It’s hard to imagine a more succinct illustration of how Hollywood’s relationship to “nerd shit” (for lack of a better umbrella term to describe comic book and video game-based intellectual property) has evolved over the last 25 years than a comparison between the opening scene of 1995’s “Mortal Kombat” and that of Warner Bros.’ inevitable new re-imagining of the gory arcade brawler.
The original starts with the sound of a man yelling “MORTAL KOMMBBATTTT!!!” at the top of his lungs as a glitchy rave-core anthem called “Techno Syndrome (Mortal Kombat)” freaks over a flaming credit sequence. From there, the title screen cools into a goofy prologue full of canted angles in which evil warlock Shang Tsung (played by human cut-scene Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) breaks some poor kid’s spine and then snarls “your brother’s soul is mine!” directly into the camera.
The whole thing lasts for about two minutes, it all feels like director Paul W.S. Anderson is just mashing the start button to speed through the dialogue, and it accurately tees up a Golan-Globus-worthy tournament movie that gets by on love of the game alone. Anderson’s “Mortal Kombat” is pretty chintzy even by the standards of nostalgia porn, but it still feels like a relic from a more innocent time before stuff like this became too big to fail — a time before the studios realized that “finishing” any of the characters they owned was bad for business, or that their ambitions could extend beyond Christopher Lambert in Raiden cos-play.
Helmed by veteran commercial director Simon McQuoid, the occasionally fun but deeply misguided 2021 “Mortal Kombat” opens on a house in a serene Japanese forest circa 1617. The lighting is idyllic, the set immaculate, and the actor playing feared swordsman turned family man Hanzo Hasashi is Hiroyuki Sanada, who’s brought a measure of steely grace to even the worst Japan-centric Hollywood movies since “The Last Samurai.” At a glance, this would be easy to mistake for an Ed Zwick period drama, and that historical sobriety doesn’t entirely disappear when the cold-blooded Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) shows up to slaughter Hanzo’s family with his CGI ice powers.
The extended duel that ensues — deceptively teasing a story about the origins of the blood feud between Scorpion and Sub-Zero — is indebted to classic martial-arts movies in a way that helps it stand out from the much less memorable fights to come, but it’s shadowed by a fresh sprig of grief and the lingering delusion of a franchise reboot that might take its deaths seriously. Don’t fall into that trap.
The sequence ends with Hanzo descending into Hell and Raiden (the great Tadanobu Asano, a bit lost behind some distracting stormcloud eyes) taking custody of the baby son that was hidden from Bi-Han. It serves the same narrative purpose as the opening prologue from Anderson’s version and does just as much to make fans of the game lower their guard, only now it’s 10 minutes long and so dense with pathos, portent, and unrealized potential that it feels like the start of a new cinematic universe. Something big enough to boost AT&T’s stock price (the ultimate goal of all movies). Something, it regrettably turns out, a bit too big for a two-dimensional story about people beating each other to death with their own limbs in a bracketed karate tournament to determine the fate of Earthrealm and everyone in it.
So begins a movie that’s “Mortal Kombat” in name more than anything else. A movie full of the characters fans know and love — and replete with winking references that only they will understand — but also one so busy straining to upconvert its ’90s soul for the modern blockbuster economy that it soon feels less like a bootleg “Avengers” that a crack team of modders have re-skinned to resemble a classic fighting game franchise. Remember how excited you were to find the secret character Smoke in “Mortal Kombat II” only to discover that he was just a palette-swapped version of Scorpion? Well, some movies really do have the power to make you feel like a kid again.
This one is fundamentally undone by a single mistake that’s just mind-boggling enough to make sense in an age when giving audiences what they want isn’t nearly as lucrative as convincing them that you will next time. Brace yourselves, “Mortal Kombat” fans, because this next sentence might send even the most reasonable adults into the kind of furious rage that’s typically only triggered by some n00b using Sub-Zero to slide-attack their way to a flawless victory: There is no Mortal Kombat tournament in this movie. In fact, the entire plot of Dave Callaham and Greg Russo’s script is about Shang Tsung’s efforts to prevent the tournament from taking place by killing everyone before it starts.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the games, imagine how exciting it would be to watch a “Fast and Furious” movie about someone trying to puncture Vin Diesel’s tires before he could start up his car.
There’s really no coming back from that, nor is there anything that McQuoid and his spirited cast of actors can do to compensate for the sinking realization that all of the training montages and side battles that eat up the middle hour of this movie aren’t building towards a meaningful climax. But let’s backtrack for a minute and focus on one thing this “Mortal Kombat” gets right. When the story picks up in the present day, it does so by introducing us to cage fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan, channeling a likeable kind of DTV charisma), a brand-new character who’s been invented as a lightning rod for Raiden and all of the franchise mythology that he brings with him.
Cole has a dragon birthmark — the game’s logo — that marks those destined to fight in Mortal Kombat, and that means Shang Tsung’s coldest henchman Sub-Zero is trying to kill him before the tournament starts. Lucky for Cole, some of the other chosen few have figured this out already, and are able to intervene in time. Chief among them is retired Special Forces soldier Jax (Mehcad Brooks), who Sub-Zero leaves for dead after freezing both of his arms off (in a game famous for its Fatalities, it’s hilarious how many times Sub-Zero simply assumes that he’s killed one of his targets).
Jax is joined by his unmarked partner Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee doing her best Bridgette Wilson) and the duplicitous mercenary Kano (a very funny Josh Lawson, whose ultra-salty performance suggests Jared Harris playing Snake Plissken). This motley crew of mortal kombatants is also joined by Liu Kang and Kung Lao (Ludi Lin and Max Huang, respectively) on their way to the desert cave temple where Raiden will train them for the tournament that never happens.
This — in a version of “Mortal Kombat” that actually included Mortal Kombat — is where things would really kick into gear with a killer training montage and some fun character development that raises the stakes for the dramatically seeded duels to come after our heroes foil Shang Tsung’s plan and force him to fight for Earthrealm in the arena. But since there aren’t any dramatically seeded duels to come, the movie just sort of languishes in place for a long while, cutting away to Outworld and drifting towards “X-Men” territory (each of the fighters has to awaken to their unique powers) in a bid to distract us from the fact that Mortal Kombat has been indefinitely postponed until enough people subscribe to HBO Max.
Some of these dead end scenes are a lot of fun, even if Jax’s most exciting fight is against the wooden dialogue that he’s forced to spit out (brace for an MC Hammer joke so forced that you can almost feel the movie reaching back to the bygone era where its franchise was more comfortable), and the series’ villains seem to be thrown on screen at random. Kano is a toxic gas of a good time whenever called upon, and the ultra-violent skirmishes that break out throughout the movie do a fine job of honoring the history of these characters. Some of them are staged against intriguing backdrops, even if McQuoid doesn’t shoot any of them with the clarity of the games’ side-view camera angle; one brutal fight scene evokes the trailer brawl in “Kill Bill Vol. 2” in a way that almost — almost! — finds a silver lining in the diverse assortment of combat arenas that omitting the tournament allows.
And whenever the Marvel-ization of “Mortal Kombat” threatens to make you forget what you’re watching (a queasy sensation that’s constantly made worse by Benjamin Wallfisch’s generic superhero movie score), McQuoid treats us to the kind of kill that Tony Stark only sees in his fever dreams. Heads roll, a metal hat vertically saws a woman in two, “Kano wins.” After seeing half of the MCU snap away and then come back from the grave just as fast, it’s weirdly satisfying to see major supporting characters be ground into bloody fountains of digital meat, even (or especially) if the fans who love playing them wince at the carnage in a way that feels personal. The “everyone is expendable” attitude is enough to sustain interest long after the movie has made clear that it’s just spinning in place.
But when it comes to modern “blockbusters,” the only thing that actually stays dead is the way things used to be, and the best thing that can be said about this “Mortal Kombat” is how — for a second there — it might fool you into thinking that the past is present again. Legend has it that if you cup your ears and look to the stars at just the right moment you might even hear trace memories of “Techno Syndrome” hovering in the night air like the unsettled ghosts of old video game movies that, however terrible, tried to recreate the feeling of having a controller in your hands. This “Mortal Kombat” is more broadly watchable than the 1995 version ever was, but it’s hard to shake the dull sensation that video game movies are now playing us.
“Mortal Kombat” opens in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, April 23.
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