Despite being total trash when it comes to video game fighters, I have enjoyed following the characters and stories in the Mortal Kombat universe by watching friends or streamers play through them, and I’ve seen the original film dozens of times. With that in mind, you won’t be surprised to hear that I had been hoping to see another cinematic take on Mortal Kombat for over two decades. Now, after wishing for it for so long, a film reboot is finally here, and it’s pretty much exactly what I was hoping for. Mortal Kombat (2021) is a successful video game adaptation and massively fun “turn your brain off” action flick that takes liberties with the source material while staying true to the core concepts- no, the kore koncepts that have made me a fan of the franchise for over twenty years.
MK 2021 isn’t an adaptation of the first game, as it tells a new story that does just enough to take us from each fight to the next instead of giving us the classic tournament’s arc yet again. After a brief and badass prologue we’re introduced to Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a brand new character created to serve as an audience surrogate that learns about the world of Mortal Kombat along with any franchise newbies. He is quickly attacked by an ice-welidng ninja, Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), saved by the highly-skilled soldier Jax (Mechad Brooks), and meets the equally deadly Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee). Then Cole gets an MK crash course: Another realm, Outworld, seeks to slaughter Earth’s chosen warriors in order to invade and conquer our world. Cole, being amongst those warriors, is on the hit list of the soul-stealing sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) who plans to send his strongest cronies in a preemptive strike, forcing Cole to fight for his life and the fate of humanity.
Cole isn’t fighting by himself, though. In addition to Jax and Sonya, team Earthrealm has other MK mainstays like the shaolin warriors Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang), and the Thunder God Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) makes a fair share of appearances as well. The australian asshole Kano (Josh Lawson) is reluctantly there too, being an absolute blast as the film’s comic relief, and Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada), while used surprisingly sparingly, is the highlight of the film. Cole is definitely the weak link here, but Tan gives him just enough charm to make him passable, although forgettable, and most of the less-than-fleshed-out Outworlders serve as disposable opponents, yet are entertaining in their own right. The cast (and script) never shies away from the sillier aspects of their characters, but are also believably intimidating when they need to be. That’s a difficult balance to maintain, but one that’s crucial for a story from a franchise filled with brightly-colored ninjas, cheesy one-liners, and over-the-top ultraviolence.
Speaking of ultraviolence, fatality fans can rest assured that MK 2021 is a gloriously gory film. It still isn’t quite as bloody as the games, but the takedowns were shocking enough that I grimaced and guffawed simultaneously a handful of times. I was especially happy to see that two of my all-time favorite fatalities made the cut, and were everything I wanted them to be. When an action film offers up such fun and spectacle, almost any complaints (like some occasionally bland, wonky storytelling and a couple of scenes with choppy editing) are entirely forgivable in my book. It’s also worth noting that the special effects and superpowers are usually used to compliment the martial arts instead of the other way around. The combat- sorry, kombat feels more natural that way.
MK 2021’s pacing is also pretty great, aside from the first quarter or so of Cole’s journey. I was constantly engaged and entertained from the first time Kano entered the picture till the credits rolled. It (hopefully) kicks of a new film series (or MKCU), gives you insight into the MK lore, introduces multiple iconic characters, throws a whole basket of easter eggs at you, and delivers a bunch of wonderfully brutal beatdowns in just under two hours.
I’d never call it a perfect film, but like the 1995 classic, Mortal Kombat (2021) nails the aspects that it needs to in order to be an entertaining, action-packed good time. I can’t say if it’s better than the first film yet, but it’s fun enough that I may watch it a couple more times this weekend to find out.