Review: “Mortal Kombat” (2021)

I knew before I even started to watch “Mortal Kombat” that it was not made for me. I have only a cursory familiarity with the video games it is based on, and have not seen the 90s movies that it is a reboot of (1997’s “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation” was in particular a critical and commercial failure). But I was hoping that I would still be able to enjoy it as a fun action movie on its own. As it turns out, for those who aren’t established fans of the franchise, director Simon McQuoid’s “Mortal Kombat” delivers on some eye-catching, gory action sequences, but is severely lacking in an engaging plot or characters.

Scorpion in “Mortal Kombat”

The film opens with a prologue set in 17th century Japan, where members of a rival clan led by Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) come to the home of warrior Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), taking Hanzo to the Netherrealm and killing his family—all except for a baby girl, hidden by her mother and later brought to safety by Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano).

The story then jumps ahead to the present day, where we meet Hanzo’s descendant, a prize fighter named Cole Young (Lewis Tan). Cole only becomes aware of his heritage, however, after he and his family are attacked by Bi-Han, now known as Sub-Zero. Cole is rescued by a special forces agent named Jax (Mehcad Brooks), who sends him to find his partner Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee). Sonya and Jax have been investigating the existence of Mortal Kombat, a series of tournaments fought between members of the Outworld and Earthrealm for control of the Earthrealm. According to prophecy, the blood of Hanzo—Cole—will unite the Earthrealm warriors to defeat the Outworld.

Mehcad Brooks as Jax in “Mortal Kombat”

There is a lot packed in to “Mortal Kombat” that should excite existing fans of the franchise, from character catchphrases to the gloriously gory action sequences that become more over the top as the film progresses. But fan service alone doesn’t make a good movie adaptation, and it really doesn’t do anything to draw in new fans either. “Mortal Kombat” is mildly confusing for a film essentially about a death match tournament (a tournament that really doesn’t even happen in the film? The conflict never feels as high stakes as it ought to) but it has bigger problems than that. The characters are wooden, as are the actors playing them (not that they are given the best material to work with). The most interesting character is the mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson), primarily because he is the only one given an actual personality. And a personality is really what this movie is lacking; there is little humor, and even less heart. Even the majority of the action is merely serviceable; an over-abundance of digital effects that don’t look particularly great detract from the appearance of the combat scenes, especially a shame considering that some members of the cast, like Taslim, are legit martial arts experts.

Perhaps now that the set up and training—which this film spends the majority of its time covering—has been taken care of, a potential sequel will be more exciting. Perhaps “Mortal Kombat” fans will be happy with this adaptation. But even for someone like me just looking for some mindless fun, “Mortal Kombat” gave me next to nothing to grab on to.

“Mortal Kombat” is now playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max until May 23. Runtime: 110 minutes. Rated R.

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