Review: ‘Mortal Kombat’ 2021 (stay over there)

This just in: director Paul W.S. Anderson retains his 1995 title of Mortal Kombat filmmaking champion (insert Christopher Lambert Raiden laugh here).

Cole Young (Lewis Tan) is a once-promising MMA fighter reduced to underground cage matches in Chicago for extra cash. When an assassin (Joe Taslim) using mysterious ice powers comes for Cole and his family, they’re rescued by Jax (Mehcad Brooks) and sent to meet up with Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee). Jax and Sonja have discovered the existence of an inter-dimensional tournament that could expose “Earthrealm” to supernatural invaders from a desolate land called Outrealm, but sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) oversteps his mandate in an attempt to destroy the competitors before the contest is held… and even Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) may not be able to prevent such betrayal.

Long since the up-tempo electronica score of the 1995 original film boomed throughout multiplexes, the film legacy of the Mortal Kombat franchise has been a grab-bag of interpretations to include as many video game characters as possible… and too little thought given to the finished product. With the pandemic-delayed release of this most recent Warner Bros. reboot, there should have been plenty of time to beef up effects, edit the film to the bone, and live up to the expectation that gamers and cinephiles always believed was possible. The early trailers looked encouraging, but the release of first seven minutes featuring who appear to be Sub-Zero and Scorpion (and the origins of the rivalry) is a definite step in the right direction. Has the video game fighter franchise finally lived up to its cinematic potential?

In a word, no. While the setup held promise, Tan’s Cole Young didn’t have the presence the main character needed, making the opening scene feel like a deplorable bait-and-switch. Worse yet, MK 2021 feels small, less like it has anything to do with “the fate of billions” and more like a series of incidental grudge matches. We never get to “the tournament” because everyone is breaking the rules, possibly to reuse existing sets in favor of better and more expensive location shots. Some of the effects look pretty decent — a few even fairly graphic — and the eventual resolution of the initial two rivals gets resolved, but too many scenes look unfinished or abandoned. Even after 26 years, no one else has managed to get this concept to work in a feature setting.

To compare and contrast 2021 to 1995, Jessica McNamee does make a better Sonja Blade than Bridgette Wilson, but the ladies are far more underused in the modern incarnation, reduced to little more than plot points and fatalities. The remaining cast is either underutilized or underwhelming with everything taken too seriously in spite of all the absurdity; Mehcad Brooks (“Supergirl’s” James Oslen) is noticeably better than what he was given to work with. The 2021 story is a mess, from how invitations are won to gaining unique supernatural abilities, bordering on the ridiculous; any sense intended in the script prior to shooting appears to have been completely abandoned. While Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s Shang Tsung (rocking his bad-ass coat-trope) influenced the elder in-game character so much they remodeled Tsung in his image, too much of 2021 looks like cosplay costuming and makeup, including a laughable amount of removing one’s mask to speak in a post-COVID world.

Linden Ashby’s Johnny Cage was a welcome foil for all the nonsense in the original: “I’m in a hostile environment. I’m totally unprepared. And I’m surrounded by a bunch of guys who probably want to kick my ass. I feel like I’m back in high school!” This character not only noticeably missing from 2021 but clearly being set up for a sequel to introduce him… should the reboot be successful. Viewers still looking for escapism may find the new film passable, but with better options like Godzilla vs. Kong still out in theaters and streaming, only a lowered financial expectation will see such lackluster Kombat continue.

Mortal Kombat 2021 is rated R for strong bloody violence and language throughout, some crude references, and a missed opportunity for someone to tell Sub-Zero: “Let it go, Elsa.”

Two skull recommendation out of four

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