Mortal Kombat (2021) Movie Review: A big budget update that will test your might...and your patience

You would think that with all the technology and screenplay best practices at their disposal, the people behind 2021's Mortal Kombat would be able to outdo the cheesefest of the original 1995 film.

Which, in fairness, they did. Just not in a good way.

I know you're not supposed to go into a movie about magic ice-throwing ninjas and thunder gods expecting The Godfather Part II, but this tired cliche doesn't excuse Mortal Kombat's paper-thin characters and plot. The cast look like they're just going through the motions, reduced to walking exposition machines while quipping one-liners lifted wholesale from the original game. Sure, you could say the same thing with 1995's Mortal Kombat, but at least there was a quaint earnestness to it. Those people knew they were making a movie about a video game, and it showed.

The new Mortal Kombat is edgier, sure. More brutal, of course. But it feels smaller. The epic scale of the legendary Mortal Kombat tournament, a once-in-a-generation event that pits the champions of Earthrealm (read: our world) against the denizens of the Outworld led by Shang Tsung (Chin Han) with the conquest of Earth as the prize, is left on the screenplay's pages.  People talk about the stakes instead of showing it or making us feel it. You never feel that any of the characters are in any real danger. It's hard to relate or even get invested in anyone not named Sub-Zero or Scorpion when Cole Young (Lewis Tan), the audience surrogate character created specifically for this movie, has literal Plot Armor.

Speaking of Sub-Zero and Scorpion, these two iconic characters are the reason I sat through all this. Joe Taslim's Bi-Han/Sub-Zero smolders in every scene he's in, and Hiroyuki Sanada's Hasashi Hanzo/Scorpion is just damn cool. Their backstory and universe-spanning rivalry is infinitely more entertaining and interesting than the tournament itself, and if they gave this much care to the rest of the movie I would have been more forgiving.

It's not all bad, though. The fight scenes are one of the few things Mortal Kombat gets right. Fights are flashy, high impact, and definitively gruesome, and MK fans will probably have fun seeing some neat callbacks to the video game amidst the snapping bones and spilling guts. The aforementioned Sub-Zero and Scorpion trade blows not once but twice in this movie with the whole weight of the studio's CGI department behind them. But a bunch of R-rated fights do not a good movie make, though I'm sure diehard fans of the video game franchise would be delighted to see their favorite characters and signature moves brought to life on the big screen. And if this was Mortal Kombat's one job, then I'd say they succeeded.

When a movie from 25 years ago feels bigger and badder than a big-budget video game adaptation from 2021, there's something deeply wrong.  Mortal Kombat will most likely satisfy video game fans, but for everyone else it's best left in the bargain bin.

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