Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
MORTAL KOMBAT (2021)
Rated R, 1 hour 50 minutes
Directed by: Simon McQuoid
The latest MORTAL KOMBAT may not totally surmount the long fabled video-game-turned-movie curse, but it sure as hell gives audiences a bloody good, rip-roaring thrill ride in its attempt. It’s also one of the better cinematic entries in the franchise, worthy of its warrior spirit. Director Simon McQuoid instills his adaptation with engrossing character dynamics, a clean-lined, epic saga and beautifully stylized hyper-violence simulating game play.
MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan) has been down on his luck lately, hitting an all-time low in his career and barely being able to support his wife Allison (Laura Brent) and teen daughter Emily (Matilda Kimber). He’s also recently been plagued by visions of a mysterious relative from his past and he’s unsure if the dragon-shaped birthmark he bears has anything to do with it. As we learn in the kick-ass cold open, that person is Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada), a brave warrior and family man whose bloodline was thought to be slaughtered an eradicated decades prior by cold-hearted, evil adversary Bi-Han (Joe Taslim). Their beef stems from an ancient rivalry between two realms: the Earthrealm, where forces of good live, and the Outerworld, a dry, desolate underworld where baddies dwell.
Cole’s world changes when he’s visited by ultra-buff war vet Jax (Mehcad Brooks), who divulges that he shares the same branding and the mark means they’ve been selected as chosen ones to fight. As Jax stays behind to fend off Bi-Han’s advances and gets himself injured in the process, Cole continues on his search for answers from Jax’s partner, Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee). The ex-special forces duo’s detective work has uncovered a huge tournament, known as Mortal Kombat, is fast approaching – one waged by humans, super-humans and other species in the two realms. Jax and Sonya, who doesn’t bear the branded invitation to the competition, have been assembling a team of fighters, which also includes arrogant, loose-cannon mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson). Their adventure leads them to Raiden’s Temple for training with Earth’s other champions: Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and cousin Kung Lao (Max Huang), who have much to teach the newbies. They’ll have to work as a team to defend themselves against the reigning champions of Outerworld, led by Shang Tsung (Chin Han), who plays dirty and is trigger happy when it comes to defeating their worldly adversaries before the real competition can even begin.
Entrusting a massive series reboot like this to a first time director proves a risk that yields robust rewards. McQuoid’s vision frequently juxtaposes beauty and brutality in each of the major action set pieces. Each of these is aesthetically distinct, assigned an identity not solely by their locations and fighters, but also through the capably crafted fight choreography, Germain McMicking’s cinematography and Scott Gray and Dan Lebental’s music video style editing. All three in glorious chorus give the picture an undeniably snappy energy. There’s even room for poetic, poignant subtext, like fresh rain hitting the blood-stained leaves in the Japanese garden, or the climactic frozen location directly informing Cole’s internal and external stakes.
Screenwriters Greg Russo and Dave Callaham, who work from a story by Russo and Oren Uziel, infuse the proceedings with a self-reflexive, macho attitude endemic of brawling R-rated actioners from the 80’s and 90’s brilliantly mined in the underpinnings of the cantankerous dialogue between some of its characters. The games’ magnificent and legendary gory fatalities (which I would love to discuss, but will refrain from spoiling the wonderful surprises within) are fully realized with creative ingenuity, symphonic flair and a bunch of blood. It’s freaking badass and plays like a greatest hits of brutal kills (yet minus an iconic one in which the video game earned its label as a violent provocateur).
Still there are a handful of weak spots. For all the good it does giving Cole, Jax, Bi-Han/ Subzero and Hanzo/ Scorpion enthralling journeys and arcs, Liu Kang, Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) and Shang Tsung are dealt short shrift. There’s an abundance of exposition. Frequently the narrative’s logic and rules are sacrificed for the benefit of fandom and nostalgia. It unabashedly deals in nonsense, specifically when it comes to the particulars of Sonya’s heroic ascendance and the filmmakers’ insistence on keeping her hands clean. Predictable things happen with Kano, who logically should’ve been vanquished early on. His inclusion is ultimately forgivable as his acerbic jabs at his colleagues and expansive pop-culture knowledge are part and parcel to the picture’s levity.
Despite the problems, there’s positive messaging residing in the film’s margins. Strong sentiments about courage, family and legacy, as well as nuanced lessons on confronting and healing from trauma, give some of the story’s hollow points a better sense of balance and weight so those punches pulled will land sufficiently.
Grade: 3.5 out of 5
MORTAL KOMBAT (2021) will play select theaters and stream on HBOMax on April 23.