Mortal Kombat (2021)


Ready Player One….FIGHT!!!!

(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

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World


Michael Cera

Game on, Michael Cera!

(Universal) Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Alison Pill, Ellen Wong, Mark Webber, Johnny Simmons, Anna Kendrick, Jason Schwartzman, Brandon Routh, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Evans, Brie Larson, Mae Whitman, Bill Hader (voice). Directed by Edgar Wright

There’s something about videogames that appeals to most of us; the clear delineation between good and evil, the use of skill and deduction to be successful, the ability to explore amazing places and live vicariously through the characters in the game. We can become anyone, defeat anything, but we can’t escape love.

Scott Pilgrim (Cera) is a 22-year-old slacker who has broken up with his girlfriend Envy Adams (Larson) for some time and hasn’t really gotten over her. He’s dating a 17-year-old high school Asian chick named Knives Chau (Wong) who worships the ground the Scott walks on. He’s also playing bass in a trio known as Sex Bob-omb along with fellow slackers Steven Stills (Webber), drummer Kim Pine (Pill) who Scott once dated and Young Neil (Simmons), who subs for Scott on bass when he isn’t in the mood to play. Knives also worships the ground they rock on.

Then, into Scott’s life comes Ramona Flowers (Winstead), a lively red/blue/green-headed hipster who recently moved to Toronto from New York City. Scott falls immediately and implacably in love with her, much to the disgust of his sister Stacey (Kendrick) and gay roommate Wallace Wells (Culkin). At first, things are a little rough between Scott and Ramona; she’s getting over some fairly rough times and is inclined not to trust anyone. Gradually, Scott’s charm wins her over.

That’s when Scott’s problems really begin. It turns out that Ramona has seven evil exes, people she dated with super powers and evil intentions. Scott will need not only to fight all seven of them, he’ll have to defeat them in order to win the hand of the woman he loves.

It’s a simple enough concept, but under the guidance of director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) the execution is imaginative and clever. You know from the 8-bit version of the iconic opening of Universal Studios that you’re in for something special. Videogame conceits order the action, from the onscreen graphics to the extra lives to even the look of the movie.

There are a lot of homages to various classic and current videogames, from Pac-Man to Dance Dance Revolution to Mortal Kombat to Sonic the Hedgehog. There are also lots of pop culture references, from the graphic novel culture from where this project originated, but also the indie music and movie scene as well. However it is videogames that are the primary inspiration for this movie and those who aren’t at least aware of some of the conventions of videogames aren’t going to be able to follow the movie very well, or at least get some of the humor.

Much of the movie rests on the skinny shoulders of Everytwerp Michael Cera. I have never been a huge fan of his mainly because of what I perceive as a sameness of the characters he plays in movies like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Juno and Superbad not to mention his role in the cable series “Arrested Development.” Cera tends to speak in the same annoying, mousy tones and plays guys who get women way out of their leagues. Here, he has a bit more of a crafty undertone to him; we find out during the course of the movie that he’s a little bit of a player when it comes to women.

Most of the critical brickbats have focused in on Winstead’s Ramona Flowers and I can understand some of the criticism. She’s a bit aloof emotionally (as is Cera’s Scott to a very large extent) and that creates a bit of a gulf between the audience and the action. It’s hard to want a relationship to succeed if you aren’t feeling that the love is genuine; Cera and Winstead never convince that there’s a real deep emotional bond between Scott and Ramona.

That’s what keeps me from giving the movie a higher score, but the clever visuals and the frenetic pacing are what elevate the movie to something better than standard summer action fare. The fight sequences are some of the best I’ve seen in a movie that didn’t come from Asia, and the humor throughout appeals not just to the videogame crowd but for general audiences as well. This is one of those movies that seem much shorter than it is; you’re enjoying yourself so much you don’t notice how time is passing by.

My son Jacob has been looking forward to the movie for eons. He is a big fan of the original graphic novel which I haven’t read yet; he is also a nutcase about videogames. This is HIS movie, and these are HIS people. The movie speaks to him and his friends in ways I can’t; it relates to him in ways I won’t either. It speaks his language and knows his shorthand. I suspect this will be a cultural touchstone for him and his generation for years to come.

REASONS TO GO: A pop culture icon for the digital generation. Cleverly designed and executed, the movie moves along at a frenetic pace.

REASONS TO STAY: There are times when the characters get a little hipper-than-thou, and Cera is playing yet another Michael Cera role, so if you don’t like Michael Cera you won’t like him any better here.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some stylized videogame-like violence and a few bad words here and there. There are also some sexuality and drug references. Pretty much okay for everyone, although parents may want to decide if it’s suitable for their younger children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whitman, who plays one of the evil exes here, previously played the girlfriend of Michael Cera’s character in “Arrested Development.”

HOME OR THEATER: This should be seen in a theater with a bunch of cheering fans, but if you can’t get there, a roomful of videogame addicts at home will do just as well.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Drillbit Taylor