MK 2021 has got some fighting spirit, but franchise purists might have trouble accepting the new champion.
Warner Brothers drops another marquee movie this spring, in theaters and on HBO Max. It’s been 24 years since a Mortal Kombat movie has been made, with the silly and visually dreadful Annihilation accomplishing what was written on the tin: annihilating the franchise. Luckily, since then the video game series has rehabilitated itself and now the movie franchise looks to do the same.
While Mortal Kombat 2021 has a lot of stuff that radically changes the structure of the MK story you’re used to, it also does a lot of things that are interesting. It’s not the Mortal Kombat story I would have written, but it’s an entertaining movie once you get over the changes.
Mortal Kombat (2021)
MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan) seeks out Earth’s greatest champions in order to stand against the hostile forces of Outworld in a high stakes battle for the universe.
Strong Up Front, Squishy in the Middle.
Mortal Kombat serves up the good stuff right away. The opening sequence showing the tragic culmination of the rivalry between the Shinrai Ryu clan (Scorpion) and the Lin Kuei ninjas (Sub Zero) is everything you want: Joe Taslim’s Sub Zero is an intimidating baddy, and Hiroyuki Sanada‘s Scorpion is the strongest character in the movie; there’s real emotional stakes in the fight; each stage of the fight is gorgeously choreographed and bloody gruesome. MK at its best.
From there, our introduction to Jax and Sonya is good, but could have used more focus. Sonya in particular feels a bit like the script didn’t quite what to do with the compelling performance Jessica McNamee puts out. It’s in meeting our “main” character, Cole Young, that things start to come apart.
Lump of Cole.
I like Lewis Tan. He’s been in tons of productions I enjoyed: Wu Assassins, Deadpool 2, Into the Badlands. All great stuff, and he’s definitely proved his fighting chops. It’s not him that holds Cole Young back, it’s the script.
Cole is the most exasperating of movie character tropes – the nice guy dropped into a bad situation way over his head. It’s meant to work as an audience surrogate, but it fails cause he’s just written so bland. In a movie about ripping out hearts and punching out spines, being the nice guy is a liability. He’s also the “reluctant hero” who only gets his powers at the last second…even though the movie telegraphs the inciting incident so blatantly that it is zero surprise when it happens. In a movie about bloody combat, filled with big characters with rich back-stories, a generic newbie is not what I was looking for.
Nice Death Squad.
So, what about what you really came for: is MK 2021 a good representation of Mortal Kombat?
Yes and no.
First, I like the character selection. Most of the heroes you’d want to see are here (or teased for future sequels!) and they’re mostly well done. I think Liu Kang needed to be a bit more competent and Sonya needed to be acknowledged as the linchpin of the team earlier, but their actors put in work. The bad guys are a real treat as you get baddies that are deep dives from the video game franchise. Bold move to bring in so many named characters instead of using cannon fodder. That being said, I think a few too many of them do wind up just being cannon fodder.
As for iconic kills, Mortal Kombat 2021 mostly nails it. There were a few fan favorites that were visually fun but felt a tad corny. Then there were a few unexpected fatalities that were completely badass. On the whole, the film embraced MK’s bloodlust without feeling like a grindhouse slasher.
Reset the Tournament Bracket?
The part that feels off about being a MK movie is that…we don’t really get a tournament? There are fights aplenty, but you never get the iconic martial arts tournament on Shang Tsung’s mysterious island that made the 1995 MK (and original game) feel like an homage to Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon.
This MK is more like The Hunger Games, where fights break out all over the place, most of them ambushes or desperate melees. I liked how it worked for the first two acts, but I kinda expected it to eventually settle down into a real tournament now that the good guys have all met the bad guys and developed rivalries.
Mortal Kombat 2021 had a lot of hurdles to overcome. It had to service a franchise with decades of lore, characters, and plot lines in a way that was accessible to first time viewers. It also had to distinguish itself (and arguably redeem) earlier movie versions of that franchise. And lastly, it had to tell a story worth sitting down for, regardless of your affection/knowledge of MK’s history.
Taking it in reverse order: I think MK 2021 works just fine as its own movie. Yeah, I wanted to see some characters do more and some do less, but it’s a solid story with great visuals. As a martial arts movie, the fights are visceral and cool-looking, both with the practical choreography and CG spectacle.
As a comparison to the other movies and MK in general, I think it’s right in the middle. It’s way better than the second movie, MK: Annihilation, and is less bonkers than many of the pre-reboot game stories. I actually like MK 1995 as a movie a tad more, just because it really nailed the feel of the first video game, which MK 2021 is way different from. The post-reboot video game story has been remarkably coherent, so it’s a bit better as well…but it has a 20 hour campaign in order to tell its story and develop its characters.
Overall, the film is engaging and sports some cool moments. Some choices may not please franchise purists, but in a franchise with hundreds of characters, you’d be hard pressed to get everyone’s favorite right. I enjoyed it and think it did enough to establish a new story-line that actually has me interested in the movie series going forward.