by Philip Price
Director: Simon McQuoid
Starring: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee & Josh Lawson
Runtime: 1 hour & 50 minutes
I don't know if it's due to going without movie theaters and therefore big-budget blockbusters for nearly a year, but between this and "Godzilla vs. Kong" it has been a pleasantly surprising return to the tentpole extravaganzas that had become almost too common to pre-pandemic life. That isn't to say 2021's "Mortal Kombat" is anything more than someone with the loftiest of expectations might hope it to be, but it's an assured piece of both filmmaking and storytelling that knows what it is, embraces everything about its own ridiculousness, and runs with all of it to the point it almost forces viewers to genuinely care about what is going on with this silly yet compelling multi-dimensional death battle. Of course, one's level of enjoyment with the film may come from their affection for the now iconic video games and its catch phrases that have made their way into the everyday lives of an entire generation. Some enjoyment (or complete distaste for, honestly) may come from the nostalgia-tinted glasses those who loved the nineties movie adaptations still wear, but even if you're an audience member with little to no brand recognition or fondness for the property what is both slightly unexpected but also an advantage to this new iterations success is that Greg Russo (his first feature) and Dave Callaham's (2014's "Godzilla," "Wonder Woman 1984" and the upcoming "Shang-Chi") screenplay makes it an accessible adventure for anyone inclined to see what all the fighting is about. That is to say, Russo and Callaham build out the worlds "Mortal Kombat" encompasses in a simple and straightforward fashion that doesn't overwhelm the audience with too many levels nor does it dig too deep into the politics of the tournament itself, but instead takes what everyone loved about the games and puts them front and center: the characters. I'll backtrack slightly on this point as the film does introduce a new character into the "Mortal Kombat" mythos with its main protagonist Cole Young (Lewis Tan), but other than providing this surrogate who will take the audience through and into this universe the movie is otherwise all about bringing these characters viewers will recognize to life in what is ultimately fun and entertaining ways. Sans a pretty impressive opening sequence that admittedly sets the bar too high for the nonsense that follows, nothing about director Simon McQuoid's film is what one might label as "good", but almost everything about what it does in service of re-capturing that feeling of sitting in front of your cousin's tiny TV in their bedroom and mashing buttons in hopes it will result in a combination that will defeat said cousin in a bloody battle to the death is one thousand percent enjoyable.
McQuoid, who is an Australian filmmaker, marks his feature debut with "Mortal Kombat," but the man has apparently cut his teeth shooting commercials for the likes of Apple, HBO, Netflix and Mercedes which makes sense when the studio is looking to adapt a property largely based around a fantasy-themed fighting game where matches could last anywhere from a few seconds to half an hour. Given I probably haven't played a "Mortal Kombat" video game since the original in 1992 it's difficult to remember how much of the mythology and backstory included in the movie versions originated from the game itself. Nevertheless, McQuoid's biggest advantage with his adaptation is the fact he was given the freedom to make an R-rated "Mortal Kombat" movie whereas the two previous films were held to PG-13 ratings. It only makes sense a "Mortal Kombat" movie would be given free rein with its action sequences given the original games were responsible in part for the creation of the video game rating system. In other words, fear not - there are plenty of "fatalities" in store. I bring up McQuoid though because despite having such freedom he doesn't take this to mean he will run the movie off the rails (not completely, anyway) and instead balances the right amounts of both the brutal and the extravagant. For example, yes there is a scene in which Josh Lawson's Kano (a true standout) - who is a mercenary with the "Black Dragon" clan - rips the heart out of an invisible monster dragon that I'm still not sure the origin or purpose of other than for Kano to in fact rip its heart out and deliver a certain line of dialogue, but there is also the aforementioned opening sequence in which Hiroyuki Sanada as Hanzo Hasashi and Joe Taslim ("The Raid") as Bi-Han/Sub-Zero battle it out with a beautiful Japanese forest as their backdrop which somehow feels almost as poetic as it does merciless. McQuoid lets the movement of the fighters rather than his camera do the work and therefore they are the ones making the biggest impressions. The combat is brutal, but the implications of its outcome and the cruelty it shows Sub Zero is capable of is almost more so. Not only do such moments balance each other out, but they give a clear indication to McQuoid's approach to the material which is to seemingly deliver on the near gross-out levels of barbarity involved in these "fatalities" yet also manage to somehow make the human characters as authentic in their struggles as possible...even when it comes to holding the key to their world's freedom from other dimensions by participating in a martial arts tournament.
Beginning with that centuries old, Japan-set confrontation between Hasashi and Sub-Zero that lasts a solid 12 minutes before the title screen epically appears (I love a great title card) Russo and Callaham's "Mortal Kombat" establishes this rivalry to carry into the present day where the introduction of Tan's Cole and his mysterious "birth mark" signal that his lineage is key to this rivalry and how it is far from over. As with the opening fight sequence, McQuoid introduces his hero through a set piece that this time involves an MMA-style cage fight which is almost just as visceral as the first, but more than anything makes it clear Tan may have been Power Ranger-ed in that he was hired more for his martial arts skills than his acting chops. Fortunately, this doesn't matter much for, while Cole is undoubtedly the hero of the piece, the movie doesn't take long to pick up the pace as Mechad Brooks' Jax (charming as all get out) shows up to recruit Cole shortly after getting his ass kicked in what appears to be a pattern of him taking a beating for some quick cash. Jax is a Special Forces Major who somehow bears the same strange "birth mark" Cole was born with which is actually just the Mortal Kombat logo - solid chuckle. After Jax enlightens Cole and his family (Laura Brent as the wife and Matilda Kimber as the daughter) to the fact other realms exist and that Outworld's Emperor Shang Tsung (Chin Han) has sent his best warrior to hunt Cole down Sub-Zero shows up on Earth and starts causing all kinds of mayhem. Jax gets a quick origin story of sorts that gives the character an actual arc to work with while Cole is directed to find Jessica McNamee's Sonya Blade who is hiding out in Indiana, keeping Kano as a prisoner, and researching the meaning of the dragon marking and how it's intertwined with the fate of their world. At the behest of Blade, Kano agrees to show her and Cole the way to Lord Raiden's temple which he somehow conveniently knows the location of despite it being a mythical sanctuary of sorts that Blade verbatim states is where, "legends used to train there for mortal kombat," and that, "no one knows where it is." Kano though, has apparently been running guns through it because the "locals won't shut-up about it." We'll mark this astronomical leap in logic as a bit of the extravagance referred to earlier as it sets our heroes on a path to Tadanobu Asano's Raiden the Elder God AKA the protector of the Earth realm where other experienced warriors such as the extremely ripped Ludi Lin's Liu Kang and Max Huang's Kung Lao or the guy with the coolest hat in the history of hats have also been training. It is here they will prepare Cole to face the enemies of Outworld in the titular battle for the universe.
And it is with those last few sentences of the previous paragraph that it's not difficult to see how easily a "Mortal Kombat" movie could go completely off the rails (see also 1997's "Annihilation"), but even as the new film begins to bring in more fantastical characters and creatures largely through Outworld's roster of champions it's nice to see the Earth-side champions are genuinely surprised by the existence of these other realms and the apparent incoming status of their own super powers. While the arrival of antagonists like Mileena (Sisi Stringer) who sports a nasty mouth full of razor sharp teeth and an even sharper tongue, Nitara (Mel Jarnson) who ends up being the Slipknot of this movie, along with the likes of Kabal (Daniel Nelson), General Reiko (Nathan Jones), and of course the completely CGI Goro will undoubtedly alienate large portions of a potential new audience they will bring in just as many of the faithful followers. The significance of the inclusion of these more grotesque baddies is not for the sake of faithfulness to source material, but more for allowing that slight sense of authenticity in our military veteran with robot arms, his femme fatale of a partner, and the monks they meet along the way who throw fireballs and razor-sharp hats. Viewers, regardless of their history with the franchise though, are really showing up to see these characters fight and the film - from that previously mentioned opening sequence through to the climactic battles that mirror the set-up of the game in such a way it's hard to imagine any longtime fan's expectations not being met by these thrilling live-action vignettes - more than delivers on this expectation; McQuoid's fight scenes conveying as much meaning as those with dialogue. Additionally, Russo and Callaham's story has a real hold on the stakes and ongoing semantics between the characters and while they've clearly been instructed to build a potential franchise, what they deliver here is a well-paced, self-contained, and engaging balance of set pieces that are connected by just enough exposition for viewers to develop that investment. For me personally, someone who played the games, but wasn't obsessed and who hadn't seen the previous films until recently, 2021's "Mortal Kombat" elevates these characters to a cinematic level on which we haven't seen them before especially when it comes to two ninjas - one who can control fire and one who can control ice - and their centuries-long grudge that allows for these larger than life characters to somehow feel personal. Also, the movie gets major bonus points for organically integrating the kick-ass video game music.