The Venerable Video Game Ventures Back to the Big Screen for Updated Fantasy Brawling
DIRECTED BY SIMON MCQUOID/2021
Mortal Kombat rules. I say this as someone who up until a few days ago knew almost nothing about Mortal Kombat.
Of course, it’s impossible to truly know nothing about Mortal Kombat. The great granddaddy of button-mashing brawlers has been a pop culture staple for almost thirty years, having spawned eighteen installments across multiple video game platforms, as well as two widely-panned feature films. Even the most insulated among us have some vague familiarity with the franchise, if only the most iconic and meme-able moments — “Finish him!” “Fatality!” the iconic theme song, etc.
All this to say, my expectations were pretty low. I brought no prior experience* with me when I sat down to stream it this weekend. Fortunately for all of us, you don’t have to know any of the deep lore to have a great time with Mortal Kombat. (Yes, there’s deep lore. We’ll get to it.)
The 2021 film is geared towards those of us who only know the name, while still managing to be an unironic, oddly-charming, heart-grabbing love letter to longtime fans. It’s rare for any project to succeed in reaching both demographics, and yet Mortal Kombat succeeds. It does this primarily by taking a surprising risk, one that could have alienated classic Kombat fans: it eschews the iconic tournament formula of the games for an Indiana Jones style adventure with a ragtag group of warriors.
We the audience are dragged into the chaotic and colorful world of Mortal Kombat alongside protagonist Cole Young, played with equal parts boredom and earnest befuddlement by British-Chinese actor and martial artist Lewis Tan. Cole is, in a word, a protagonist — a down-on his luck mixed martial artist with a loving wife, a teenage daughter, and a dragon-shaped birthmark on his chest. He doesn’t know a damn thing about Earthrealm, Outworld, arcana, or destiny… and that’s okay! As both audience surrogate and everyman, Cole checks all the boxes. Prior experience with martial arts and blood ties to an ancient warrior lineage are just a bonus.
After Cole and his family are attacked by ice-sassin Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), and subsequently saved by Jax (Mehcad Brooks), an ex-marine with matching dragon “birthmark,” we’re off to the races. From there, information and worldbuilding come at an almost breakneck pace. In short, for all of human history, Earthrealm has been under threat from the dark forces of Outworld.
These two warring bodies have settled their dispute the same way for thousands of years — a tournament between the chosen fighters of both sides, each marked with a dragon sigil. Outworld has won the last nine tournaments; if they defeat the fighters of Earthrealm in a tenth and final tournament, the monstrous Shang Tsung (Chin Han) will claim the Earth. It’s a bit unclear what exactly that would mean for Earth, but we can assume it won’t be good from just the general aesthetic and ethos of the dark lord. His soldiers are monsters and he likes to eat souls.
However, despite Outworld’s incredible winning streak thus far, an ancient prophecy says a descendant of the Earthrealm hero Hanzo (Hiroyuki Hasashi) will rally the new champions of Earthrealm and claim a decisive victory in the tenth tournament. To circumvent this fated reversal, Shang Tsung sends his monster friends to assassinate the fledgling warriors before they can complete their training under the electric protection of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano). The duration of the film, then, is spent not in some grand tournament between all manner of unnatural beings and colorful characters, but instead a frantic attempt by Earth’s newest heroes to survive these Outworld assassins.
While this distillation of the plot may seem somewhat overwhelming and lore-heavy, it is delivered with surprising skill and pacing. The rate at which a film like this provides exposition and information can make or break it, and Mortal Kombat somehow finds a near perfect balance in its pacing and presentation so as to maintain the film’s momentum. The script is every bit as lean as any one of the many muscle-bound cast members; if it’s not providing relevant information or some solid one-liners, it’s not in the script. Not a line of dialogue in this film is wasted, and that’s because the script knows it has only one job: to carry us from fight scene to fight scene.
And holy moly, folks, the fight scenes in this movie are an absolute delight. While I’m sure there are plenty of nods and homages to classic the game’s combos and finishers, you simply don’t need to that familiarity to appreciate ice knives, laser vision, or giant flaming dragons. The meticulous choreography of each battle, made possible by much of the cast’s preexisting history with stunt work and mixed martial arts, is capably exploited by even better camera work. No amount of incredible choreography can spin-kick its way out of poor cinematography, and Mortal Kombat takes painstaking effort to avoid visually disorienting the audience. The film rightly made the action sequences its highest priority. Knowing your strengths is one thing; playing to them, another. Achieving flawless victory, though? That’s something else.
Ultimately, Mortal Kombat succeeds because of its earnest and oddly refreshing self-awareness. All too often, movies mistake bravado or irony for being self-aware. In an era of needlessly grim and/or edgy blockbusters, the word “unapologetic” has become synonymous with abrasive, telling viewers to get on board or get out of the way. In contrast to such grimdark projects,, the the Marvel Cinematic Universe cannot help repeatedly winking at the audience, needlessly reassuring us that it’s in on the joke. To my absolute bafflement and delight, Mortal Kombat takes neither approach. Like the serene acolyte Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Mortal Kombat feels no need to challenge you. It simply greets you with a humble smile and hands full of fire. Oh, that more movies were so self-assured.
* I think I played about twenty minutes of Mortal Kombat at a friend’s eleventh birthday party. It may have been SoulCaliber. Die-hard fans will have to forgive me for conflating the two; I assume the fans are in a blood feud.