I have already posted the video review for the 2021 Mortal Kombat reboot movie on the YouTube channel ( https://youtu.be/zDXpRwnJjzE) so if you want my (relatively) immediate reaction to this movie then go check that out. This written review is intended to go a little more in depth than even that hour plus video. This took me four days to finalize. It has been quite the journey. Let’s dive in!
Forewarning… this will be long. Also, there will be SPOILERS… you have been warned.
I am first and foremost a Mortal Kombat nerd. I have been fascinated by the lore of the games since they launched in 1992. Watching the red, yellow, and black glow of those arcade cabinets as a second grade kid is the reason I would pester my mom for whatever change she could spare every time we went to the mall, or for pizza, or bowling, or just generally anywhere there were arcades to begin with. If the arcade hall was without Mortal Kombat, I grew disinterested quickly.
When the first movie was released three short years later I saw it when it premiered, and then again at least twice more in theaters. While, even then, I saw the flaws with the lore adaptation, the pure excitement of seeing these characters on the big screen was enough to power me for years to be quite honest. It was helpful that the first movie was, and honestly still is, one of the best videogame-to-movie adaptations ever.
Ignoring the next live-action movie iteration of the property (even though I have seen that ALMOST as many times as the original), the next time we would see a worthy live-action version of Mortal Kombat would be Conquest (spelled without a “K” for some reason) in 1998. While this DID keep the sour taste of the second movie at bay, it didn’t wash it out completely. With a plot that followed the ancestor of the Kung Lao from the game’s timeline, there were too many liberties taken and too much filler to keep fans interested longer than 1 season.
Next would be Rebirth, an unofficial short film released to the world on YouTube in 2010. The hope for live-action was born anew with this. Even if, again, the lore was far adrift from what I had grown to know and love. That last part seems to be a growing theme…
Then we would be blessed with Legacy. The officially sanctioned offspring of Rebirth. This time, instead of the lore being something seen as “up for interpretation,” it was being taken seriously and the filmmaker, Kevin Tancharoen, seemed to be embracing it. While there were still deviations, they were fairly minor and seemed to keep newcomers interested in the property, so they were accepted by myself and the rest of the fandom.
From Legacy came the hopes, and a myriad of rumors, for a reboot movie in cinemas. Tancharoen originally wanted to do a movie for WB, which is why he made Rebirth to begin with. He was slated to sit on the director’s chair to start, but as is likely to happen in Hollywood, he left the project for reasons unknown. For years the movie lingered in development hell until James Wan took interest in the property in 2015. Though even he would give up the director’s seat in favor of simply producing the film, and bring on Simon McQuoid, a first-time feature director, a year later. McQuoid and Wan would bring in writers Greg Russo, a first-time feature writer, and Dave Callaham (WW84) to adapt Oren Uziel’s original script for the Tancharoen fronted project.
That brings us to the current year and our newest attempt at making a movie franchise of this property that I love so much.
Mortal Kombat 2021 has a LOT of steam behind it. From the high expectations of the fandom to the years of attempts and failures, much is weighing on this film in the world of Mortal Kombat. Which is why before the first frame of the movie began to roll it seemed strange to bring in a director from the world of commercial advertisement, and an even less tested writer. That director did seem to have nerd credit, and the writer CLAIMS to be a Mortal Kombat fan specifically. The way he presents himself doesn’t give any reason to doubt such claims, so the fandom seems to have reluctantly accepted his place on the writing staff. As for McQuoid, in interviews he has said all the right things, from the “R” rating to the care they were taking to make sure the fans and normies loved this movie just as much as the other. So, again, the fandom has been reticent to open their arms, but they have still opened them nonetheless.
All that steam, and uneasy goodwill, has been repaid with a very fun, though VERY uneven, movie.
To adequately breakdown this movie to see the good and the bad for what it is we will have to attack it from a few different angles. First, we will take a look at the mythology. Not just the mythology of the movie as compared to the game, but also the internal mythology that it seems the production staff seem to be attempting to develop. Second is story. What is the story they are trying to tell, and how well do they tell it? I will try to give suggestions for how I feel the issues in this section could be fixed, as well as alternate approaches to the story as a whole. Third, and final, we will look at the technical aspects of the film, from writing to directing to acting to perceived producer interference.
To be fair, I would like to start with the internal mythology before we branch out.
The movie starts in 1617 feudal Japan at the Hanzo Hasashi compound. Why this is significant is unknown to newcomers at this point. We find out that Hanzo has some issues with what seems to be a rival clan known as the Lin Kuei. Again, why the audience should care about any of these names is a mystery to anyone unfamiliar with the lore. The fight scene that happens at this point is FANTASTIC, but the significance of any of this is a big question mark for those without previous knowledge of the franchise. FINALLY, we get a few lines of text on the screen telling us that there is a catastrophe headed to Earth. The name of that catastrophe is called “Outworld” and somehow Hanzo, who is now dead, will have something to do with averting said catastrophe.
So, here we have some mythology to cover. First, the internal mythology definitely suggests that the bloodline of Hanzo Hasashi will factor into the future of this franchise. Stands to reason that Scorpion himself would play a heavy role in THIS movie based on this information. More on that in a bit. In actuality it has to do more with the descendants of Hasashi. So that child that Bi-Han missed (somehow… did he and the remaining Lin Kuei RUN away from the scene of the crime?) is more important than anyone really realized, I’m sure. So far the internal mythology seems fine. Fairly vague, but not broken.
As for the mythology compared to the video game, that too seems largely intact. There is no crazy departure from what the games have established, short of the time and the fact that Hanzo had two children in this movie and just one in the game mythology. So there weren’t ANY survivors of the Shirai Ryu massacre as far as the games are concerned. The big issue with the difference in this mythology versus the games is the information in those lines of text. Hanzo has little, if anything, to do with saving Earthrealm from Outworld. The reason Scorpion was even involved with the tournament was to exact revenge on Sub-Zero (Bi-Han). The fate of the world was nowhere near Scorpion’s mind. Again, though, because they don’t go into much detail as to WHY these two clans hate each other, things seem a bit vague.
Technically this scene is a mixed bag. The aforementioned vagueness can be chalked up to, in my opinion, a lacking script, and a director over eager to flex his action movie muscles. Knowing what we know of the writing staff, specifically that Oren Uziel being part of the ORIGINAL production team that also had connections to the Rebirth movie and Legacy series, the later of which had a PERFECT recreation of the game story. Cinematography wise, this opener is largely beautiful. Sure some of the editing decisions are modern American action film cliche at this point, but otherwise very impressive. Scripting is fine, though if this scene truly happened in 17th century Japan, why does Bi-Han speak English at the end?
The Beginning… for real this time
Moving on from that opening scene we are now in modern day, and we meet Cole Young. Is it just me or is that fight promoter like cartoonishly a dick to Cole? He mocks Cole’s “fighting,” saying that “fighting requires both attacking and defending.” We as viewers don’t really know it yet, but Cole is a former champion, and in the subsequent fight he nearly wins. These are not the hallmarks of someone who should be mocked for his ability.
We soon run into Sub-Zero who is hunting people with marks like the one on Cole’s chest. Cole and his family are saved in the scene by Jax. Jax sends Cole to find Sonya Blade, his partner, while he heads after Sub-Zero. After a short fight, Sub-Zero shatters Jax’s arms and leaves him for dead.
Internal mythology here remains vague. Possibly even more than before. How does Sub-Zero live for 400+ years? How does he know who has a mark? How did he find Cole? While none of this breaks the mythology, that is only because the mythology is unsettled.
Comparing mythologies here there is a bit to unpack. First, this is now the fifth version of how Jax gets his cybernetic arms. In the original game continuity they start as a cosmetic enhancement. There was an issue and they became permanent. In the new game continuity, they are ripped off by the red ninja Ermac. In the first movie timeline they are cosmetic as well, but he ditches them for the real thing after a confidence boost. In the animated movie Scorpion’s Revenge, Jax’s arms are torn off by Goro. Which begs the question, do we NEED a new reason for Jax’s cybernetic arms? Cole is a made-up character, so anything he does to greatly effect the story will be a deviation from the game mythology. Also, Sub-Zero never sides with Shang Tsung directly. Sure, in the first game and the first portion of MK9, they are both bad-guys, and technically both working with Quan Chi, but not directly. And that is all a whole different story.
The biggest concern through this portion of the movie is the story. The production staff are so concerned with their made-up character, they have to spend time poorly developing his story to the detriment of the actual story at large. If this were a better written movie they would actually show us how Cole is struggling, and not just pay some half-cocked lip service to it. They do a fine job of showing the Young family bond, but they don’t give us reason to believe that Cole belongs here.
We get a brief aside in Outworld. We are introduced to Shang Tsung and Mileena. Presumably denizens of this place referred to as Outworld, and tied to Sub-Zero’s attacks on our main characters. Nothing else of note here happens, though it is strange that Tsung and Mileena are strangely covered in dirt for no discernible reason.
Next up in the story is our introduction to not one but THREE more characters. First is Sonya. She is played by Jessica McNamee to decent effect. Her line delivery borders on cardboard from time to time but she is passable. Here Sonya is the one who has to convince others that the thing known as Mortal Kombat is real, in something closely resembling a scene from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. We go through some easter eggs before we meet Kano. (Who magically kept quiet until now.) Josh Lawson’s Kano is delightful, in the worst way. And so far he and Hanzo are the characters that most closely resembles their video game counterparts. The scene ends with our introduction to Syzoth, the real name of the character known as Reptile. He is a reptilian creature with acid saliva, and a long powerful tongue. I erroneously said otherwise in the video review, because I forgot about the ONE line of dialogue out of eleven proper games that tells us this. So this is, in fact, the Reptile of the game. Possibly the LARGEST departure from the games in multiple ways. His appearance only vaguely resembles the version of the character we saw in Armageddon, and from a story standpoint it is a peculiar choice to kill off a fan favorite character in such an abbreviated way.
All in all from an internal mythology standpoint this scene is key. It gives us a taste of where we are headed in this world. We learn that this thing, whatever it is, goes back many years. We learn that there are many more players involved than that text told us at the beginning. And we truly learn how the mark works. Since this is still only setting up the internal mythology, there are no internal logic issues.
The external mythology is a whole different story. There are a few departures here that are both questionable as well as intriguing. It is strange that of all the characters in this film (a shocking 14 game characters when all is said and done plus Cole Young, not all that much shy of the 22 from the horrid Annihilation which everyone agrees should never happen again) Sonya Blade and Jackson Briggs are the two that are set to convince the rest of the Earthrealm contingency that this is real. Being as they are military characters, it would stand to reason that they would be good audience surrogate characters. Much more so than Cole Young… but we will get to that at the end of this. The relationship with Kano seems needlessly vague. They do say that the reason he is there is because he has the mark, but killed to get it. Hence the chains. No mention of the violent history between he and Sonya very specifically. The most egregious offense here is poor Reptile. Not only does he die very unceremoniously (an event that has yet to happen in the games despite their tendency to kill characters fairly freely), but he also isn’t even blessed with even a quasi human form. The thing that I feel is a bit of a stroke of brilliance is the method in which the champions are chosen for the tournament. The mark is great. It implies that the Elder Gods, who are responsible for the existence of the tournament to begin with, have a greater hand in the tournament than just making it a requirement before invasion. In the original mythology, the champions of the realm are half chosen by Shang Tsung, and half picked by Raiden (both of whom we will meet in a moment.
Technically speaking here we see some solid filmmaking again. Special effects are well executed, Reptile and all his abilities, even his death, are all solid CGI. There is some sloppy ADR when Sonya first takes Cole into the back where the conspiracy wall is, but pretty harmless in the grand scheme.
This should be picking up by now
From here we go to search out what Kano calls, “Raiden’s Temple.” A character we have technically been introduced to in the first scene, he was the one that took Hanzo’s youngest child (seriously… if Bi-Han was looking to eliminate the Hasashi bloodline, why did he leave SO fast?). If I didn’t know these characters so intimately, I doubt very highly that name would have any meaning at this point in the movie. Which might have been on purpose judging by the “big reveal” once we get inside the temple. We are also introduced to Liu Kang and Kung Lao, two monks from a Shaolin order of monks known as the Order of Light. Jax has been retrieved from his frozen battle minus his arms, with the monks of Raiden’s temple “scouring the realms” to find some sort of cure. Here, too, we learn about the source of the fighters extra abilities, referred to as their “arcana.” The newcomers, being Kano and Cole (not Sonya though since she has no mark), are to develop their arcana before the beginning of the tournament. It is apparently unknown WHEN the tournament will actually begin, though Liu Kang implies it is likely to happen inside of the month. Sonya is allowed to stay in the temple for moral support, but her participation is strictly forbidden as without a mark she will never receive her arcana.
This is where the internal mythology starts to break a bit. Liu Kang refers to Raiden in his introduction as “The Great Protector.” Raiden himself says that he is a god, and we have seen him exhibit lightning powers, so that seems to stand. Being a god, he is supposedly forbidden from interfering with the tournament. But he interfered with Hanzo’s bloodline back in 1617, and he helps train the champions. Those actions, among others we will see later, could all be considered interference. The arcana seems to be needlessly convoluted, though not necessarily broken.
Comparing this to the existing mythology is actually not as messy as previous sections. While there are no mentions of a temple for Raiden per se, it does stand to reason that being a god, there would be a temple in his honor. The arcana is a little needless. In the games the character’s powers come from their inner chi. Meaning anyone can achieve the height. Which honestly is kind of a wash. The exclusivity of the arcana being allotted only to those bearing the mark makes sense in the tournament aspect, but it also seems a little restrictive from the angle of protecting the realm. And the people the Elder Gods seem to choose to bear the mark are horrible. There is Sub-Zero, who is obviously evil in this movie, the guy Kano killed, who is dumb enough to do business with Kano, The man Liu Kang took his from who was a child trafficker, and so on. It is also a nice touch that we see Shinnok’s amulet (that thing Kano tried to steal), Kitana’s bladed fan, the mythology artwork showing the great Kung Lao (the ancestor of the one training our champions), the burying of Taven by the gods Argus and Delia, and Goro finally defeating the Great Kung Lao.
More of the same from the technical side of things here. With one minor exception, when Raiden expels the villains from his temple (which why was it so easy for them to gain access to begin with?) there is a very strange scene transition that was like something out of 90s kids’ TV.
Seriously… This IS Mortal Kombat right?
When only Kano finds his arcana, Raiden convinces Cole that he should go home, because reasons. Then Shang Tsung brings MORE assassins to try and eliminate the remaining Earthrealm threat by introducing, to questionable degrees, Reiko, Kabal, Nitara, and bringing back Mileena. Kabal, having a previous relationship with Kano, talks Kano into switching sides and sabotaging the protection that Raiden has put into place that is keeping the villains out. Once this is done we get another group battle, that seems to have our champions on the proverbial ropes. Back in Illinois, Cole is sabotaged by Prince Goro. The battle unlocks Cole’s arcana, and he overpowers the four-armed beast… on his own. Back in Raiden’s Temple, Jax and his meager cybernetic arms are no match for Reiko’s war hammer, Sonya can’t handle Mileena and then Kano, Liu Kang is too slow for Kabal, and Kung Lao takes out Nitara only to lose his soul to Shang Tsung just in time for Raiden to teleport all the other good guys to a neutral realm where Tsung cannot follow.
Ok and now the internal mythology has fully broken. Raiden cannot interfere, until people start dying apparently. AND he has access to a realm where they cannot be followed? Why not do the training in the neutral place from the beginning. Then we are supposed to believe that a character the filmmakers have been showing us is a total badass is also dumb enough to get his soul sucked? At one point in this portion of the movie as well, Raiden refers to himself as an Elder God, which he isn’t even in this movie mythology.
As far as the game mythology is concerned we have long been overboard. This is all before the tournament, and acts of aggression are expressly forbidden before the tournament. Nitara would never side with Shang Tsung, because he works for Shao Kahn and she wants her realm out from under Kahn’s thumb. Kung Lao in fact IS a badass. While he does eventually die, it isn’t until after the second tournament. Liu Kang is one of the most powerful humans in Earthrealm, him not being powerful enough to take out Kabal is not a thing. The Jax’ arms thing is actually a cool change in my opinion to the original and current game lore. His arms being powerful as a result of his inner chi (or arcana) is a good way to tie his abilities in with the rest of the Earthrealm contingency.
Writing in this section, much like the internal mythology, is mediocre at best. The acting of those written lines also has more of a tendency to run like cardboard. The worst offense is Cole Young’s motivational speech in the neutral realm. All of the sudden after basically doing nothing all movie he takes charge, gives probably the most bland line delivery of the whole movie, and the other characters do what he says, in spite of it basically being to just do EXACTLY what they just failed at. Also, the spacing of the previous group fight and the upcoming group fight is very poorly planned. Seems that putting the first one more toward the middle of the movie and then showing how the group IMPROVES OVER TIME before having the second one is a better way to tell this story.
MORTAL KOMBAT BEGINS!
The final section of this movie is the culmination of all the action we have been promised since that first scene. Because of that it largely feels rushed. We have the rematch between pretty much everyone who JUST fought. Jax, who’s arcana kicked in when trying to save Sonya after the previous fight, now with huge, powerful cybernetic arms goes against Reiko again, Liu Kang gets Kabal, Sonya gets Kano, Cole gets Mileena. This time, again for reasons, the good guys win. Sonya gets her mark AND arcana from defeating Kano (all of the sudden she can just use it too… weird). All of this leads us to the final fight of the movie… Cole Young versus Sub-Zero? Well, kinda. Remember how Cole is Hanzo’s descendant? Well when he gets his hands on the kunai that Hanzo died with, and his blood mixes with the hundreds of years old blood, it recalls Hanzo, now Scorpion, from the Netherrealm. It is Hanzo who fights Sub-Zero, and it eventually triumphant. The plan was to have the whole group fight Sub-Zero, but no one else shows up until after Scorpion has burnt him to a crisp. Shang Tsung also enters at the end, seemingly just to give the movie an out for all the deaths that probably shouldn’t have happened.
We get another example of just how broken this internal mythology is here with Raiden teleporting Tsung out of there. If he had just done that to begin with none of this mess would have happened, and Kung Lao would still be alive. All of that aside, how does Cole understand Japanese?
Game comparisons are really just silly at this point. With the death of Kung Lao, who isn’t even invited to the first tournament, before the first tournament, not to mention the other characters who passed in an untimely manner, there really is no point to make game comparisons any more. Side note here: if Jax and Reiko are rematching on what appears to be the pit, why did he not knock Rieko
On the technical side, I suppose this is as good a time as any to talk about the extreme editing in this movie. At many points it feels like the editor was tasked with bringing the overall run time of this movie at any cost. So instead of finding a scene to cut, or even a character (lord knows there’s plenty of them here), he cut 10 seconds here and 5 seconds there, and so on. It is the most evident in the fight scenes here, where there are a couple shots that last literally frames long, not even a whole second.
Our final scene of the movie is basically just the post-credits scene, that they forgot to put after some credits. Here we see Cole Young leaving the fighting behind him to go to Hollywood and presumably find Johnny Cage for the sequel, and hopefully the tournament
In spite of all the critical issues I have with the film, it was still a blast and a half watching this movie. There is plenty of reason to like this movie, but there are obviously some issues that a lore head like myself, just wouldn’t miss them.
I do think there are a small few better ideas for this movie that were not considered because the studio was convinced that their audience was dumb, and that those who had never interacted with something that bore the name Mortal Kombat needed a new character to explain everything.
1) My favorite of the three, let Liu Kang be the audience surrogate. You can basically have the same movie (minus the ancestrial link to scorpion). If approached similarly to the original film, or the Legacy series for the basis of Liu Kang, This movie could have been nearly perfect. Then you just inset ACTUAL jobbers into the positions that Kabal, Reiko, Nitara, Mileena, and Goro filled (because the realm of Outworld is TEAMING with fodder for this purpose), and you are that much closer to perfection.
2) Another built in option for audience surrogate character is Johnny Cage. Swap HIM out for Cole, and all the stipulations from the first point and again you could have had a much more widely accepted movie.
3) If you really wanted to explore some new ground, Sonya and Jax being the audience surrogate characters could have been great too. Super Dave brought this one up in our video review. We learn the backstory of the tournament while Sonya and Jax are researching it / uncovering evidence for it.
One thing here that runs between all of these possible fixes is that for the first movie we should see a few LESS characters. that way the story has time to breathe and you actually have time to develop the characters more fully, so as to do justice to the hardcore fans. The casuals will follow along because the content is so good.
And that is the written review… thanks for joining me nerds. Always, ALWAYS, remember that if it’s Generally Nerdy, it’s probably here!!