Saturday, April 24, 2021

Movie Review: MORTAL KOMBAT (2021)

Once upon a time, the fighting game Mortal Kombat set the gaming world on fire, sowing controversies about video game violence and spawning not just multiple sequels, but two live-action movie adaptations. After the failure of the second film Mortal Kombat Annihilation (listen to some friends and I absolutely destroy it on a podcast here), the planned third movie languished, but now in this plague year of 2021, it's back. And it's a lot of fun.

The Plot

The film begins with Chinese warrior Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) murdering Japanese ninja Hanzo Hashashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his family in 1617, but his baby daughter is rescued by none other than the thunder god Raiden (Tadanobu Asano). Fast forward to the present day and we meet Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a past-his-prime mixed martial artist reduced to short-notice fights for $200 a pop. However, he's approached by soldier Jackson Briggs (Mehcad Brooks), who wants to discuss a mysterious dragon birthmark they both have. However, Briggs, Cole, and Cole's wife and daughter are set upon by Bi-Han--now the sorcerous centuries-old killing machine Sub-Zero--and Cole finds himself meeting Briggs' military comrade Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and captive criminal Kano (Josh Lawson). Kano has the dragon icon himself and soon the three are pulled into the mysterious world of Mortal Kombat, a tournament fought to protect the Earth against invaders from the desolate realm of Outworld. Outworld has won nine of the last ten tournaments and its agents, led by Shang Tsung (Chin Han), are intent on winning the tenth tournament and invading Earth by hook or by crook.

The Good

*The movie is simply an absolute blast. It's fun and over-the-top and is never slow and boring. And the film integrates the characters' specific moves and supernatural powers into the storyline in clever and fun ways.

*The performances are pretty good. Lawson is clearly having the most fun as Kano--although I was skeptical of his being the comic-relief character instead of Johnny Cage, he is an absolute riot. McNamee manages to play Sonya as having a bit of a chip on her shoulder without being unsympathetic and obnoxious. Asano channels a bit of Christopher Lambert's 1997 Lord Raiden with his accent, although he's avoids being the clumsy exposition machine of the original.

*The characterization is generally an improvement over the original, especially the Sub-Zero/Scorpion rivalry. All the original did was have Shang Tsung brag that although they were "the deadliest of enemies," they were both slaves to his will. This movie straight-up makes Sub-Zero a heavy and much more than just a ninja who can freeze people--we're talking Elsa from Frozen levels of ice-sorcery with all the different types of havoc it can wreak. And they made Sonya a bit of a conspiracy theorist complete with a board covered in news articles, which is an interesting tweak on the character. She is much more useful than in the original, where she spent much of the first movie getting perved on by Shang Tsung and/or getting taken hostage. And Briggs is definitely an improvement over his appearance in Annihilation in which he mostly came off as Butt Monkey to salvage Sonya from the various indignities the original put her through.

*The film kind of pokes fun at itself and asks the obvious questions, like why "Kombat" is misspelled.

*There's a lot more Asian actors playing Asian characters, which is an improvement over the original film in which the Asian thunder god Raiden is played by the French-Swiss Lambert in such a way that my podcast crew straight-up starting laughing upon seeing him in the original film. And the almighty TVTropes claims that Scorpion and Sub-Zero were portrayed by white actors in the original, although given how they were masked I couldn't really tell. Here they're played by actors of the appropriate ethnicity.

*Just like the games, the film presents an elaborate mythology with plenty of room to play with in future films.

The Bad

*The setup for a tournament structure of fights is rather forced, albeit not as badly as in Annihilation.

*The original set up Johnny Cage, Liu Kang, and Sonya Blade as a power trio, but this one is more focused on Cole Young as the protagonist. And although there are some interesting things they hint at (his hardscrabble orphan upbringing, the demonic ninja he sees in his nightmares), they're not developed enough. He's not bad, but kind of meh.

*On that note, many of the other characters are underwhelming, especially the villains. Tsung is all right, but Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa was a much better actor playing a much more developed character. They're not on-screen enough and don't have enough to do. And Asano's Lord Raiden is much less entertaining than Lambert's. Liu Kang also takes a major demotion in this film, even though there are some hints of a more interesting back-story than in the original.

*Where was the original song? That song is one of the most iconic musical parts of the whole franchise.

The Verdict

An improvement on the original and hopefully the start of a new franchise. Everybody go see it and make sure that happens. After all, Taslim has a multiple-film contract in the event this film performs well. :) 8.5 out of 10.

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