From an era of perpetually terrible game to movie adaptations, 1995’s Mortal Kombat stands as a film beloved by many. Its addictive camp energy and iconic theme song have cemented it as the definitive game to film adaptation (let’s not talk about Mortal Kombat: Annihilation). In recent times, however, this trend has resurfaced. Though with far greater results - both Sonic the Hedgehog and The Super Mario Bros. Movie having enjoyed great financial success. During this revival of video game adaptations, in 2021 the Mortal Kombat franchise once again tried its hand at recapturing its cinematic supremacy, with the release of the inventively named Mortal Kombat.
As Simon McQuoid’s theatrical directorial debut, the film follows series newcomer Cole Young (Lewis Tan), an aspiring fighter and unknowingly the descendant of the famed ninja warrior, Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada). This ancestry results in Cole being recruited to the Mortal Kombat Tournament, which determines if the fiendish realm of Outworld can be allowed to invade and conquer Earthrealm. The primary backdrop of the film concerns Cole’s training for the contest.
The casting of esteemed Japanese actors, such as Sanada and Tadanobu Asano, who plays the thunder god Raiden, is commendable. Until recently, the franchise had greatly underappreciated its East Asian influences and, apart from the reliably authentic treatment of Shang Tsung, whitewashed many of these characters. This element of care can also be seen within the range of established characters the film includes. With a varied blend of classic fighters, McQuoid is clearly trying to convey a sense of appreciation of the franchise’s history.
Unfortunately, this is the extent of the positive aspects of the film, and even these come with major caveats. Both Sanada and Asano – who I found to be the most talented of the cast – are given little to do throughout the film. Much of the focus is instead given to Lewis Tan and co-star Jessica McNamee (playing Sonya Blade), who simply are not equals in their acting abilities. Even voice acted characters like Kabal (Damon Herriman) suffer – the voice they have chosen sounds absurd in the film’s aesthetic, reminding me of a ‘4Kids’ anime dub. This isn’t helped by the poor sound mixing, making Kabal’s voice sound like it’s just been placed on top of the film, rather than feeling like an organic part of it.
The range of characters also feels shallow, as many of the fan favourite characters that McQuoid uses simply serve as action set pieces. Mileena and Goro barely have any dialogue, and Reptile, Nitara, and Reiko do not have a single line. These characters feel like they have been added for soulless fan appeal rather than for narrative purposes, with their presence largely adding nothing to the film other than some mild variation in the action sequences.
In general, these action scenes feel lacklustre. Whilst their brutality is fun, the choppy approach to the editing makes what could otherwise have been enjoyable action sequences difficult to follow and overstimulating, worsened further by the overuse of inconsistent VFX. Sub-Zero’s fight scenes are, admittedly, fairly enjoyable. His ice powers make for some dynamic moments, but he certainly serves as the exception rather than the rule.
The central flaw with the film falls most clearly with its plot – or rather its lack of. This would be fine if the characters had any weight by themselves, but, as I’ve suggested, they simply don’t. The protagonist, Cole Young, is boring and unoriginal - his only purpose seemingly to act as a bland everyman for the audience. His co-stars don’t serve much better, with only Kano mustering some semblance of personality and even then, he is largely just obnoxious. Little actually occurs during the film, as if it was created purely to set up endless sequels. The second instalment, as expected, is already in development. Even the titular tournament is set up for the sequel, leaving the plot meandering in order to fill the runtime.
Darkly lit with a generally muted colour palette, the 2021 reboot clearly lacks the vibrancy and excitement of the 1995 release. The 90s classic perfectly captures the tone of a film about superpowered ninjas, cyborg soldiers, gods, and an assortment of monsters fighting to the gory death.
Whilst I found the 1995 film to be not particularly good, it at least had a charm and zeal that the droll seriousness of the 2021 film lacks. It routinely tries too hard to be cool, with jarring one liner references to the games, standing out from the film’s otherwise serious tone. The film feels transparently superficial, substituting fan service for any substance whatsoever. Without the status of the Mortal Kombat name, the film would be nothing. I found 2021’s Mortal Kombat to be less of an impassioned adaptation of the video game series and more of a shallow, corporate product - made not out of love, but for an easy buck.