Is that Optimal?: Mortal Kombat (2021)

24 years after Mortal Kombat: Annihilation disgraced Mortal Kombat, video games, film and humanity itself another go was given at bringing the hyper violent fighter to the big screen. Friday, April 23, Mortal Kombat was released in theaters and on streaming service HBO Max in the United States. As a huge fan of the franchise since I was a child, I was understandably hyped up to see my favorite characters and storylines play out utilizing today’s far superior technology. Even further I was fortunate enough to have the release day off work along with my equally excited, albeit less engrossed in MK lore, girlfriend Kirsten. We awoke the morning of the 23rd and immediately started the film, while questions ran through my mind such as: Will they do the lore of the games and fan favorite characters justice? Are they going to hold back or go all in on the violent nature of the source material? How much care have they put into the fights and fight choreography? Most Mortal Kombat fans are going to judge the films quality based on these tenets. They want to see their favorite fatalities, special moves and characters on a level they’ve never seen before. So the primary objective for director Simon McQuoid and his production team was to deliver on these aspects, but did they?

The movie opens with an intense, well executed, aesthetically satisfying sequence, introducing the series’ most famous rivalry between masked “ninjas” Scorpion and Sub Zero. But since this scene is set in the year 1617, they’re still going by their government names of Hanzo Hasashi and Bi Han, respectively. It also introduces Hanzo’s wife, son and daughter before Hanzo goes to fetch some well water. During his task, Bi Han and his fellow Lin Kuei clan members show up at the house and murder his wife and son. Hanzo returns to find his family impaled and frozen solid in the front yard like a macabre lawn ornament, slaughters the Lin Kuei goons with his kunai spear and then does battle with Bi Han himself. The costume work clearly had meticulous effort put into it because if it weren’t for Bi Han’s ice projecting effects, which were also spectacularly handled, I could have been convinced the film was a period piece set in feudal Japan. After Bi Han emerges victorious in the titanic showdown with Hasashi by impaling the latter with his own kunai, leaving him for dead and a date with the Netherrealm, thunder god and protector of Earthrealm Raiden shows up, rescuing Hanzo’s baby daughter, who had been hidden in the floorboards of the Hasashi home. Roll opening credits. Right there, roughly 12 minutes into the movie, Mortal Kombat has already hit its peak and begins to descend into mediocrity.

Here’s a link to a summary of the rest of the film film. I’ll be focusing on story, character, fight and effects specifics from here on out. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mortal_Kombat_(2021_film)

Story

The story is weakest part of the film by far, allowing characters with important roles in the lore to go unused or ignored. Some were turned into jobbers or crash test dummies for grisly deaths. For the most part, every deviation from the established lore the writers took failed miserably.

  • As an attempt to explain some of the more fantastical elements of the film, the introduction of magic abilities called “arcana” that are unlocked in a variety of ways was an unnecessary addition the plot as it’s explanation only served to bog down the films pacing. We’re already watching a movie about monsters and gods from separate realm battling for the fate of the universe, it’s unneeded to explain why a monk can shoot fireballs from his hands.
  • The introduction of Cole Young was equally unnecessary, as his role could have been filled by Takeda Takahashi perhaps, or a combination of Johnny Cage and Liu Kang.
  • The choice to have the movie serve as a prequel to the tournament instead of just covering the tournament wasn’t needed either. It made Mortal Kombat feel like a 2 hour preview for the planned sequels.
  • There was a lot of questionable, stiff and silly dialogue even for an MK film. The writers did many characters a disservice by not giving them any relevancy in the plot. Some were there just to die, fatality style. They chose kill off a lot big players in the lore, then proceed to seemingly retcon the entire film by having Shang Tsung say that death isn’t always the end.
  • Not allowing Hanzo and Bi Han to have a true one on one battle in the climax of the film, having their guy Cole jump in on a 2v1, was another what were they thinking moment.
  • This story, since they wanted to make it a prequel, had plenty of unused, established lore to utilize: They could have further expanded upon the Scorpion-Sub Zero’s clan rivalry, along with Quan Chi’s string pulling to pit the two against each other. The history of the MK tournament, Outworld, Earthrealm and Edenia and the role that Shao Kahn, Shang Tsung and Raiden play in it, the Great Kung Lao and Goro’s rise to champion of Mortal Kombat, etc.

Characters

The characters are incredibly polarizing with some being well written and entertaining characters in every scene they feature in, while others are either ignored outright or have their place in the lore disrespected and altered in ways that besmirched the rich, 29 year history of MK.

  • Josh Lawson’s Kano and Max Huang’s Kung Lao are shining high points in the film. Both are well acted, with Lawson and Huang capturing their characters’ personality and swagger. Bantering back and forth throughout the film, the pair showed a chemistry that would be a mistake not to expand upon in future installments in the franchise.
  • Joe Taslim’s Sub Zero and Hiroyuki Sanada’s Scorpion are equally entertaining and satisfactorily given intimidating auras by their auteurs. The entire movie could’ve focused solely on this pair and been all the better for it.
  • Ludi Lin’s Liu Kang, Jessica McNamee’s Sonya and Mechad Brooks’ Jax occupy a strange space in the film. They’re not given much of a role in the plot outside of one or two scenes and their lores are altered in questionable ways. Liu Kang’s chosen one and Mortal Kombat champion role are essentially passed off to new character Cole, leaving him without a role in the story outside of exposition. Sonya is no longer a chosen combatant for Earthrealm and instead also falls mostly into an expository role. Jax serves as exposition, gets a new origin story for his mechanical arms, and then a second new origin story for his mechanical arms. They’re seemingly powered by magic called arcana now.
  • Chin Han’s Shang Tsung and Tadanobu Asano’s Raiden are given absolutely nothing to do in the plot except be magical ferrys for their realms respective champions. After how Christopher Lambert and Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa chewed scenery in MK ‘95 both are a massive letdown.
  • Reiko, Reptile and Nitara exist only to be killed in gruesome fashion. Sisi Stringer’s Mileena doesn’t quite fall into this category but she’s close enough.
  • They turned Goro into a jobber for their new guy Cole. GORO. 9-time defending Mortal Kombat champion Goro. Killed the Great Kung Lao Goro. 4 armed behemoth, Prince and General of the armies of Shokan Goro. What were they thinking?
  • Cole Young. As much as I think Lewis Tan could be exceptional in an MK film, Cole Young is an absolutely terrible character. He’s very badly written, how is an mma fighter that’s also descended from Scorpion unable to beat guys at the local gym still selected to defend Earthrealm against the cosmos’ deadliest warriors? Why is an mma fighter with absolutely zero weapons training given Tonfa as part of his arcana ability? Cole was given a literal suit of plot armor as his special ability. Why does his blood on Hanzo’s kunai seemingly summon Scorpion from the Netherrealm? He’s unnecessary, could’ve been turned into a character that already exists in the lore or removed entirely and the movie would’ve benefitted or been unaffected.

Effects

The effects were mostly spectacular with a few inconsistencies with the cgi but also some perfect 10 out of 10 renditions of famous Mortal Kombat moves and abilities. As for the costume department, equally high praise is deserved as Cappi Ireland was able to flawlessly bring some of the most iconic Mortal Kombat kombatants to life in a way fans of the franchise could only dream of up until this point.

  • The effects on Sub Zero’s ice abilities are arguably the high point of the entire film, that’s just how good they are. From the opening scene down to the moment Bi Han uses Scorpion’s own frozen blood to wound the Netherrealm specter, from the frozen mma gym the films final battle takes place in to the derelict building where Sub Zero shatters Jax’s arms, every time Mortal Kombat shows off Sub Zero’s cryomancer powers is a classic moment in the making. His costume design as both Bi Han and Sub Zero were remarkable, letting his villainous nature present itself in a subtle way and the dark tones possibly alluding to his return from the Netherrealm as the shadow wraith Noob Saibot.
  • Everything about Kabal was top notch, from costume to abilities, personality to voice. They even gave him a surprisingly impactful role to play in the story. But the portrayal of Kabal’s speed abilities were fully realized and faithful to the source material, while also maintaining the suspension of disbelief, never getting too corny. Bonus points for his cool hookswords. His costume was masterfully crafted, not utilizing any cgi, just as all of the other costumes. Clearly inspired by his MK 11 look, Cappi Ireland’s design managed to top even that appearance. This is the best looking Kabal we’ve ever saw regardless of media.
  • Jax and Sonya aren’t exciting design even at their peaks in the games. That said, their designs in the film still managed to be a spot on rendition, Jax’s mechanical arms looked better than ever and Sonya’s energy rings looked great.
  • As for the monks of the order of light, Liu Kang and Kung Lao, both looked absolute immaculate, with Lao in particular being one the best designs in the movie. Their costumes perfectly encompassed their personalities as well, with Lao’s flashy attire and cocky persona playing off of Liu’s plain look and humble, everyman relatability. Although, it would have been nice to see a more confident Liu Kang, he didn’t seem quite his usual self. Liu’ fire effects were well executed, particularly his infamous dragon fatality. Lao on the other hand, only used his teleport once in a non combat scenario before relying solely on his hat from there out.
  • Reiko, Nitara and Shang Tsung were by far the most lacking designs, as a longtime fan, Reiko and Tsung were unrecognizable until referred to by name and Nitara, if not for her vampire wings, could’ve been any other character or nameless grunt. Their abilities were given similar treatment, Reiko and Nitara were turned from fearsome opponents into powerless displays of superiority for Jax and Kung Lao.
  • Costume work for Raiden and Kano was serviceable, easily recognizable but didn’t elevate the source material. Admittedly, there was no need to change their simple designs from game to film. Now, their abilities were done just as much justice as their costumes, nothing really groundbreaking was done, but instead faithfully recreated and well executed at that.
  • Main man Cole Young was as boring as his name implies and the plot decided. He obtained a literal suit of plot armor during his fight with Goro and while it was a well made costume, it completely lacked any sort of cool factor.
  • Instead of being an animatronic puppet, Prince Goro was instead developed entirely in cgi, which was a mistake, missing a huge opportunity to blend cgi with practical effects for as realistic a look as possible. Just as the writers dropped the ball on the Shokan general’s role in the story, the effects team failed to give the reigning champion of Mortal Kombat a look worthy of royalty.
  • Both Scorpion’s design and abilities were well represented here, he used his spear and his hellfire, said “get over here” and 100% looked as good if not better than he ever has before.
  • Mileena and Reptile were excellently designed, although we didn’t get to see Reptile’s human form, his saurian design was better than its ever looked including MKX’s hybrid design. We got to see Reptile utilize his invisibility and acid, though not to the extent I would have liked. One of the most satisfying moments in the film was seeing Mileena throw her head back, unveiling the extent of her tarkatan facial feature, blood dripping fangs and all. Not to mention, her teleport was well done, albeit it did look a little like that effect should belong to Smoke in a future installment.

Fights

The fights were action packed, slickly choreographed and tightly paced, fitting into the films runtime and advancing the plot when necessary. Altogether, Mortal Kombat 2021 had the superior fights compared to both of the 90’s films, outside of the iconic Liu Kang-Reptile showdown in ‘95. Other highlights included the training scenes with Cole, Liu Kang and Kung Lao, as their respective actors are also martial artists and were able to really display their skills. Surprisingly, the Kano-Sonya fight was incredibly entertaining despite Josh Lawson and Jessica McNamee not having fighting backgrounds. The close quarters, no holds barred grudge match managed to hit the brutal core MK fans are looking for. Of course, the two contests between poster boys Scorpion and Sub Zero were nothing short of mesmerizing, with one or two potentially classic moments contained within them. Even though I disliked the Kung Lao-Nitara and Jax-Reiko battles personally, I can’t deny the grisly fatalities were awesome, Jax gave Reiko the clap and exploded his head into red mist and brain goo and Kung Lao scored a flawless victory by sawing Nitara clean in half with his hat. Fan service at its peak, really.

Mortal Kombat 2021 was poorly paced, badly written and dipped a little too deep into carrying moments over from the games that didn’t translate well on film. It disregarded any sort of established lore in favor of developing its own, disrespecting characters that have long been fan favorites or giving them the silent treatment. The plot wasn’t cohesive and was barely able to keep up with itself, let alone engage an audience and get them to care about the heroes and their fight. It suffered from the same pitfalls we’ve seen in recent years with the DCEU and Monster-verse, it’s difficult to setup a cinematic universe and you really should be trying to make a good standalone film first and foremost or else the follow ups aren’t going to generate interest. Set design was uninspired outside of 2-3 scenes and not a single classic MK arena was included on screen. The acting was excellent considering the script and story they were given to work with. Any future sequels need to give these characters more impact on the plot, particularly Raiden, Shang Tsung and Liu Kang. These three are the key components in the initial MK lore and they need to be involved more purposefully. Costumes were a shining beacon in the darkness of the storm and I hope they only give Cappi Ireland more money and resources to go for broke in her vision of what these characters are to look like on the big screen. I’d give MK 2021 a lukewarm 5/10, definitely NOT OPTIMAL and doesn’t have me too optimistic for future entries in the film franchise.

Published by Ty Valentine

Hi, I'm a student studying for an Associate of Arts Degree and later pursuing my Bachelor's in Digital Journalism. I've been playing fighting games since I was a young buck in the late 90's and began delving into the competitive side of the genre 6 years ago. Hopefully you'll be entertained and educated by the content I'll be posting in this blog such as: fighting game history, game reviews, retrospectives, mechanics breakdown/analysis and me teaching my girlfriend Kirsten how to play Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat and Smash among other titles.

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