New Line Cinema and Threshold Entertainment released Paul Anderson’s “Mortal Kombat” back in 1995, three years after the same-named video game caused a stir verging on moral panic for allowing players to indulge in shocking violence. These were the days when gaming wasn’t an accepted mainstream practice, instead seen as a refuge for social misfits and potential school shooters; the people who knew “Mortal Kombat” were the ones playing it, and everyone else knew it from cultural pearl clutching. After almost thirty years, two movies, two TV series, and eighteen game installments, “Mortal Kombat” is about as mainstream as games get, which probably explains why, at long last, after spending ages in development hell, there’s a new “Mortal Kombat” movie available to stream.
As with the games, Simon McQuoid’s take on “Mortal Kombat” has evolved with the times: The production values are slicker, the gore is plentiful, the scope is increased. But “more” isn’t always more in franchise filmmaking. Where the games can get away with introducing a storytelling mode built on a foundation of convoluted silliness, the movies can’t; fire up your favorite gaming system and you’re given the choice of either playing the narrative or just challenging other players to a few rounds online. A movie has one mode only: You just watch the damn thing. To McQuoid’s credit, and the credit of screenwriters Greg Russo and Dave Callaham, “Mortal Kombat ‘21” gives us a lot to watch, boasting 10 minutes of running time more than its predecessor (and five more than the 1997 sequel, “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation”). If the film bores you, it won’t be for lack of content.
But the content lacks, being a mixed bag of explosive action, standard action, and a plot that tries much too hard to make the basic conceit work. Like your average slasher film, the formula for “Mortal Kombat” is pretty simple: Get fighters into a ring, and let fighters get dead. Because movies need structure, McQuoid, Russo, and Callaham have to find a reason for these fighters to get each other dead in the first place. But the reason involves pomp and tropes. The former is comical whereas the latter is tiresome. “Mortal Kombat” starts with the conclusion of a blood feud between Bi-han (Joe Taslim), an assassin who for reasons (mercifully) left unexplained can create ice out of thin air, and Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), leader of the Shirai Ryu ninja clan. For reasons again left unexplained, Bi-han’s clan, the Lin Kuei, holds a grudge against Hanzo, and so they kill his followers and assassinate his wife and son; Hanzo responds by going sickhouse on faceless enemies before dying at Bi-han’s hand.
Then Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) appears, retrieves Hanzo’s baby daughter, hidden and safe beneath the floorboards, and whisks her away to continue Hanzo’s bloodline, which over several centuries produces one Cole Young (Lewis Tan), an MMA fighter, father, and husband. Cue a record scratch sound. Cole is a hunky, bland, studio-mandated lead absent of any discernible character traits; he’s there for the audience to imprint on as outsiders, which feels really unnecessary in light of the real estate “Mortal Kombat” owns in 2021 pop culture. As Hanzo’s many-times-over-great grandson, he’s a legacy candidate for the Mortal Kombat deathmatch tournament, an ancient custom dating back to long-dead civilizations. He’s told as much by Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), a Special Forces soldier who has devoted her life to learning about Mortal Kombat, even though she hasn’t been chosen to take part in it.
There’s a MacGuffin here in the form of a dragon birthmark signifying those handpicked by Raiden as champions, and lord, the backstory here is the story, which doesn’t begin in earnest until roughly half the film has passed. The exposition is relentless. The build-up is tedious. The payoff, at least, is worth it, because it’s scientifically impossible to hire actors like Taslim and Sanada without guaranteeing at least 2 memorable fight scenes. (If the Oscars bothered with stunt work and choreography categories, then “Bi-han cuts Hanzo and freezes his blood into a knife and then stabs him with that knife” would be a shoo-in for the top prize.) But the pair are so good at what they do that they make everybody else slugging it out look bad when they’re merely adequate.
McQuoid’s chosen leads measure up to Taslim and Sanada, either. In just one eight-minute sequence, they establish greater chemistry than Tan, McNamee, or the rest of the cast — including Josh Lawson as mercenary Kano, Mehcad Brooks as Sonya’s Special Forces partner Jax, Ludi Lin as Shaolin monk Liu Kang, Chin Han as the nefarious soul-stealing sorcerer Shang Tsung, and the list goes on, on, and further on — manage to over the remaining 100. And here arises an important question: Why bother? Hanzo, best known as Scorpion, and Bi-han, best known as Sub-Zero, comprise the “Mortal Kombat” franchise’s two most popular characters. The number of reasons to not center on their conflict totals to about one at best: They aren’t bankable stars. But neither is Tan, who takes Cole much too literally as a blank slate. Scorpion and Sub-Zero are “Mortal Kombat”s two big names by comparison. Why not go with that?
The impulse to make the implausible plausible sinks the movie. As McQuoid, Russo, and Callaham labor to justify the tournament’s existence so the characters can participate in it, the material grows exponentially more ridiculous, well past the point of pleasurable absurdity into hacky DTV nonsense. Like the Anderson film, “Mortal Kombat ‘21” makes repeated references to the game via one-liners: Scorpion’s famous “get over here” quote, post-combat declarations of “flawless victory,” and generalized character introductions. But acknowledging the source doesn’t make what’s happening on-screen any less an embarrassment. No one looks like they’re enjoying themselves, though Taslim vibes with Sanada on a wavelength balanced between serious and self-aware. Ultimately the film resembles cosplay with an expansive budget. It took 20 years and change for a new “Mortal Kombat” movie to get a green light. Maybe they should’ve waited a few years longer. [C-]