NOTE: Spoilers abound.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a larger waste of a good opening than Mortal Kombat.

mortal kombat (2021)As I see it, there are two ways you can do an approaching-good adaptation of a property like Mortal Kombat, a video game franchise with an extraordinarily stupid and convoluted plotline that exists to explain why you are punching and kicking and killing so many people and/or human-shaped monsters in a 1v1 setting:

  1. Lean hard into the goofiness and find the fun. The 1995 MK movie does this pretty well; it’s corny but knows it, everyone looks like they got their costumes from the Target discount rack and Goro’s arms don’t work good, but there’s a winking silliness that meshes well with the movie’s genuinely cool fight scenes, which are very good classic martial-arts showcases with solid cinematography and minimal CG. It’s a fighting game franchise, after all, isn’t it? Why shouldn’t Johnny Cage push the four-armed demon in the nuts?
  2. Find a kernel of some genuinely compelling emotional beat or dynamic and narrow your focus until that’s the only thing you can see, and build out very carefully from there, so that even as things grow fantastical and weird we never lose sight of characterization and emotional stakes to make things feel genuinely thrilling or tragic or whatever you’re going for. I, uh, cannot actually name a successful example of a video-game-to-film adaptation that does this, because 99% of them are too wildly awful to even try.

You can also just sort of ignore the game’s lore entirely and do your own thing to whatever results you want, which is fine but not what we’re talking about here.

Anyway: Mortal Kombat 2021 Edition makes you think it’s actually managed to pull of the second approach for about, oh, 15 minutes before the movie settles into its actual rhythms. The opening sequence, a set-in-the-distant-past prologue focusing on the characters who will become legendary color-palette-swapped ninjas Scorpion and Sub-Zero, has a tremendous amount to recommend it. Hiroyuki Sanada brings a shocking amount of pathos to a very small amount of screentime before he’s whipping around a garden blade on a rope; his loss is meaningful and also, by the standards of this franchise, small and intimate and relatable.

Joe Taslim’s performance in this opening act is also pretty great: He’s a sociopathic villain, but there’s a weirdly compelling vibe to his loyalty to his clan or whatever, and a hint in his performance that he, too, has lost enough to be this cruel and dedicated to annihilating his rival’s family. Without much set up or larger context, their battle is brutal and impactful, the violence hitting harder because they both seem like humans motivated by passably human stakes.

I don’t want to overstate this: those first few minutes of MK 2021 are not an unimpeachable masterpiece, though they have some lovely aesthetic flourishes and narrative beats; it’s just that the movie after this scene ends is so far removed from that this scene ends up feelings like it was dropped in from an entirely different project.

Mortal Kombat Let’s Try Making This Again For Some Reason is a terminally dumb movie. Taking out that first scene, the first half of the movie is dull and full of failed jokes and non-starter character dynamics, and the second half is all empty calories, some mildly entertaining but CGI-stuffed and hard to follow fights that mean nearly nothing because every intellectual property must now strive to become its own cinematic universe.

I don’t really even want to talk about the “real” plot, involving a guy named Cole Young who teams up with various player-characters from the MK franchise to fight some other player-characters in defense of Earthrealm against the Netherrealm. It is all very stupid without doing nearly enough to acknowledge and do something with the fact that it’s stupid. It’s neither corny nor energetic enough to pull off this attempt at a straight-faced telling of an arcade machine’s text crawl. The actors are doing their best, I suppose, but Lewis Tan’s Cole in particular is a failure of a character; he has nothing at all of interest going on, even amidst a field of people who are only interesting because they look like boring versions of the fun mo-capped guys in the costumes from the original games.

Jax gets a storyline where his arms are broken off, and he’s feeling bad about this, but then he gets robot arms courtesy of, uh, Raiden???, but they’re pretty weak robot arms, which makes him feel bad, until he Levels Up and gets very buff robot arms, which makes him happy. This is what passes for a character arc in Mortal Kombat: A Marketing Algorithm Built By Nickelodeon Punched Up The Script.

Any of this might not matter! — if the film stuck to one thing or another otherwise. A movie about Mortal Kombat totally could be serious-faced and stony as opposed to its colorful 90s kin; that’s what I’m getting at with harping so much on the opening. But if it wants to go there, it needs to go much harder than this movie does. We get a couple of fun violent kills marred by being non-tactile, unsatisfying CGI arterial sprays, and we get some messily filmed fight scenes that don’t build or play off of each other, and then the movie just sort of ends. This isn’t a gritty reboot or a grim reimagining; it’s just boring, because nothing happens.

The ultimate payoff for the opening scene is a weird and half-assed reintroduction of Scorpion as a savior who gets his vengeance, I guess, on a Sub-Zero who’s clearly already far gone past being a properly alive human since their last meeting. He doesn’t have any relationship to the plot that’s proceeded in the seven hundred hours or so since he last appeared on screen, he participates in this climactic fight like he’s one part of a tag team, and then he peaces out of the movie apparently very satisfied to continue being a Hell-bound skeleton or something.

Notably, as if to underscore how much he ends up not being a character in a movie but instead a “hey remember this guy from the thing?” bit of set dressing, this Scorpion doesn’t seem to have any feelings about the fact that his daughter, thought to be lost alongside the rest of his family in the opening, survived long enough to sire children and keep the bloodline going. I guess he found out about that while he was otherwise dead.

A more interesting movie might have spent a lot more time with Scorpion, understanding him in his semi-realistic-ish historical context and then watching him suffer in the afterlife on his way back to a tragically meaningless vengeance, while his counterpart Sub-Zero becomes a soulless minion creep to powers so far beyond his initial blood feud as to make him look like an idiot for ever caring enough to kill Scorpion in the first place. You could make a brutal, violent movie about cycles of brutal, pointless violence. That’s what the first few minutes of this movie promise, and then the movie forgets it did that and makes a movie that doesn’t really try to do anything except remind you of stuff you saw in a video game nearly 30 years ago.

I wasn’t really expecting Mortal Kombat: Blood’s Better When It’s Computer-Generated to be a good movie, though I was hoping it’d be more entertaining than it is. But wow, talk about writing a paycheck your script can’t cash.

(I do genuinely love one thing about this movie. One of the side villains is inexplicably Nitara, a character who first appears with no fanfare in the franchise in 2002’s Deadly Alliance and is not playable or even particularly present in any game after 2007, and thus has no nostalgic value whatsoever for the intended audience.In any case, she’s in this movie for a solid five minutes, which currently earns her these two sentences on Wikipedia: “Nitara appears in the 2021 Mortal Kombat film, portrayed by Mel Jarnson. Depicted as one of the Outworld champions, she is killed by Kung Lao with his hat.” Cool!)

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