NOTE: “Mortal Kombat” is available to view in theatres here in North America, and elsewhere in the world wherever theatres are permitted to be open. It’s also available to stream for free at home via HBO Max for 31 days out from release in the U.S., before returning to HBO Max as an indefinite free streaming offering later this year. For markets outside of the U.S. that don’t offer HBO Max, “Mortal Kombat” is currently available for at-home viewing via Premium Rental on supported VOD services. When possible, we recommend watching movies at home for the duration of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, for the safety of yourself and others. In the event that you do attend a movie theatre over the course of the ongoing pandemic however, please consult and follow public health guidelines in your region, and do not attend movie theatres if you feel unwell, or have been potentially exposed to COVID-19 through a known positive case.
FOR REFERENCE: This review of, “Mortal Kombat” is based on at an-home viewing via Premium Rental
Back in the mid-90’s, when the video game movie curse began to take form through the critical and commercial failures of Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon and Street Fighter: The Movie, there was one shining (well, maybe humming) ray of hope that managed to nudge through the disappointment; 1995’s Mortal Kombat. Despite being widely disliked by many critics, Mortal Kombat actually became profitable at the worldwide box office, and endures to this day as a cult favourite 90’s B-movie among gamers and non-gamers alike. Sadly, this cinematic offshoot wasn’t ultimately able to grow beyond this though, since 1997’s cinematic sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, was such a colossal failure that it both tanked at the box office and went on to be considered one of the worst movies of all time. Needless to say, plans for a proposed third movie, which would have been titled ‘Mortal Kombat: Devastation‘, never materialized.
A lot has happened with the Mortal Kombat franchise since those days. The Mortal Kombat license has now become fully owned by Warner Bros. most notably, after Mortal Kombat’s original owner, Midway went bankrupt in the late 2000’s. Since then, Mortal Kombat has seen a huge renaissance throughout the 2010’s, with new Warner Bros.-owned developer, NetherRealm Studios catapulting the Mortal Kombat video game series back to mainstream acclaim and success. This was done by taking inspiration from other Warner Bros. franchises like Game of Thrones and the DC Universe, which led to Mortal Kombat being re-purposed as a complex fantasy-drama filled with factions and super-powered martial arts-wielding heroes and villains, all brought together with some of the most refined, flexible fighting mechanics that the gaming industry has to offer. It goes without saying that the time had been right for a new Mortal Kombat feature film for several years now.
The stakes behind adapting the Mortal Kombat franchise to film versus almost any other gaming franchise are noticeably different as well. Unlike most foundations for video game adaptations, which often involve a video game publisher licensing out a beloved video game property to a separate studio that they believe will butcher it the least, Mortal Kombat is already fully owned by a major movie corporation, no license-changing necessary! Even better is that Warner Bros. also happened to come into ownership of New Line Cinema during the late 2000’s, the same studio that happened to own the movie rights to Mortal Kombat anyway, being responsible for the duology of Mortal Kombat movies that released in the 90’s. The stars don’t get any more aligned than that!
So, the failed 90’s shared universe of Mortal Kombat movies and TV shows was thrown out (yes, believe it or not, Mortal Kombat was once doing shared cinematic universes before it was cool!), and Mortal Kombat would embrace an all-new cinematic reboot that took inspiration from Warner Bros,’ tenure on the franchise, rather than Midway’s. At least, that’s the idea. In execution, Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema weirdly created a production that feels like they’re pitching a Mortal Kombat movie to themselves. 2021’s Mortal Kombat views like a feature-length pilot episode for an HBO Max series, which isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just… Odd. If anyone should have confidence in the franchise potential of a live-action Mortal Kombat offering, you’d think it would be the studio that already successfully re-purposed the core Mortal Kombat video game series back into a huge mainstream hit!
Let’s get down to brass tacks– If you are already a Mortal Kombat fan, and you have been waiting for a modern cinematic reboot to bring the franchise into more ambitious Hollywood blockbuster territory, than 2021’s Mortal Kombat reboot will delight you while it lasts. If you’re not already a fan of the source games, or perhaps the 1995 movie however, 2021’s Mortal Kombat feels more like a proof-of-concept than a complete production, having some legitimate spots of brilliance that unfortunately get overshadowed by so much half-baked storytelling and frustratingly ill-defined characters. If you have a taste for colourful martial arts movies and/or fantasy-flavoured action, and you can ideally watch Mortal Kombat for free via HBO Max, it nonetheless delivers plenty of promise for future follow-ups that will hopefully expand on its ideas to a truly satisfying degree. Whether those follow-ups ultimately come to exist however is another issue entirely.
Mortal Kombat, like most any installment from the video game franchise that inspired it, is packed to the gills with larger-than-life characters. If you’re a fan of the Mortal Kombat video games, or you’ve seen one or both of the 90’s-era Mortal Kombat movies, you should recognize many of them. Fan-favourite Mortal Kombat heroes such as Sonya Blade (played by Jessica McNamee), Jax (played by Mehcad Brooks), Liu Kang (played by Ludi Lin), Raiden (played by Tadanobu Asano), and Kung Lao (played by Max Huang), are all present and accounted for (of these characters, only Kung Lao was absent in the prior two Mortal Kombat movies), squaring off against recognizable Outworld villains that are once again led by the evil soul-stealing sorcerer, Shang Tsung, this time played by Chin Han. Many of Shang Tsung’s underlings are also glorified redshirts and Fatality fodder in this case, which is acceptable with some surprising additions to Outworld’s villain roster (who exactly was hoping for Reiko and Nitara to make an appearance here?!), but unfortunately, some of Mortal Kombat’s best Outworld characters, including Goro, Mileena and Reptile, are similarly relegated to being stock baddies for the heroes to simply demonstrate their fighting prowess against. Seriously?
A ton of hero and villain backstory is thus left on the table here, and that’s infuriating for people who are already attached to many of these characters from the source games in particular. This is of course what sequels are for, but one area where 2021’s Mortal Kombat reboot nonetheless falters is in truly capturing the complex backstories of its many heroes and villains. The two characters that feel like exceptions to this shortcoming are, strangely enough, Kano and Kabal (Kano being played by Josh Lawson, and Kabal being played by both Daniel Nelson doing actions and Damon Herriman doing voiceover), the resident members of the mercenary Black Dragon Clan, who both inject all of the movie’s best lines and delivery as shady, snarky opportunists that couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the nobility surrounding the upcoming Mortal Kombat tournament. Kano in particular feels like he’s basically subbing in for the conspicuously absent Johnny Cage here, who usually holds the duty of being Mortal Kombat’s fan-favourite, comic relief-oriented hero of Earthrrealm.
Where this reboot’s character work feels most disappointing however is via Lewis Tan’s Cole Young, an all-new protagonist that serves as a blatant audience surrogate. Poor Tan is doing everything he can to make Cole interesting, but there’s just nothing on offer for him. The idea behind Cole is that he’s a washed-up MMA fighter that winds up with the telltale birthmark signaling his being chosen to defend Earthrealm from Outworld in the Mortal Kombat tournament (yes, this birthmark hook is not a thing in the Mortal Kombat video games, and was completely made up for this movie), which is how Cole comes into the circles of Earthrealm’s other would-be heroes. The thing is though, even considering uninitiated audiences, Mortal Kombat really didn’t need to make up a surrogate linking everything to discernible humanity. There’s no reason at all why Cole couldn’t have just been another recognizable Mortal Kombat character like Liu Kang, Johnny Cage, or, hell, even Kurtis Stryker, if you didn’t want to redo a character that was already in the prior two 90’s movies!
Except, of course, that this Mortal Kombat reboot simultaneously wants to split its focus between Earthrealm’s warriors struggling to prepare for the upcoming Mortal Kombat tournament (which is presumably going to be the basis of a sequel, if said sequel happens), and exploring the rivalry between Scorpion and Sub-Zero, two more fan-favourite Mortal Kombat characters that probably should have been split off into their own origin movie. If you’re a fan of the Mortal Kombat video games, and you think you already know how Cole ties into this rivalry, chances are, you’re correct. Even the uninitiated will probably piece Cole’s character connection together before long though, considering that Sub-Zero is portrayed like an ultra-powerful, unhinged slasher villain in this reboot, one that relentlessly stalks Cole in particular. In fact, I’d wager that Sub-Zero’s portrayal is where most of producer, James Wan’s influence can be seen, tapping into Wan’s background as a horror director for Insidious and The Conjuring, as well as his more recent turn as the director of Warner Bros.’ Aquaman movie.
To put it plainly, Sub-Zero is another of this Mortal Kombat reboot’s best characters. Cheesy as it sounds, Sub-Zero’s character could best be described as positively chilling here, ultimately feeling like far more of a menace to Earthrealm than Shang Tsung seems to be in this case! The battles between Scorpion and Sub-Zero often represent the best action scenes in this movie as well, which is great, because said battles serve as the backdrops for both the intro and the climax. Again though, considering the sheer amount of recognizable Mortal Kombat personalities that this movie has to establish, the Scorpion/Sub-Zero arc probably should have been separated into its own movie, where it wouldn’t need to worry about stepping on the toes of a large-scale ensemble storyline that deals with many, many more characters. As it stands, trying to cram almost all of the franchise’s leading personalities and their goldfish into this Mortal Kombat reboot all at once simply doesn’t allow most of them to ideally shine, least of all Cole, whose turbulent family history too often feels like the least of Earthrealm’s concerns.
In one of the most unexpected twists behind 2021’s Mortal Kombat reboot, the entirety of this movie takes place before the eponymous Mortal Kombat tournament even begins! The foundational premise of Outworld winning claim to Earth (or, Earthrealm, as the Mortal Kombat franchise calls it) after ten straight victories in the tournament, and having won nine as the story begins, is nonetheless intact. Despite that however, this reboot appears very concerned about re-treading narrative territory from the original 1995 movie, because it currently wants to stay away from any proper showcasing of the Mortal Kombat tournament itself. This by itself will no doubt be very divisive for existing Mortal Kombat fans, even if the de-emphasis on the tournament may nonetheless make for a friendlier story backdrop for newcomers.
Of course, that’s rendered moot when 2021’s Mortal Kombat still sees fit to appeal to existing fans first and foremost. There are many important story elements in this reboot that feel rushed-through and underdeveloped, a casualty of needing to accommodate a rather robust lineup of familiar series fighters, on top of new audience surrogate character, Cole Young. The storytelling often ranges wildly between exposition dumps and character banter, with a handful of scenes that manage to achieve legitimate dramatic impact, though these are too few and far between to lend actual stakes to the story. Instead, Mortal Kombat’s storyline ends up feeling like a demo reel for a movie franchise that doesn’t actually exist yet, despite the fact that we’re simultaneously watching its very real origins on a screen.
Commendably, Mortal Kombat does at least avoid the feeling of a video game movie that unfolds as if someone took your controller and refused to give it back to you. Its storyline does dare to think bigger than just doing what the source games did. When the real stakes are being saved for another prospective movie however, so much of Mortal Kombat’s narrative ultimately feels like meaningless fluff, likely leaving most viewers desperate to simply get back to the fighting. In that respect, this cinematic reboot disappointingly does feel like a protracted video game cutscene, or at least it will to people that don’t already appreciate video game narratives, including that of the Mortal Kombat franchise.
2021’s Mortal Kombat movie reboot is helmed by first-time feature director, Simon McQuoid, whose directing career entirely spanned commercials before this point. That’s quite the… Bold choice for Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema to appoint, but to McQuoid’s credit, he does manage to pull together a mostly competent production here. Of course, McQuoid being a commercial director probably heavily lends itself to the feeling that this Mortal Kombat reboot is a feature-length pitch reel and not a fully confident adaptation, but, credit where it’s due, you wouldn’t necessarily pick up that McQuoid has never directed a movie before. Despite his lack of feature experience, McQuoid does manage to make Mortal Kombat look the part at the very least, complete with its gory flourishes and larger-than-life scope from the source games completely intact.
Where McQuoid’s lack of feature directing experience feels more evident is through directing the actors, who are all desperately doing what they can to flesh out some frustratingly bare-bones personalities. This will likely be irksome to both fans and non-fans of the Mortal Kombat franchise, especially considering that Warner Bros.’ modern Mortal Kombat video games in particular, and their related media, are packed to burst with robustly detailed, surprisingly complex personalities that all have clear, evolving character arcs. Unfortunately, almost none of that effectively translates into this movie’s direction, which leaves its character-driven scenes often falling completely flat. Unless of course Josh Lawson’s Kano is blessing us with his pitch-perfect Australian snark.
It’s easy to get the impression that McQuoid simply allowed the actors to do whatever they felt like with their characters, while focusing most of his energy as a director on nailing their fighting moves and Fatalities. Predictably, this leads to a style-over-substance movie that doesn’t have the cheesy 90’s flavour as its 1995 progenitor, for better or for worse, but is nonetheless pretty enjoyable to look at. The characters feel like they barely matter as people, which is a huge disappointment in the case of audience surrogate, Cole Young especially, but the enjoyably over-the-top essence of Mortal Kombat is still captured through the direction here. It just would have been ideal if there was something to connect with beyond an appreciation for the legacy of the Mortal Kombat video games. That will be plenty of motivation for fans and genre enthusiasts, but for the uninitiated, they’ll risk being left colder than Sub-Zero’s deadly touch.
One of the strange, yet nonetheless celebrated hallmarks behind 1995’s Mortal Kombat movie is its sound design, which is excellently punctuated by the iconic theme song, “Techno Syndrome” by The Immortals. “Techno Syndrome” was such a beloved theme song in fact that it went on to be considered something of an unofficial theme for the Mortal Kombat brand as a whole, despite the fact that it never actually cropped up in the Mortal Kombat video games. Unsurprisingly, “Techno Syndrome” gets a modern, EDM-style remix for 2021’s Mortal Kombat reboot as well, where it’s paired with an all-new score by Benjamin Wallfisch.
Wallfisch’s score was already facing an uphill battle by trying to recapture the appeal of one of the most memorable 90’s movie soundtracks, and it’s a battle that it unfortunately whiffs on. Mortal Kombat’s synth-heavy score is disappointingly run-of-the-mill, once again over-fixating on this being a video game-to-film adaptation, rather than just a blockbuster movie on its own merits. A few compositions stand out a bit more, especially during the combat sequences, but even these pale in comparison to the 1995 movie’s far more powerful, gripping soundtrack. Maybe this is another byproduct of Mortal Kombat no longer wanting to be viewed by a mainstream moviegoing audience as juvenile cheese, but perhaps this might have been an instance where this reboot may have been better off embracing its corny side. At the very least, we could have gotten another fun soundtrack that didn’t just sound like mindless club noise that somehow feels both over-produced and under-produced at the same time.
Another frustration with 2021’s Mortal Kombat reboot is that even its overall sound design sometimes feels… Off. The combat sequences definitely excel when they showcase Fatalities at least, along with a few other noteworthy flourishes that incorporate special moves and things of that nature. Most of the time though, Mortal Kombat’s fight sequences, among other noteworthy moments, feel disappointingly floaty and unconvincing, especially when you watch the movie at home. Even huge, hulking characters like Goro don’t always manage to land with the proper impact here, which is a huge disappointment for a reboot of a movie series that heavily defined itself by its sound design in the 90’s. Even the new version of, “Techno Syndrome” feels floatier and lacks punch, and that’s the absolute wrong decision for a reimagining of a beloved 90’s song, one that’s virtually just as beloved by Millennials and Gen-X as the Spice Girls or the Backstreet Boys!
Mortal Kombat’s duo of 90’s movies are pretty infamous for their lacklustre special effects. If there’s one big incentive to a modern reboot, it’s the ability to finally give a Mortal Kombat movie a visual suite that can hold its own. Fortunately, 2021’s Mortal Kombat is successful in this endeavour as well, compensating for its disappointing sound design with an overall solid visual suite. There’s less practical effects in this reboot though, disappointingly, which is especially evident with Outworld characters like Goro and Reptile, who are both fully CGI in this reboot (though in fairness, Reptile was also fully CGI in 1995). Similarly, this movie’s CGI-fueled Fatalities miss some big opportunities for practical effects (though at least a few of the bloodier moments still contain them), likely to keep the budget down, which can somewhat deflate a few of the gruesome finishers from the source games. The fact that Fatalities exist in this movie at all is still cause for celebration though, after the purely PG-13 90’s movies were naturally unable to include them in earnest.
Even in having to rely so heavily on CGI as well, Mortal Kombat’s visuals are still better than you may imagine off the back of its paltry $55 million budget. Sub-Zero’s powers in particular look absolutely incredible, even with this small budget, constantly building in scope until they sustain an entire icy climax, which easily serves as this movie’s best set design! Likewise, characters like Raiden and Liu Kang have much more convincing ‘Arcana’ powers than they did in the original Mortal Kombat movies, still being visibly fantastical, but at least fitting convincingly into the world of this reboot. Another plus is that even the red band trailer definitely didn’t give away some of the best visual moments in this Mortal Kombat reboot either, which commendably commits to its R-rating with some wonderfully violent crescendos throughout its fight scenes!
This leaves 2021’s Mortal Kombat to effectively swap technical shortcomings with its 90’s forerunners, improving the woeful visuals of the previous movies to a competent, sometimes genuinely impressive degree, while this reboot’s sound design instead suffers and fails to land with the proper impact. Maybe a budget boost for a potential sequel could finally have these two technical arms properly working in unison?
2021’s cinematic Mortal Kombat reboot definitely deserves props for actively trying to be faithful to the gory, over-the-top gimmicks of its source games, complete with a proud R-rating that doesn’t hold back with gruesome character deaths, nor many of Kano’s off-colour jokes. The polish behind the look and feel of this reboot is genuinely impressive, capturing the spirit of its source games, without just recycling what they’ve already done. As a scenery-chewing martial arts B-movie that’s packed with everything cool, from aliens to superpowers to all the gore you could ask for, this reboot succeeds at demonstrating the incredible live-action franchise potential of Mortal Kombat.
But there’s the rub; Mortal Kombat demonstrated plenty of live-action franchise potential in 1995, several decades ago. It really didn’t need to do this all over again in 2021, especially when whatever miniscule substance and character development that made it into the 1995 movie is even further stripped out in this 2021 reboot. In a strange way, it feels like we’re still waiting for the real Mortal Kombat movie reboot, and this first movie was just a feature-length trailer for that true reboot. It’s a really enjoyable trailer in many respects, especially for avid Mortal Kombat fans that have been eagerly anticipating the franchise’s eventual return to the big screen, but it is nonetheless a simple showcase that mines for faith in a superior sequel, rather than properly standing on its own two feet. That’s a pretty tragically ironic result from a first-time feature director that actively banned sequel talk on the set.
Still, 2021’s Mortal Kombat reboot is good, bloody fun if you’re willing to appreciate the concept, and can avoid the urge to nitpick about its uneven focus. This movie also continues the upward trend in quality that we’re starting to see from more recent video game-to-film adaptations, which still struggle with an awkward adolescence at this point, but are nonetheless noticeably getting better. Perhaps this new live-action Mortal Kombat concept would thrive even more as an HBO Max series as well, where it can devote more time to fleshing out its various characters and its battle against Outworld.
Even if the franchise prefers to stay purely in the realm of cinema however, Mortal Kombat’s 2021 reboot is a stylish, if slightly vapid R-rated blockbuster with plenty of franchise potential. It’s not without its flaws, and feels like a bit of a lateral move when compared to the cheesy, but similarly fun 1995 movie, but it’s not bad. Personally, I’m eager to see more out of this new live-action Mortal Kombat universe, and if that’s the case, then this reboot must have done something right. I can also safely assure you that it’s a hundred times better than Mortal Kombat: Annihilation!
- Stylish, well-directed fight sequences that effectively show off the characters
- Proud commitment to R-rated gore and Fatalities
- Kano's scene-stealing personality
- Cole Young is a dull, unnecessary audience surrogate
- Overstuffed cast lacks meaningful character development
- Shallow, unfocused storytelling