Mortal Kombat Commits to Mythology and Clout

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

One of the few “lyrics” in the “Techno Syndrome” theme created by the Belgian EDM duo of The Immortals that accompanied the Mortal Kombat video game and eventual film soundtrack imperatively states “test your might.” The combination of the verb and noun couldn’t be more fitting, for a larger level of power and authority was needed to shake off two decades of development hell and haul the buckets of long-promised blood to get this reboot into fighting shape. Moreover, that line is also a throbbing challenge to players, characters, and, essentially us the viewers, to join in and meet its power, energy, and intensity. 

2021’s new Mortal Kombat, debuting simultaneously in reemerging theaters and on HBO Max April 23rd, is a catechism of created clout. It passes tonal tests and achieves feats of action strength to renew and amplify the original zest, powered by that inescapable theme song that evaporated from a bad sequel nearly 25 years ago. Bolstered by a commitment to build a mythology beyond the button-smashing combos, Mortal Kombat should ensnare new and old fans alike.

Hanzo tries to thrust a dagger at Bi-Han
Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Already prominently released online, the first seven minutes timestamp a bitter feud between the family-supporting Hanzo Hasashi (The Last Samurai’s Hiroyuki Sanada) and the brutal insurgent Bi-Han (Joe Taslim of Fast & Furious 6) that will span centuries. Each adversary sources the warring sides of our Earthrealm and the archaic Outworld that seeks invasion. Unbeknownst to the public, fighting champions marked by branded bloodlines of victorious pedigree walk among us as the only hope of preventing the quoted catastrophe that comes from losing the titular fabled tournament.

“Arcana” is the personalized soulistic component within the colorful and nicknamed individuals in Mortal Kombat that must be found and harnessed for competitive advantage. From a movie standpoint, during a somewhat sagging middle section of training buildup, this arcana is little more than a lethal version of Kung Fu Panda’s chi, “The Force” of Star Wars, the mutant powers from X-Men, or any trope of acquired superhuman abilities you want to cite. Here, the cooler it is, the cooler it can kill s–t. If you don’t find yours, you lose and don’t get to be a videogame character or action figure. You know the “powerful finding their true power” drill.

Cole Young looks at his wrapped hands before a match.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

One such champion who learns of his untapped destiny is mixed martial arts fighter Cole Young (the top-lining Lewis Tan of Wu Assassins). He is scouted and protected by Jax (Supergirl’s Mehcad Brooks) and his former Special Forces partner Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee of The Meg) working to investigate this legendary contest with their belligerent Aussie captive criminal Kano (former House of Lies ensemble member Josh Lawson) in tow. 

Their union comes to be absorbed by the thunder god Raiden (apropos Thor buddy Tadanobu Asano) and his existing students consisting of Liu Kang (Power Ranger Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (graduated stunt performer Max Huang). They are opposed by Bi-Han—now embodying the Sub-Zero guise, Shang Tsung (Chin Han of 2012)—Outworld’s soul-eating sorcerer of authority, and their assembled scourge of foreboding assassins looking to kill Earth’s champions before the next tournament even starts.

Sub-Zero freezes the assault rifle held by Jax
Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

My goodness, when these whirling dervish titans clash in Mortal Kombat, you sure get your movie ticket money’s worth in the form of a ringside seat to some extraordinary melees. The actors and their stunt doubles, coordinated by the stunt and fight departments headed by the tight-knit Aquaman and Shazam! team of Kyle Gardiner, Jade Amantea, Chan Griffin, and Anthony Rinna, truly show off clever and inventive ways to punish, maim, and slaughter friends and foes. CGI polish and wire-team lifts are included, but the movement base is good old-fashioned, in-your-face martial arts that isn’t hyper-edited to death.

On a larger cinematic level, those punches, parries, counters, and kicks are given dynamic settings and brightened boundaries from first-time director Simon McQuoid and Berlin Syndrome cinematographer Germain McMicking. Each fight is refreshingly unique in look, lighting, props, and confines. Echoing the shrewd and inventive use of just-garish-enough sets and practical locations from Paul W.S. Anderson’s 1995 film that squeezed every budgetary penny it could to really glow, veteran blockbuster art director, now turned full production designer, Naaman Marshall (Underwater) followed suit in constructing twisted otherworldly spaces for the showdowns. The makeup and visual effects teams splatter the necessary.

Sonya Blade restrains Kano on the ground.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Calling back to earlier pondering, how does a good movie tell an old thing or a common trope well? The answer is simple. Make it compelling, cool, and practice patience to not rush or burden what you’re going for. Despite likely studio steroid temptations (look no further than the majority of the DCEU and the MonsterVerse offerings from Warner Bros.) to really floor the accelerator or overload this potential franchise starter, the credited story and screenplay writers succeeded in adding world-building gravitas. 

Mortal Kombat has broad crackers that can hold the newfangled cheese. That measure of heft structured by go-to WB hit-maker David Callaham (the Wonder Woman series), the debuting Greg Russo, and previous Mortal Kombat: Rebirth short film writer Oren Uziel doesn’t detract from the pugilistic cravings. Quite often, in fact, the movie’s stakes live up to the “the agent or agency of fate” definition of “fatality,” a called-shot fans are ready to see and hear beyond one or two cool signature moves.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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