Video games have been going strong with popularity for well over 30 years, as have their film adaptations, which started with Super Mario Bros (1993). The overall quality of video game adaptations has varied throughout the years, the right blend of sticking to the source material and telling a good story within the film time frame is not an easy task. It has been just over 20 years now since the franchise of Mortal Kombat has had a live action adaptation with Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1998) doing a lot more damage than the games famous ‘Fatality’ feature. Has the long wait for a new Mortal Kombat film been worth the wait for the large fan base or is this a bigger flop than Annihilation?
Mortal Kombat (2021) begins several centuries ago as we meet Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his family, who come under attack by rival Bi-Han/Sub Zero (Joe Taslim). It then moves forward to its present, where we follow MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), who supports his family by taking on cheap fights. After his most recent fight, they come under attack by Sub Zero and Cole enters a whole new world after Jax (Mehcad Brooks) comes to the rescue and tells Cole to find Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee). Upon meeting Sonya and her hostage Kano (Josh Lawson), Cole embarks on a journey with them and stop the evil sorcerer of Outworld Shang Tsung (Chin Han) with whom Sub Zero is working with. They find Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang), who help them train for battle to save Earthrealm from losing the tournament called Mortal Kombat and come under Tsung’s rule.
There is a vast history when it comes to Mortal Kombat, there have been countless games throughout the years and a large character library. An adaptation is a great undertaking, tackling a particular story and choosing the characters to include whilst making a competent film and appeasing to the fan base is not an easy blend to get right. The look and feel of the film are in tune with the games, with characters feeling authentic to their game counter parts and scenes that feel not only highly cinematic but so close to the games. There is no doubt the look of the film is very fitting, as is the use of the R rating with the graphic and bloody fights that are shown throughout the film. The opening scene is fantastic as we get introduced to game favourites Scorpion/Hanzo Hasashi and Sub Zero/Bi-Han, seeing some of their rivalry that has been a main stay in the franchise.
Where the film faulters is the introduction and addition to a brand-new character in Cole Young, with Mortal Kombat having no shortage of characters it feels out of place to introduce someone new, even to attract non gamers. This tactic has worked before with Resident Evil (2001) introducing new character Alice (Milla Jovovich) and she did not feel out of place in that world and subsequent franchise, where Cole does feel out of place and his sub plot isn’t as engaging as it should be. Lewis Tan as Cole does give his performance a lot, and perhaps would have been more engaging if he were not a film original character or felt less bland.
In contrast Sonya Blade feels much more exciting than Cole, her character is much more engaging, and Jessica McNamee seems right at home with her role. Mehcad Brooks channels the late great Steve James from American Ninja (1985) as Jax, and he is an exciting character to watch when he is on screen. Joe Taslim and Hiroyuki Sanada are both excellent as Sub Zero and Scorpion, having much more expanded roles than in the first adaptation Mortal Kombat (1995) and taking full advantage of their screen time. It is a shame that Scorpion is in so little of the film, as the character is intriguing from the start and could easily have been a lead. The scene stealer and most memorable of the cast is Josh Lawson and his over-the-top performance as Kano, he brings a lot of the laughs and some of the films best and most memorable moments. This is very much a performance that audiences will either love or hate, much like Linden Ashby as Johnny Cage in the ’95 film.
Whilst Tadanobu Asano, Ludi Lin, Max Huang and Chin Han are good actors, the characters they played felt far too one note and did not add much whatsoever. It is evident the actors are doing what they can but the one-dimensional writing for those characters let them down. Shang Tsung is a character that has a strong presence, and it was sorely missing here, feeling like another run of the mill villain and failing to hold much interest. Lord Raiden may have had the charisma sucked out of him, he was just there and that was just about it. Asano is generally a great screen presence but, in the role, he did not get elevated to where a character like Raiden needed to be. Max Huang as Kung Lao fairs better than Ludi Lin as Lui Kang, these are two characters that have a lot of heart and soul with Mortal Kombat, and more screen time may have been benefitted them.
The film overall is a bloody fun mess, it certainly has its issues, and it is up to the individual whether these issues are a problem in the enjoyment of the film. It lacks the cheesy charm of the ’95 film but makes up for it in other ways with how brutal it is and clever effects to bring elements of the game alive. Some parts feel rushed, specifically the third act, but it does leave its audience wanting a follow up, with some hints of where the story will go if a sequel goes ahead. Mortal Kombat (2021) is not a film that will appeal to everyone, it is however one of the better video game adaptations that has been released.
Review written by Marcella Papandrea