Mortal Kombat (2021)

This is a bad movie, but I did have fun with it. It has a bad story, mediocre characters and truly painful dialogue. But it has inventive action and a great look. I ended up having fun with it.

Based on the popular video game franchise, Mortal Kombat follows a group of fighters chosen to compete for the fate of earth in the great tournament of Mortal Kombat.

I might spoil some plot details, so if you want to be surprised stop reading now.

The movie opens with the wonderful Hioryuki Sanada as a warrior in feudal Japan. His wife and son are murdered by Bi-Han, played by Joe Taslim. Bi-Han has crazy ice powers, and Sanada has a gardening trowel and a length of rope that he uses to slaughter a dozen or so guys before going toe to toe with Bi-Han. This revenge story is the most compelling in the entire movie, but it gets set aside for 90% of the runtime. I don’t know who thought shelving their most imteresting and compelling characters would be a good idea, but they were wrong.

We pick up with Cole Young played by Lewis Tan. He’s a washed up MMA fighter who used to be champ. He’s pulled into the world of Mortal Kombat when Bi-Han returns to assassinate him. (Bi-Han is now going by the name Sub-Zero in a very silly moment that reminds me of an angst teen reminding his parents to call him by his cool new nickname that he made up for himself.) Anyway, we are treated to a sequence of name drops in which Cole is introduced to people in super dramatic fashion. “ This is… Kung Lau!” “Meet… Kano!” “This is… Lord Raiden!!!” This is very silly because Cole has never heard of these people. The name Raiden means nothing to Cole. The dramatic reveal of Kung Lau is just silly if you don’t know who he is. If you’re a fan of the games I’m sure these intros will be super cool. If you’re not it’s just silly.

Anyway Cole meets Sonja played by Jessica McNamee. She’s ex special forces. Which is just lazy screenwriter shorthand for inexplicably great fighter. She has been tracking the legends of mortal Kombat for years. She bribes Kano, played by Josh Lawson to take her and Cole to ancient temple no one can find. Kano is good fun as a character. He is brash and arrogant and provides a welcome irreverence for the proceedings. He has more personality than anyone else in the movie. Our trio arrived at the temple to find Liu Kang, played by Ludi Lin. Liu Kang says he’s been looking for them for years. This is narrative redundancy. Sonja is piecing details together about the tournament. Meanwhile someone who has all the answers has been looking for them the whole time! Basically Sonja and Liu serve the same narrative purpose; assemble the team and explain the rules. The story is so thin and the characters so plentiful that they have to do double duty on simple narrative functionality.

It turns out that the sinister denizens of Outworld are breaking all the rules in order to guarantee victory in the upcoming tournament. Much like with the heroes there’s a sequence of dramatic introductions that didn’t mean much to me. What’s worse is there’s no motivation for the villains. If they win the tournament they get to invade earth. Why do they want earth? Do we have resources they need? Is there an ancient grudge? This might be answered in the wider franchise, but within this narrative, there’s nothing.

The movie divides its time evenly between great action and terrible dialogue. When they’re fighting, the choreography’s interesting and unique. The action is imaginative and fun. The special effects are fantastic. Sub-Zero’s ice effects are particularly impressive. However whenever they stop fighting and start talking I’m just squirming in pain. It’s all bad exposition, stilted backstory, and half naked character development. At one point I said out loud “just shut up and start punching each other again.”

I never played the game, but I know it’s reputation for gruesome violence. That violence is on full display here. There’s some of the most ridiculously over the top kills I’ve seen. A character gets cut in half. Another has his head exploded. It’s ridiculous! It’s also fun if you enjoy that sort of thing.

The movie is a failure as a story because none of its stories are properly motivated or paid off. Cole is a washed up former champion who somewhere along the way lost his will to fight. He trains for the tournament but scrubs out because his heart isn’t in it. He returns to his family where you’d think he’d get the pep talk he needs to get over his mental block and rejoin the fight for the fate of earth. That doesn’t happen. He goes home. They get attacked by a four armed monster. He just sort gets angry and starts fighting again. There is no growth, no meaningful change. He just takes a brief detour before the big final fight. If they had replaced the pep talk with some other motivator or moment of personal growth it would have worked great. They didn’t, so the whole thing just feels hollow.

So why did I have fun? Well it looks great. It has a vibrant color palette and some cool world designs. I like the final ice covered gymnasium. The action is frequent and kinetic. The pace is fast. The actors look great. Kano is fun. The climactic confrontation is really well done. They clearly invested a lot of time and effort into making the fights as awesome as possible. It’s bad, but it checks enough boxes for me to make it a good bad movie. There’s creativity. Someone is going all in. It’s fast paced. It’s a good bad movie for me.

I enjoyed enough of it. It’s half a cup of tea for me. B

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