So maybe I'm just doing Impressions of all HBO Max Movies now. I don't know if this will always be a thing, but at least the big franchise films that were originally scheduled to have a theatrical release feels right, at least for the time being. Mortal Kombat (2021) is fun because I definitely would not have seen this in theaters, but on a bored lazy Saturday morning it really was perfect. SPOILERS, but seriously, who cares.
I don't actually have a ton of history with Mortal Kombat. I don't know if my parents would have let me play it or not, probably not, but I was far too busy playing Donkey Kong in the 90s instead. I did dive head-first into the lore, which is an insane thing to say, but the concept of various competing realms and Outworld and Elder Gods was always fascinating to me. I watched bits and pieces of the 1995 film, and bad acting compilations of everything else. I dug the Rebirth and Legacy web series enough that I became familiar with every character through my fantastic aptitude for cultural osmosis. But I am a true poser, I really haven't played the games all that much. My main is Reptile, though. I like reptiles.
Here's my initial bold take - Mortal Kombat '21 succeeds Mortal Kombat '95 as the best video game movie ever made. It is still not close to being a GOOD movie, by any stretch, but I'd call it better and it deserves the title. Well, Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) may still have an edge.
I was most impressed by how closely it actually adheres to the lore and story line, with subtle jokes and Easter eggs. The film focuses on a descendant of Scorpion as a protagonist, which I know, undoes a lot of what I just said, but it combines Hanzo and Bhi-Lan's original blood feud with the feudal Japan elements from Legacy. It works here to suggest that this feud is hundreds of years long. It also allows Scorpion to remain a tragic hero, but we're not exactly cheering for a man who escaped hell bent on revenge. I am glad a true Scorpion showed up at the end - the other guy in the golden armor was fine, but honestly, when he just manifested sharp tonfas I was a little bummed out.
The film does a good job of creating a mostly new mythos but not ignoring the things we NEED to see in any Mortal Kombat adaptation. At this point that's basically a "GET OVER HERE" and then some thumping techno. There was the slightest motif during the final Sub-Zero / Scorpions fight, but then the end credits went full 90s, with a slight modern EDM flair, which was very satisfying.
The premise of the movie isn't that crazy - it's the 10th tournament, Outworld has won 9 in a row and if they win #10 they get to konquer Earthrealm. Don't think about this too hard. Yeah, they just win the right to conquer, it's not automatic. And it's also clear that they are following rules of Elder Gods who have clearly long since stopped paying attention because Shang Tsung breaks all these rules and no one cares. Also, a tournament definitely never even takes place, they just kind of fight each other beforehand.
This starts with some big brawls and there are plenty of great match-ups. I'm actually at a loss for how to describe it. When you see Jax with arms fighting Sub-Zero you just know he's going to freeze that motherfucker's arms off. And he does. But it's still great. Maybe it's just a complicated sort of Chekov's Gun? If you put an ice guy on screen he had better freeze some arms off, simple as that.
In the end they effectively replicate the game by Raiden's ability to Lighting-Port any fighter to any location and dropping two kombatants in random, definitely video-game-y locations and letting them go at it. There are some nice match-ups. Sonya definitely just fights the other girl, Mileena early on, and then when she asks if she'll fight her again, Baby Scorpion says, "No, you actually have a backstroy with Kano, fight him!" which is a nice way to buck a trope in favor of actually wrapping up an arc. More on the kharacters later.
There are other subtle improvements. Kung Lao gets a flawless victory that is actually a flawless victory, unlikely when '95 would just through that in at random to sound cool. There are tons of fun bits and nods to fatalities like Kano ripping out Reptile's heart, Liu Kang's fire dragon, "Test Your Might" and Reptile's invisibility. This is stretching it, but I even love Sub-Zero ending the movie all burnt up and black, ready to come back as Noob Saibot.
There's not much else to the plot here, everything just sort of exists to get these characters to fight each other. It's fairly constantly brutal and everything we'd want from a Mortal Kombat movie.
As I mentioned, the movie handles how Scorpion can be a troubling protagonist well, especially since most people know him as an undead fire head demon, this works. I also love in general how Sub-Zero represents ice and Smoke has smoke powers, Reptile is green, but the yellow ninja represented by hellfire is named Scorpion? It is a cool name. At least he's not Ermac. Why would you ever make the red ninja fire based, anyway?
That said, Baby Scorpion is a bit of a wiener, but his actor is serviceable enough. I did like his wife, who is just some random woman I suppose get a nice axe into Goro's side. She's later kidnapped and frozen, which is a trope I wish we could move beyond, although it does thematically and literally parallel Daddy Scorpion, his ancestor. For real, these are literally women in fridges to motivate the male characters.
I can't really say the same for the Jax and Sonya actors, but they are also burdened with the clunkiest exposition to say. It was a little rough seeing the black guy die first...again...but then as it turned out, his arms were cauterized by the burn so it's fine! Also, how do some superpowers manifest in cool fire moves and Jax just like...grows metal arms? Is Kung Lao's power psychic control of his spinny razor hat? Baby Scorpion got golden armour and that's pretty much it? For a second I thought he was going to go Black Panther and redirect the kinetic energy. Kano steals the show, though, as the totally off the wall and off color Australian.
Now, I know that Kano is traditionally a very bad dude, but I actually thought they were going to head in another direction here. He's tempted to switch sides by Kabal, which also doesn't make sense, because Kabal says intimidatingly that Kano put him in the life support armour he's forced to wear now. He's like "I'll go talk to him!" Which he literally does, it's a charming conversation, it works, and then they're friends. I really thought Kano would be a loveable rascal who would repent and find some redemption. Again, I know Kano is the biggest dick in MK history, but it would have made for a more interesting movie.
Of course, then we wouldn't get Sonya killing him and earning both her Dragon Birthmark and energy wrist wring shooter things. She doesn't get to use them too much, but the shot of Mileena's spine through a hole in her stomach felt very Mortal Kombat X. Again, these powers are totally random. I don't know why movies feel like they need to explain this shit. We get it, everyone's weird, whatever. What's weirder is Kano shooting a laser out of one eye for no reason.
Goro is here, and he gets a cool shadowy intro and a good fight, but honestly, I wish he were more of a threat. We do see a painting of him ripping an Earthrealmer in half and then he looks like he is about to do the same to Baby Scorpion, so that's fun. But I think we needed more of a continual threat or use him as a final boss-type foe. The effects are decent, and the '95 Goro was notably a giant animatronic, honestly a decent technical achievement for the time. Thank goodness they didn't try to CGI that Goro.
This film really does dip into the well, though. I enjoyed it. Just when you think all the fighters are set, Shang Tsung throughs Nitara and Reiko at us, who are both so obscure, but worked well. Notably, Nitara flies, which she never does in any game, despite her vampire wings. Kabal has been around for a while with an interesting backstory but has always been a minor character. He is pretty cool here. Again, I actually though he was Sektor or another robot at first. I guess they're just too scared for Sektor.
Then of course, my favourite, Reptile. I just like reptiles. He's obviously a TON better than he was in 1995. Oof. He's got acidy spit, long gross tongue, and can turn invisible at will. It's all very cool and great. They were under no pretense that he is a ninja. He's also a challenging foe, but is still dispatched as the henchman he is.
Liu Kang doesn't get all that much screentime or focus, and is kind of a wiener goodie-too-shoes instead of the Fire God he'll eventually turn into. Liu Kang or Johnny Cage have always seemed like the ostensible protagonists of this series, so it's actually a little refreshing to refocus things on a character with a darker backstory. He gets some fun moments wielding fire dragons and training dumb humans here, but there's just not that much else to him.
And yeah, uh, Johnny Cage! The most glaring omission, after a while I realized that they just weren't going to fit him in. There was a significant tease at the end that he'll be recruited in the next film, but is a sequel even happening? I guess? I wonder if they will attempt to get some washed up actor to play him, akin to who Cage is supposed to be within the fictional setting. Like a...Nicholas Cage?! Or JCVD, but both these folks are getting a little too old and washed up to play even old and washed up John Cage. We'll see.
Luckily there are plenty of big bads to choose from, from the obvious Shao Kahn, to Shinnok, or Kotal Kahn, or the recent Kronika. There's always someone more dangerous around the corner in this universe, plus Shang Tsung really wasn't defeated, like at all. But I like Chin Han in Batman and Contagion (2011), but honestly I think he was a little miscast here. Maybe its just that Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa leaves a long cast shadow of absolute menacing hamminess that's hard to follow.
This was fun, it was stupid, but also weirdly satisfying. It gives MK fans what they want with enough original takes that push the mythos forward in interesting ways. I was never angry, only occasionally bored, and had a good time. The effects are modern and solid, and it delivers on the kind of gore and fatalities that the game franchise has bent towards in the past ten years.
I can't believe some characters like Cassie Cage, D'Vorah, and Kotal Kahn are so recent - I'd love to see them in something, but obviously it gets a little weird with someone like Cassie Cage, whose existence requires a thirty-year break.
Like I said, this isn't really remotely good. A lot of the fights are contrived, plot points and arcs are rushed, dropped, or downplayed, and yeah, weird deployment of Chekov's Gun. Some of that is just going to happen with a film like this with so many characters who really just exist to do their special weird power or gimmick and then get brutally executed. That's what this is, and if you are looking for something else, keep walking.
Hey! Oscars tomorrow!