Short on time? Here’s the gist: Mortal Kombat (2021), currently available on HBO Max (available on our Rokus) and in theaters, is a satisfying adaptation that disregards large elements of the source material but captures its spirit very well. Great action sequences are the highlight, with a plot that exists to justify them. However, some characters don’t get as much time in the spotlight as they deserve, and the music does nothing to heighten the action.
Mortal Kombat (2021) sort of sprang onto my radar from nowhere. I enjoyed the recent entries in the Mortal Kombat franchise for their gameplay and robust-for-the-genre story modes, but it’s certainly not my main fighting game franchise to follow. As such, I was aware that there had been talks about film projects. But there have been talks practically since 1997’s Mortal Kombat Annihilation, and how many other video game movies have been “in the works” for years without anything actually materializing? So I was surprised when the trailer dropped in February, promising a martial arts-heavy return to the franchise’s roots. Even more surprising is that the trailer had me cautiously optimistic. Historically, most video game movies have been trash, but this looked alright! So, did the final product hold up?
It definitely exceeded my expectations. The film largely ignores the specific events and scenarios of the video games but might be better for it. For example, a historical setting for the rivalry between Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) and Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) really lets the film dive into making the classic palette-swap duo into the very different, distinct characters they’ve become. This is just one of the significant shifts to the backstories for most fighters, but it all works well enough and ends with the existing kombatants developing fighting styles recognizable to game fans.
The new protagonist (Lewis Tan) was a surprisingly decent addition to the mythology, tying in directly to differences between the film and game storylines, rather than the bolted-on addition many fans expected. Kano (Josh Lawson) and Jax (Mehcad Brooks) are similar to their personalities from the games, and both provide good performances with quality action. Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang) are presented with similar personalities to their game incarnations but very different storyline roles. This was an interesting change from 1995’s Mortal Kombat, which used Robin Shou’s Liu Kang in the main protagonist role. Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) really doesn’t get her due in action sequences but is well played with an interesting storyline role. In addition to some issues with Sonya not getting the proper screen time or respect she ought, this is also very true of Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), Shang Tsung (Chin Han), or any of the latter’s goons. I hesitate to say that this could have done with fewer characters, so everyone featured could get a decent level of the spotlight, and this doesn’t resolve Sonya’s issues, but that’s sort of the feeling I’m left with.
The plot isn’t really anything special, but for a game adaptation is interesting in that it doesn’t follow the typical Mortal Kombat formula of a tournament between Earth and Outworld, avoiding comparisons with previous MK films and games by taking place before the titular tournament. Still, just like the tournament, the story exists as an excuse to showcase fighting sequences and does a great job of this and getting characters into interesting fight locations.
Music, unfortunately, is a letdown. Normally this wouldn’t have bothered me, but the soundtrack to 1995’s Mortal Kombat was such an excellent fit. Mortal Kombat 2021’s soundtrack makes a few callbacks to that classic but is mostly fairly soulless, generic “epic film” music.
In all, however, the movie is fun enough and certainly better than I had expected. It definitely won’t change your life or anything, but as a good, violent martial arts romp, it delivers. Serviceable plot and characterization frame excellent fight sequences, especially the first and last of them. If there’s a sequel, hopefully it will keep on this same run of quality—I’d love to see the tournament with this level of quality action.