Mortal Kombat 2021 is a Bloody Violent Good Time One of the Best Video Game Movies Ever
Mortal Kombat is kitchy, camp and genuinely exciting.
To say that Mortal Kombat 2021 had a low bar for me would be an understatement. I had zero hope that Mortal Kombat would be any good. The 90s takes on the Mortal Kombat video game series are borderline unwatchable, sub B-movies with laughable performances and silly looking effects. Video Game movies in general don’t tend to be very good and thus the stage was set for Mortal Kombat. The new movie would have to trip over its own feet repeatedly for me to not find it superior to what has come before it.
The lowered expectations worked, Mortal Kombat is a lot of fun. In fact, Mortal Kombat 2021 is so good I’m genuinely delighted to talk about it. I expected cheesy, stupid, slapdash nonsense and what I got was a polished, exciting, and humorous throwback to classic martial arts movies of the 70’s crossed with modern special effects and smart R-Rated approach to violence, fitting of the gory nature of the now more 30 year old arcade classic.
Mortal Kombat 2021 is an origin story for the universe of Mortal Kombat. In this universe there are different realms where champions are selected to defend their realm to the death. The realms have been at war for centuries and if one realm defeats another in 10 consecutive contests, that realm can take over and enslave the other realm. That is the goal of Shang Tsung (Chin Han), who has assembled a group of evil champions.
Shang Tsung isn’t going to wait for the Mortal Kombat tournament to attempt his conquest of the Earth Realm. Instead, he sends his greatest and most dangerous champion, Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), to Earth to kill their champions before they can fully prepare themselves for the contest. Sub-Zero’s first target is Cole Young (Lewis Tan), who isn’t even aware that he is one of Earth’s champions. All Cole knows is that he has an unusual dragon birthmark.
That birthmark is an indication that he is one of the chosen champions of Earth, something Cole learns after he and his family are attacked by Sub-Zero and rescued by Jax (Mehcad Brooks) and his cohort, Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee). Jax and Sonya have made it their job to gather Earth’s champions and bring them to the temple of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) who, along with his charges, Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang), will train Cole, Jax and Sonya to defend the Earth Realm. Getting in the way along the way is a mercenary named Kano, played by Josh Lawson.
Even the silly plot description of Mortal Kombat is fun. That’s the trick that director Simon McQuoid really pulls off with Mortal Kombat, he makes it fun. McQuoid is shameless in presenting the silly, gory nonsense of Mortal Kombat and that shamelessness is a winning quality for something this ludicrous. The deaths are broad and cartoonishly over the top and the character work is earnest and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Exposition is dumped quickly and effectively and the fights are so good that you can’t help but cheer.
The look of Mortal Kombat is terrific with crisp, clear cinematography and smartly detailed and well executed effects. The violence of Mortal Kombat recalls what people loved about the arcade game, bloody, gory, and completely over the top. The violence is consequential and essential to the story. It’s gratuitous, there’s no question about that, but it’s also essential to establish the universe of Mortal Kombat as one where death is a distinct and highly likely outcome.
The acting is competent if not spectacular. The characters of Mortal Kombat are functional at best though there are some substantial efforts. Hiroyuki Sanada is the standout. Playing the role of Hanzo Hasashi, aka The Scorpion, Sanada lends gravitas and pathos to his brief appearances in Mortal Kombat. Hasashi’s story bookends the movie with a pair of spectacular fights opposite Joe Taslim’s Sub-Zero. There is a genuine dramatic weight to these scenes and the execution of these scenes was so good that I genuinely cheered watching Sanada in action.
There is a concept in professional wrestling when one wrestler let's another wrestler win, they are putting that wrestler over. A wrestler losing a match has the job of making his opponent look good while not diminishing themselves in the loss. In the case of Mortal Kombat, director Simon McQuoid has the job of putting over the characters of Mortal Kombat without diminishing the movie. He's incredibly successful in putting over The Scorpion who dies an awesome death and is then said to be escaping from literal Hell to get another chance to battle Sub-Zero. The talent of Sanada and the way in which the script establishes Hasashi and The Scorpion make this character indelible, he's the headline of Mortal Kombat, the most exciting and entertaining aspect of the entire movie.
The opening and closing scenes of Mortal Kombat, which feature Hasashi/The Scorpion, are the most reminiscent of classic martial arts movies of the 70’s. Talk of honor and vengeance, incredibly choreographed fights and no shortage of blood and guts. Sanada’s deeply committed and earnest performance sets the tone for the rest of Mortal Kombat and I can’t imagine the movie would be as good without his sharply executed and charismatic performance. He's just so good, he brings a genuine presence to the movie that no other actor in Mortal Kombat can claim. And yet, he's so good he elevates everything about Mortal Kombat. I may be overselling him a little but I can't stop praising Hiroyuki Sanada, he's so good.
Yes, the story beats of Mortal Kombat are rote and predictable. You can likely predict every minute of Mortal Kombat without watching it. If you want to go into it with that attitude, you will probably hate Mortal Kombat. Myself, I don't have the ability to hold Mortal Kombat to that standard. Mortal Kombat is not a movie I can take seriously enough to hold to a standard that I might hold other movies to. Mortal Kombat has a feel reminiscent of the Fast and Furious movies, it's very easy to hate if you go in with an attitude that movies should do more than be thrill factories. Myself, I look at like a rollercoaster, I know where the rollercoaster is going but I still find the twists, turns, and speed to be exhilarating. It's not an intellectual thing, it's purely visceral and on that level, Mortal Kombat is a terrific rollercoaster.
I feel that I must mention the Mortal Kombat soundtrack as well as fans of the video game franchise have always loved the iconic soundtrack. I'm no expert in Dubstep or Dance music but the team behind the Mortal Kombat soundtrack certainly are and they did an exceptional job scoring the movie. The beats in Mortal Kombat are awesome, a perfect mix of heavy dance tracks and super serious strings. It's a cheesy delight just as the movie is. Kudos to Benjamin Wallfisch who is credited for the music of Mortal Kombat. His work is here is the perfect soundtrack to the silliness of Mortal Kombat.
Mortal Kombat is not an all time classic or one of the best movies of 2021, it doesn’t need that level of hyperbole. Mortal Kombat is simply the best version of a silly, fun, and loony premise. Mortal Kombat is simply a lot of cheesy fun. The film is shameless in revelling in the blood and guts lunacy of the comic book and the willingness to embrace camp and kitsch gives audiences an excuse to invest in the lunatic fun of Mortal Kombat.
Mortal Kombat opens in theaters and on HBO Max on April 23rd 2021.