After spending the last two decades re-watching 1997’s so-utterly-bad-it’s-good Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, fans like me finally got a new live-action movie in the franchise. Just like the previews promised, 2021’s Mortal Kombat comes with great fight scenes and a lot of faithfulness to the many characters it includes from the source material. But it also delivers a bland lead and an abundance of clichés. The combination of silly action movie tropes and seriously fun fight scenes result in a middle-of-the-road movie that can be entertaining—if you know what you’re getting yourself into.
(Spoilers for Mortal Kombat 2021 follow below.)
The movie opens at an idyllic forest compound in 17th century Japan. A man named Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) shares a scene with his wife and son that’s so wholesome it guarantees they won’t survive the first ten minutes of the movie. While Hasashi is getting water, his compound is attacked by multiple enemies. After his wife hides their new baby under the floorboards, they’re confronted by Bi-Han (Joe Taslim), a man who can use ice as a deadly weapon. This icy villain fatally freezes the family without so much as an ice pun before fighting Hasashi.
What makes this cliché action movie opening bearable is the fun fight choreography and some impressive visual effects. The way they animate the ice is extremely cool (sorry, but I have to do the puns the movie avoided) and there’s so much CGI blood that it becomes comical. Unfortunately for Hasashi, this action beat ends with his defeat and death. After he promises revenge, we cut to a black screen that throws out a prophecy and spells out the movie’s plot, before cutting to Hisashi’s descendant Cole Young (Lewis Tan) in modern times.
At first, his character introduction seems promising. Cole is a fighter that is so down on his luck that he has to brawl with dudes in cage matches that only pay two-hundred bucks. Despite his bad circumstances, he has the support of his wife and daughter in the locker room. And even after building him up, Cole loses his first fight. He has all the makings of a complex character with an interesting backstory. Unfortunately, we don’t really learn anything new about him after this point. He mainly just exists so that other characters can explain the movie’s lore to him for the benefit of the audience. Fortunately, the supporting cast is much more interesting.
When Cole Young and his family are attacked by Sub-Zero in another impressive icy scene, we’re introduced to a hardened military man named Jax (Mehcad Brooks). He voluntarily stays behind to fight the villain so that the Youngs can escape. While Jax loses the fight and his arms, Cole meets up with Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) and Kano (Josh Lawson) to figure out what’s going on.
Sonya’s another no-nonsense military type that has apparently been researching the mysterious “Mortal Kombat” tournament for years by printing out random papers and sticking them to her wall (instead of, you know, using a laptop). She’s holding a mercenary named Kano hostage. While he’s definitely a walking stereotype of how Americans perceive Australians, he makes up for it by making fun of every ridiculous plot point and character in the movie.
When this trio reunites, we finally get more info on the Mortal Kombat tournament. Like an (insert-losing-sport-team-of-your-choice-here), the Earth has lost nine of these deadly tournaments to Outworld and will be conquered if they lose one more. The champions chosen to fight to save Earth all have a dragon mark on their bodies. While Cole was born with his, Kano earned his by killing a fighter with the mark and Sonya doesn’t have one at all. After undergoing special training, this dragon tat allows you to unlock a special ability.
The dragon mark system is a fun introduction to the mythos that helps explain why certain people are chosen to fight and handwaves why random Earthrealm dwellers can shoot fire from their hands. It’s a little disappointing to see that the marking system is the last unique mechanic the movie introduces. From this point on, Mortal Kombat pretty much focuses on introducing new characters, giving us ridiculous fight scenes, and a metric ton of fanservice.
At times it works beautifully. When Kano defeats the intimidating Reptile and quips “Kano Wins”, I couldn’t help but cheer/laugh at the film’s ridiculous dedication to recreating scenes from the video games. Most of the new character introductions also work. The costumes, makeup, and CGI used to create classic franchise villains like Kabal (Daniel Nelson/Damon Herriman), Mileena (Sisi Stringer), and Goro (Angus Sampson) make them all look like they were ripped straight from the video game. While their motivations never amount to more than killing whoever’s in front of them, they honestly don’t need many layers to be fun.
By contrast, heroes like Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang), and Raiden (Tadanubo Asano) all look the part, but their rigid personalities make them come off as one-dimensional. While these three aren’t as boring as Cole, they come dangerously close. Fortunately, they’re much more fun in the numerous fight scenes that take up the last third of the movie.
The last forty minutes of almost non-stop action is a mixed bag. There are some clashes that happen so quickly that you wonder if they needed to be included at all. On the other hand, you get absurd moments like Kung Lao using his spinning razor hat to take down a flying vampire bat-woman before saying “Flawless victory.” Throughout this montage of blood, death, and fatalities, the movie once again proves to be at its best when it leans into how over-the-top it can get. I’d take four more scenes of characters reciting ridiculous video game quotes over one serious scene where Cole’s family getting kidnapped.
Speaking of which, the movie chooses to come full circle by having Sub-Zero kidnap Cole’s family. During the battle, Hisashi is summoned back from
hell the Netherrealm. Now going by the name Scorpion, he teams up with his descendant to… ice Sub-Zero. (Again, blame the movie for not using more ice puns). After this climactic fight, I came to the realization that there were less than fifteen minutes left in the movie’s runtime.
This resulted in the “Mortal Kombat Tournament” we were promised from the beginning being left out. Instead, we got sequel teases like the impending introduction of fan-favorite Johnny Cage. Although the movie definitely has enough fights to fill a tournament bracket, I was disappointed that we didn’t get any of the main event. While I understand the urge to save something for sequels, I would’ve liked at least a glimpse of the tournament we spent two hours talking about.
Despite leaving things off on a disappointing note, I’d still recommend giving this movie a watch—if you fully recognize what you’re in for. Mortal Kombat is not going to give you a layered lead character with complex motivations. You’re not going to get a deep and unique narrative that takes the franchise in a radical new direction. And somewhere in between the inclusion of a vague prophecy (that honestly really didn’t matter all that much) and the fourth time an innocent family is in danger, you might find yourself buckling under the weight of all the clichés.
However, if you’re here to see a faithful recreation of the video game’s characters, fatalities, and over-the-top aspects, there’s no harm in watching this. The filmmakers had a clear love of the source material that becomes apparent every time they lean on the fourth wall, or give us a detailed close-up of Jax’s metal arms. And at a runtime of just under two hours, it won’t take up too much of your time. 2021’s Mortal Kombat is not a flawless victory for the franchise. But if you’re willing to turn your brain off, you might enjoy the ridiculous and very, very bloody fun.
Andrew Tejada is an NYC native so there’s a 90 percent chance this was written on the subway. When he’s not writing or consuming movies/tv, he’s pitching his Static Shock screenplay to anyone who’ll listen. More of Andrew’s projects and words can be found on Facebook at “Arete Writes Things.”