the slasher villain turns up – the guy was like Jason f***ing Voorhees. The raw power of the cryomancer ninja felt insurmountable to our heroes, and had me itching for the inevitable throwdown.
I would actually love to get my hands on a script to understand how much dialogue was set in stone versus improvised. Scene to scene, characters were actively engaging and interacting with each other via their spoken lines, with off-screen comments and believable questions being asked when things took a turn for the not ordinary. Coupled with the more serious tone of the native Japanese/Chinese dialect sections, I really struggle to think of any pointless or wasted lines. Shang Tsung probably could have stood to at least get a proper villain monologue to help give his evil some gravitas, but it’d be hard to top the performance of Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa from the ‘95 film.
I am torn as to whether the film suffered for having not dedicated much time to developing the henchmen or champions of Shang Tsung. I may be at risk of sounding like a fanboy here, but MK is a character-driven property – so more opportunity to express and enjoy the traits of each goon could have elevated the later-stage fight scenes just that much more. With the scope of the film focused on communicating how terrifying Sub Zero is, I can imagine that it was always the intention to keep the goons goon-like – allowing more casual observers (that are not as deeply ingrained in this universe of conflict) to keep their attention on his commanding presence.
|PRODUCTION COMPANIES||Warner Bros. Pictures, New Line Cinema, Atomic Monster Productions|
|RELEASE||April 22, 2021|