In October 1992, a new fighting game hit the arcades, bringing innovative advancements in gameplay and a level of violence that helped change the future of the industry. Ported to home consoles in September 1993, more than 3 million copies were sold in the first six weeks. By 1995, when the first live-action film adaptation of the game was released, the game had sold over 6 million units, grossing $300million in revenue. The Game? Mortal Kombat.
The plot was simple. The Elder Gods created eight realms. The only way for one realm to conquer another was to earn ten consecutive victories in a tournament called Mortal Kombat. Outworld, ruled by Shao Khan, had already won nine against Earthrealm. One more defeat and Earthrealm would fall. Seven Earth warriors compete, and with the help of Raiden, the Thunder God, Liu Kang is victorious and prevents the invasion.
By the end of 2020, a diverse franchise had been spawned, featuring 14 games, two live-action movies, two animated movies, an animated TV series, a live-action TV series, a TV series with a mixture of live-action and animation, a live-action short film, five albums, two novels, multiple comic book series, a card game, and a live stage show (yes, really).
With such a large history, the Mortal Kombat mythology has evolved – with contradictions, variations, and retcons plentiful. Earthrealm has fallen a few times; Armageddon has been both triggered and averted; timelines have been manipulated; alliances have changed. That’s not including the DC Universe crossover and the many guest appearances from other franchises.
The films in the 90’s stick in fans memories – but not necessarily for the right reasons. While the 1995 big-screen debut of the franchise was critically panned, it still has a cult-like following. It was praised for its fight scenes and atmosphere, as well as some of the casting (especially Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Shang Tsung), while at the same time being criticised for its cheesy dialogue, bad performances, lack of Mortal Kombat-Esque violence and gore (being a PG-13 release), and some of the casting (especially Christopher Lambert as Lord Raiden).
In contrast, 1997’s Mortal Kombat: Annihilation achieved consistency – everyone hated it. The plot, dialogue, acting, and fight scenes were largely terrible. In addition, the recasting was awful and the special effects were way too elaborate, and poorly executed. Even Mortal Kombat co-creator Ed Boon and John Tobias, in separate 2012 interviews, declared the film as their personal worst moments in the history of working on the franchise.
When Mortal Kombat: Rebirth debuted in 2010, the vision of Kevin Tancharoen went some way to erase the first two films from our minds. His pitch to Warner Brothers was a return to the dark, gritty violence in the franchise while adding a level of realism as an update for modern fans. While this didn’t bring about the film many were hoping for, the Mortal Kombat: Legacy series – a mixture of live-action and animated episodes – brought further interest to new and old fans alike.
So, when Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema announced 2021 would see a new film released – a reboot in the franchise – without Tancharoen involved, fans were somewhat sceptical about what was going to be delivered. Would this be a palette swap of the 90’s films or a continuation into the darker realm Tancharoen brought? Well, the answer is, neither.
The 2021 Mortal Kombat film does its best to fit somewhere in the middle. It’s as accessible as the original 1995 film for new fans, while not being an obviously cheesy video game adaptation. At the same time, it brings a darker, grittier tone to the screen, without falling into the trap of being over-realistic – which would have diluted the supernatural and magical elements of the story. This approach allows director Simon McQuoid, making his feature-length directorial debut, to deliver an enjoyably watch, albeit one with a fair amount of unanswered questions – but we’ll come back to those later.
Introducing Mortal Kombat to new viewers without the need to delve into the backstory was always going to be difficult. To help achieve this, writers Oren Uziel, Greg Russo, and Dave Callaham have taken a bold approach for an established franchise and introduced a brand-new character – Cole Young. Cole is the main focal point of the film and has everything surrounding Mortal Kombat explained to him. This allows new viewers to receive their induction at the same pace. This is a nice touch in a way, as it opens the doors to people who maybe didn’t play the games or see the other films, and allows them to get up to speed quickly and easily. However, for die-hard fans, it makes the early goings of the film a bit of a challenge, as the explanation is drip-fed in a way that makes you wonder which part of the timeline the film sits in.
The downside of introducing a new character is that it takes the focus away from others that people are already invested in. The film’s promotional poster implies a heavy focus on the Sub-Zero / Scorpion rivalry (and, for die-hard fans, the possibility of the Lin Kuei / Shirai Ryu blood feud) and fans were excited to see this properly on the screen. In reality, other than an opening scene – which throws back nicely to the Legacy series – and a wafer-thin mention in the plot, this rivalry doesn’t feature until the climax of the film. Even then, is watered down by the necessity of having Cole Young involved as the primary character.
This effect is echoed throughout the film, as the influence of Liu Kang, Kung Lao, Raiden, and others are seriously diminished by the story being told through Young’s eyes. Jax is used to introducing the plot, but then largely forgotten about and Sonya Blade picks up a lot of the slack in terms of plot exposition but is dismissed to secondary character status for the most part.
Even on the “villainous” side of things, Shang Tsung’s forces all suffer the same near-anonymity. Sub-Zero has more screen time than the others but largely stands around brooding when he’s not fighting. Mileena, Nitara, General Reiko, and Prince Goro are introduced purely as characters to be beaten in fights. There’s no background or explanation at all – which is especially disappointing in Mileena’s case, given her direct link to Princess Kitana and Shao Khan in the series.
The only two characters that give you any cause to care about what happens to them (or indeed, what happened to them in the past) are Kano and Kabal. Sharing an interwoven history from their time in the Black Dragon, they provide a much-needed breath of humour and actual character development to proceedings. Kano’s one-liners are genuinely standout moments in the film.
The plot itself is passable. While somewhat formulaic, it fits the shared background of Mortal Kombat, while updating the little bits needed to make the film a little more modern.
Cole Young is a mixer martial arts fighter who, despite once being a champion, now takes last-minute fights for little money in dingy gyms. Unbeknownst to him, what he thought was a birthmark on his chest turns out to be a marker for those chosen as champions to defend their realm in the Mortal Kombat tournament. The marker is usually passed on when a champion falls in a fight – this is how Jax and Kano have theirs. However, in Cole’s case, it is genetic – passed down through his ancestral bloodline as he is a direct descendant of Hanzo Hasashi.
Shang Tsung, a resident sorcerer of Outworld, has decided not to wait until the next tournament to take over Earthrealm, and instead sends his assassins to take out Earth’s champions. With multiple failed attempts, Shang Tsung accompanies his warriors to Raiden’s temple – where Sonya, Jax, Cole, and Kano have all arrived and are undergoing training with Lui Kang, Kung Lao and Raiden. The latter trio are trying to get Jax, Cole, and Kano to unlock their “arcana” – their individual “superpower” – which is usually realised during heightened emotional states.
As expected, the Outworld assassins get the early upper hand, but after a regroup and Cole calling out the plans for battles in different locations (thanks to teleportation sorcery), Earthrealm fights until only Sub-Zero is left. At this point, Hanzo Hasashi returns from NetherRealm (Hell), declares himself to be Scorpion, and teams up with Cole to take on Sub-Zero. After defeating him, and sending Shang Tsung back to Outworld, Earthrealm looks ahead to recruiting new champions for the actual tournament – with a final shot of a Johnny Cage film poster teasing his entrance in the inevitable sequel.
Co-writer Greg Russo has said in an interview he sees this as the first film in a trilogy, with it set before the tournament. The second film will be set during the tournament, and a third film set post-tournament. I, along with a lot of other fans (I expect) hope this comes to fruition, as Mortal Kombat felt like a taste of things to come, rather than a full story.
There is a concern over how they manage the fighting population of the Mortal Kombat tournament itself. Some characters were killed off – with some amazing fatalities (Kung Lao’s manic excitement shown while slicing Nitara apart with his hat is a particular highlight) – and while there is a massive roster of people to take their places, the mish-mash of timelines utilised in this film makes you wonder where they’re going. Some characters, including Kotal Khan and Nightwolf, were hinted at in Easter Eggs throughout the film, and a bladed fan, utilised in the games by Kitana, was on display in Raiden’s temple. But there’s a question of whether this means these characters are forthcoming or are already being seen as “part of history”.
Johnny Cage will make an appearance in whatever sequel is coming, but on the Outworld side, a lot of the regular antagonists have been removed from the equation. Sure, with Shang Tsung’s sorcery, anything is possible. His “Hail Hydra!”-esqueparting line before being banished from Earth by Raiden – “No matter how many of my people you put in the ground, there will always be another to take their place” – indicates replication of his character’s history of capturing and reusing the souls of his fallen enemies as his own personal army. Whether this means we’ll see returning faces despite their demise remains to be seen.
There are also questions over the fates of Sub-Zero and Kano. We know in the games that the original Sub-Zero becomes Noob Saibot, with his young brother taking up the Sub-Zero mantle. The final battle between Sub-Zero and Scorpion & Cole seems to hint at this being replicated – particularly in the change of Sub-Zero’s attire – but how they fit this in with everything else is going to be interesting, especially when they missed an opportunity to introduce the Lin Kuei / Shirai Ryu.
Kano, on the other hand, quite honestly stole the show. In a film peppered with some wooden acting and strange performances (Shang Tsung being played as a camp magician more than an evil sorcerer was especially jarring), Josh Lawson brought something amazing to screen. He encapsulated everything Kano as a character should be – and thoroughly looked as though he enjoyed playing him!
While not the main character, Kano is the one that came out of this in a positive light. His fate at the end of the film looked to be final, but (as mentioned above) we know nothing is set in stone. NOT bringing him back in some way will be a negative for any sequels – although this could be balanced a little depending on who they bring in to play Johnny Cage (I have my fingers crossed for The Miz!)
Even with these negatives, there is no major detraction from the final film. I know I’ve been a little bit critical of the basic plot, lack of character development, and bad acting. But, overall, I actually enjoyed the film. Honest!
The fight choreography is well-executed, with individual fighting styles on display. The fatalities included are spectacular. There are plenty of throwbacks to the franchise as a whole – including a lovely reference to the noob-move of repeated leg-sweeps, and General Reiko’s swaying before being “finished” – and hidden references for the eagle-eyed throughout the film. Visually, the film is stunning. The locations used are impressive nods to decades of lore, and each brings its own unique atmosphere, and the costumes (with the possible exception of Liu Kang) are as true to the characters as you’d hope.
Overall, this may not be a Klassic, but as a modern-day B-Movie-style take on a nearly 30-year-old video game, it’s a fine reboot. I give it three dragon emblems out of five Bring on Round Two!