(2021) Martial Arts (Warner Brothers) Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Joe Taslim, Mehcad Brooks, Matilda Kimber, Laura Brent, Tadanobu Asano, Hiroyuki Sanada, Chin Han, Ludi Lin, Max Huang, Sisi Stringer, Mel Jarnson, Nathan Jones, Daniel Nelson, Ian Streetz, Yukiko Shinohara, Ren Miyagawa, Mia Hall, David Field, Kris McQuade. Directed by Simon McQuoid
Some movies just don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting a good review. For many, it’s because the movie just isn’t very good but for some, they have two strikes (and sometimes three) going against them coming in. Movies based on videogames, for example.
Part of the problem with videogame-based movies is that most players of videogames would rather play them than watch them, and understandably so. Videogaming is an active participation activity; movie watching is not. You can say what you want about gamers (and there is a lot to be said about them, to be sure) but they are not into passive activities. They need to be involved, although the way movie watchers become involved is a bit more emotional and mental than videogaming.
There is a plot here but it is awfully convoluted. Essentially, the Earthrealm (where we live) has been involved in a series of fighting tournaments with the Outworld which is inhabited by all manner of monsters. We have, predictably, lost nine tournaments in a row. The tenth is coming soon, and should we lose it, we become slaves to the Outworlders who will take over. That would be a bad thing.
However, the Earth is protected by the thunder god Thor…I mean, Raiden (Asano) He has marked a group of champions with dragon-shaped birthmarks. One of these is down-on-his-luck MMA fighter Cole Young (Tan) – a completely original character for the movie, for those fans of the game looking to find him in one of the many iterations of the game franchise. He is skeptical when told by Special Forces member Jax (Brooks) about what’s going on but an attack by Subzero (Taslim) who has control over ice, which is an ability I generally wish I had during summers here in Florida, help to open his mind. Along with the beautiful Sonia Blade (McNamee) and wisecracking Aussie Kano (Lawson), Cole heads to Raiden’s temple to train for the upcoming bout. He, like the other champions of Earth, will have to learn to find their Arcana – their special powers. However, Outworld emperor Shang Tsung (Han) is eager to win the tournament without having to actually fight it, and has sent some of his own champions to wipe out the Earth champions before the tournament even starts. Boo, hiss.
The strength of the movie lies in the gloriously bloody fight sequences which bring the gore that the original game was notorious for to the big screen – the big knock on the two feature films that were made based on the franchise back in the 90s was that they sanitized the violence which was, like it or not, one of the biggest reasons the game was so loved back in the day.
The movie also suffers from an excess of characters. The MK videogame franchise has developed over the years a pretty lengthy list of champions and villains whom fans of the franchise are familiar with and perhaps not wishing to alienate the core group of fans, many of them make at least a token appearance in this film. This is where they could have learned something from the Marvel and DC franchises, both of which have an enormous amount of characters to draw on. However, you see only a handful of them in the movies to date. Marvel did it best; start with one character and then introduce new ones as the series goes on. The movie is nearly two hours long and it didn’t need to be; save some of these characters for future movies. I guarantee that it will keep fan interest going longer as they wait for the long-awaited appearances of Goro, Mileena and Reiko.
Also, the training sequence takes up much of the middle of the film and is way too long. As RogerEbert.com reviewer Brian Tallerico astutely pointed out, nobody wants to watch an hour-long tutorial in the middle of the game. This is where they introduce a lot of the beloved characters from the game that could have waited for introductions later in the series.
And it is going to be a franchise. No doubt about it. The movie has done well enough in the pandemic-weakened box office to warrant it, and the movie seems to have been set up to jumpstart the franchise once again after Mortal Kombat: Annihilation killed it dead. And make no mistake, there is some potential for a long-running franchise here, but those in charge of it need to be patient and develop it slowly without forcing appearances of characters just to keep fanboys allegedly happy; for one thing, that disrespects the fans who would rather have a good movie made about their characters than a bad one. There is a lot to praise about Mortal Kombat – paramount among those the innovative fighting sequences, the marvelously violent and gory ends to some of the fighters (many built on the ends that these characters suffer in the game itself) and the CGI which is more than adequate. This is a decent kick-off for a franchise but if they want to sustain it they will have to do a better job in the movies that are sure to follow.
REASONS TO SEE: Snazzy special effects and fighting sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is almost an afterthought.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a crapload of violence (much of it gory and violent), plenty of profanity and some crude references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third live-action film based on the best-selling videogame franchise; it is also the first of the three in which Raiden is played by an Asian actor.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until May 23rd)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews; Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Street Fighter
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: There Is No Evil