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Mortal Kombat (2021)

I have no idea what the hell Warner Bros. thinks they’re doing.

To be clear, I know what WB thinks they’re doing with Mortal Kombat: Ever since they purchased Midway, they’ve been perfectly clear in their efforts toward revitalizing the brand for a younger modern audience. Additionally, the games’ developers have been struggling for decades to find a reliable series protagonist, or at least to make Liu Kang into something halfway memorable. So far, NetherRealm Studios has done a pretty solid job with the former objective, and the jury’s still out on the latter.

(NOTE: For more on the subject, see my earlier blog entry.)

But on a more macro level, I see a deeply worrying trend for the studio. Back in the mid-’10s, WB pumped roughly $300 million into producing and promoting Justice League (and that’s not even counting what they later spent on the director’s cut), with the mandate of crafting a two-hour movie that could somehow serve as the foundation for a multibillion-dollar superfranchise. It failed catastrophically, WB had to get bought out by AT&T, and it looked like WB had learned its lesson. Cut to four years later, and it looks like WB went right back to the same goddamn strategy, shoveling out $200 million for Godzilla vs. Kong in the apparent hopes that two hours’ runtime would somehow be enough to develop the Hollow Earth concept into something that could sustain a cinematic superfranchise.

And only a month later, here we are with Mortal Kombat (2021), a film with a reported $100 million budget (give or take) and the mandate of establishing a vast new cinematic superfranchise with a runtime of under two hours. This is madness. I get that WB is trying to get the biggest return for the lowest cost, and a shorter runtime can go a long way towards both. Even so, if the studio keeps insisting on cramming so much material into so little screen time, slashing their huge and sprawling franchises down to the freaking bone in the process, the end result will always be a mediocre mess that at once feels both overstuffed and stretched too thin. Furthermore, if WB keeps betting all these hundreds of millions of dollars on movies that absolutely need to gross a billion dollars to break even, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll have to get bought out AGAIN.

To be clear, the movie starts out quite well. We open in feudal Japan, as the film treats us to the origin story of franchise mainstay Hanzo Hasashi, aka Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada). The film does a pretty solid job of presenting the character’s iconic backstory and his eternal feud with Bi-Han, aka Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim). Though the movie could have gone into more detail as to why the characters are feuding — what with the Shirai Ryu and the Lin Kuei and whatnot — the actors do a fine job of selling it, and Hasashi’s family tragedy at the ruthless hand of Sub-Zero is nicely portrayed.

I also appreciate how Scorpion’s signature dagger is here presented as a gardening spade. Repurposing garden tools into lethal weaponry is a classic bit of ninja lore, and its inclusion here is a nice touch. I also appreciate how this iteration of Bi-Han is Chinese while Hanzo Hasashi is Japanese. The international difference adds a new implicit layer to their perpetual conflict, and it’s honestly kind of neat how the two of them talk in subtitles around each other with no idea of what the other is saying.

Gotta say, I was on board with this movie. Then came the text crawl, and this is where the movie lost me.

  1. We’re ten minutes into the movie, and we’ve already seen one or two major action set pieces, depending on how you count. That is way too late to bring in a goddamn opening text crawl.
  2. The text is entirely useless, as it conveys exposition that will be repeated every ten minutes in the onscreen dialogue. Yes, it’s important that we know about the nine straight Mortal Kombat tournaments that Outworld has won, and Earthrealm is doomed if Outworld wins a tenth time. That’s important to know, and it still doesn’t make any more sense after hearing about it twenty more times.
  3. The text crawl informs us of an ancient prophecy that has absolutely zero place in the video games, so it’s the filmmakers falling back on that surefire sign of lazy and wretched hack writing.
  4. The prophecy states that Earthrealm will be rescued by a descendant of Hanzo Hasashi. And just like that, the movie spoils one of its own major plot points not even ten minutes in.

See, Cole Young (Lewis Tan) is our protagonist and a character invented specifically for the film. So if you’ve got even two brain cells to rub together, you’ll know the minute he comes onscreen that he’s the surviving descendant of Scorpion. Though to be entirely fair, this means that Scorpion is always an offscreen presence whenever Cole is an onscreen presence, and that was a pretty clever means of keeping Scorpion in the mix while keeping him out of the other characters’ way. Even so, the fact remains that this plot point is egregiously spoiled within the opening minutes and this isn’t the only time when the plot openly seems to insult the audience’s intelligence.

My personal favorite example concerns Sonya Blade and Kano, here respectively played by Jessica McNamee and Josh Lawson. In the games, Sonya is a Special Forces badass while Kano is an immoral self-serving criminal, so the two of them are bitter lifelong enemies. In the movie, Sonya is still a Special Forces badass and Kano is still an immoral self-serving criminal, and the two of them still hate each other… except that now, Kano is on the good guys’ team. Even half an hour into the movie, it doesn’t exactly take a genius to see where this is going.

But let’s get back to Cole. The trailers have already shown us that he has a birthmark that resembles the iconic dragon logo of Mortal Kombat. As the film unfolds, we learn that others in Earthrealm have the mark. Though Cole has had it from birth (passed down the Hasashi family line, of course), it appears that anyone can obtain a mark of their own by killing someone else who has it.

The mark serves two purposes. Firstly, anyone who has a mark is eligible for participation in a Mortal Kombat tournament. Secondly, it grants the bearer a unique magical ability called an “arcana”. This is how Liu Kang shoots his fireballs, Kano has his laser eye, and so on. And yes, this whole birthmark mechanic was invented solely for the film.

I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, the birthmark provides a more tangible and concrete reason for the characters’ inclusion, as opposed to “Raiden selected these specific fighters out of everyone in the entire world because shut up.” But on the other hand, the distribution of marks is so arbitrary and their method of transfer so inconsistent that it turns out to be a lateral move. Additionally, if the mark was handed down through Hanzo Hasashi’s bloodline, where were Cole’s ancestors through the last nine Mortal Kombat tournaments? They couldn’t have participated — else they’d be dead and Cole wouldn’t even be conceived, much less have a birthmark handed down through the generations — so why did they sit on the sidelines when Earthrealm needed them?

Furthermore, the “arcana” concept is a time-saving measure and it’s less exposition for everyone to keep track of. But the unfortunate downside is that now every Kombatant has more or less the same origin story because they all get their powers and abilities from the same source. It greatly limits the characters’ variety, which in turn downsizes the scope of the franchise. Yes, it also works as a metaphor for the characters’ discovery of what makes them unique, who they really are, what they’re really fighting for, and so on. Trouble is, it’s a flimsy and underdeveloped concept in a franchise that has always shown a defiant resistance to any attempt at deeper themes.

But what sucks most of all about the plot is that the tournament itself doesn’t happen. No, the entire movie takes place a few short weeks before the next Mortal Kombat tournament, in which Shang Tsung (Chin Han) recruits Sub-Zero and some other Outworld lackeys to take out the Earthrealm champions before they have a chance to compete. Sure, that’s technically illegal, but Shang Tsung helpfully explains that the Elder Gods are neglectful referees and rules that aren’t enforced are basically nonexistent. But I digress.

The point is that the actual Mortal Kombat tournament — the main event that we all came to see — doesn’t actually happen here. Instead, it’s teased for the sequel, with no guarantee that the tournament will actually happen in that movie either. It’s entirely possible that this may be yet another example of a cinematic shell game in which every movie is merely a promo for its sequel. Fuck that noise. Though at least the games’ premise of one-on-one fights in wildly different stages is cleverly adapted in the third act, so there’s that.

Lewis Tan is capable enough as our lead for the movie, but Cole has a wife and daughter (respectively played by Laura Brent and Matilda Kimber) in lieu of a personality and his development arc is a pathetically thin “Hero’s Journey” retread. That’s enough to get us through this one movie, granted, but I don’t see what the character possibly has to offer for any sequels or games.

Elsewhere, Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) is as stiff and boring as ever, though now he’s an exposition machine rather than our protagonist. I honestly hope this character takes his rightful place as the protagonist in any sequels, because I know Ludi Lin is better than this. Likewise, Max Huang’s charm and the character of Kung Lao are both utterly wasted, though at least Kung Lao gets the single best fatality in the whole movie.

I was initially discouraged by the selection of Kano as our comic relief character, as opposed to Johnny Cage, but now I get it. Johnny, after all, is a good guy. He might be a vainglorious blowhard, but he’s got a charm and a conscience and a sense of humor such that it’s hard to completely dislike the guy. Kano, on the other hand, was built from the ground up to be a repulsive hate sink, and Josh Lawson plays it to the cheap seats while he’s chewing all the scenery in sight. Thus it’s a lot funnier and far more deeply satisfying to watch someone take the piss out of Kano with a (verbal or physical) beatdown.

But then we have Sonya Blade. Good God, Sonya, what did they do to you?

See, Sonya is unique in that she doesn’t have a mark. Though her friend and longtime comrade Jax (played by Mehcad Brooks) got his mark off a kill and they’ve been working together for the past several years to research Mortal Kombat, Sonya has no mark of her own. Thus Sonya occupies an unusual place on the team, as she’s not eligible for the tournament and she has no potential arcana, yet everyone still treats her as a trusted ally who’s proven her worth in a fight.

Alas, Sonya still can’t train with any of her comrades because she’s a girl she doesn’t have a mark. There’s a sexist undercurrent to this dynamic that does a grave disservice to a franchise mainstay, one of the toughest and most beloved female characters in video game history, and the filmmakers never comment on this.

What’s even more egregious is that after Jax is brutally maimed in a fight with Sub-Zero, he only has a couple of slapdash prosthetic arms. For obvious reasons, he feels useless. At the same time, Sonya is feeling useless because she doesn’t have a mark. This topic was such a golden bonding opportunity between the two characters, and the filmmakers never even hint at it. McNamee and Brooks both turn in otherwise delightful performances that do solid justice to these two beloved characters, and I’m positive they could’ve played this friendship for more than the screenwriters thought to give them. IDIOTS.

Chin Han and Tadanobu Asano are both aces at standing and glowering with authority, which is good because that’s pretty much all they have to do as Shang Tsung and Raiden. If not for the profanity, Kabal looks and talks like he might have wandered in from a Power Rangers television shoot next door. Nitara, Reiko, and Goro are all in the film, but they might as well not be. And seriously, when Goro — prince of the Shokan, the undefeated Mortal Kombat champion for 500 years — is treated like a disposable third-tier goon on the level of freaking Nitara and Reiko, that’s saying something.

But the absolute worst character in this movie — by a landslide, not even close — is Sisi Stringer’s portrayal of Mileena. It’s bad enough that Stringer brings absolutely nothing to the role, this is very clearly Mileena in name only. It’s a pathetic waste of a perennial fan favorite character with a well-documented backstory. Why they brought her in without bringing in Shao Khan or Kitana, I haven’t the first clue. If they had replaced Mileena with goddamn Baraka, the movie would’ve been exactly the same and the franchise as a whole would’ve been better off. What in the high holy fuck were the filmmakers thinking?!

With all of that aside, I know there are three big questions you’re all wondering.

First and foremost, how are the fight scenes? Well, the good news is that the film had an excellent stunt team. The bad news is, debut filmmaker Simon McQuoid was not equal to the task of directing these fight scenes. Wonderful though the choreography surely is, I had a hard time appreciating it when the shots were all too close and the editing was too quick. Additionally, I’m quite confident the movie got its R-rating more for profanity than for violence. The blood in this movie is easily outpaced by all the gratuitous F-bombs, no doubt about that.

Second big question: What about the soundtrack? On the whole, I was very pleased with Benjamin Wallfisch’s score. More to the point, I genuinely like Wallfisch’s take on “Techno Syndrome“, the classic Mortal Kombat theme. It sounds exactly like the iconic franchise theme from ’94, updated and remixed to fit with the standards and tastes of 21st century techno.

Thirdly and lastly: How does it stack up against the ’96 film adaptation? For me, that’s sort of like comparing the “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers” TV show to the 2017 cinematic reboot. Yes, the more recent film was more polished, took itself more seriously, and delved a lot deeper into the characters. But somehow, I think that the campier and more colorful ’90s effort will be around a lot longer. And I’d stake my wallet that twenty years from now, the ’21 movie will be just as laughably dated as the ’96 movie is today.

I’m tempted to say that Mortal Kombat (2021) is on par with Godzilla vs. Kong, as they’re of roughly equal quality in terms of writing, acting, world-building, etc. But I don’t know if that would be a fair comparison, as GvK only really had to deliver on the promise of its title. Kombat, on the other hand, had so much more potential to waste.

It might be more fair to say that Mortal Kombat (2021) is on par with the theatrical cut of Justice League, in that it was tasked with setting up so many characters and action scenes and world-building concepts that it would need a freaking four-hour runtime to succeed at everything it tried to take on. It was very clearly a film made by committee, a product of dedicated filmmakers who tried their absolute damnedest to process so many contradicting executive mandates into something workable. Perhaps most notably, the filmmakers were so desperate to tell a huge sweeping story in a two-hour runtime that they utilized all manner of cheap and lazy plot devices to get it done.

Upon reflection, I think that Mortal Kombat’s greatest obstacle in live-action adaptation isn’t in its complexity or its violence or budget or anything like that. To the contrary, Mortal Kombat’s greatest obstacle is its simplicity. After all, Mortal Kombat started out with characters and concepts so simple that they wouldn’t get in the way of the gameplay or take up too much space on the limited hard drive. But even all these years later, if you asked a fan of Mortal Kombat why they love the franchise or a particular character, I’d wager that their answer would be some variation of “Because it’s cool!”

That’s all it comes down to. “Because it’s cool.” Do you really think the developers of Mortal Kombat had any long-term plans when they introduced Animalities to the franchise? You think they knew or cared about where Friendships fit into the greater mythology? You think they introduced Meat, Mokap, or a character named freaking “Noob Saibot” into the games for any other reason than because they all seemed like cool or funny ideas at the time?

Even as the Mortal Kombat video games — as with the rest of the video game industry — have grown increasingly centered on stories and character development, the franchise continues to live and die on its easy to learn/difficult to master gameplay. Though the games have developed a massive roster of characters and background lore on a cosmic scale, the franchise doesn’t really have much in the way of deeper recurring themes for the players to think about or make into a personal philosophy. This puts it in sharp contrast with modern cinematic franchises (the MCU is of course the obvious example), in which the lore and the connections between films are a key attraction and there’s an expectation of deeper themes to consider. Because we cannot directly interact with them as we can with video games, we must interact with films on a mental and/or emotional level.

Mortal Kombat (2021) was so desperately made to compete with billion-dollar modern blockbusters, but that would mean seasoning the gut-churning thrills with anything the least bit poignant or thought-provoking. Alas, the source material itself — and the studio execs’ apparent lack of understanding the franchise and the video game medium as a whole — kept the film from anything other than a mindless and instantly forgettable good time. It’s not exactly a terrible way to spend two hours, but if I’m being perfectly honest, I think I’d rather sit through Godzilla vs. Kong again.

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