Friday, April 23, 2021

Mortal Kombat


Earthrealm is on the verge of catastrophe. Should it lose one more tournament, the savage realm of Outworld will invade. But an ancient prophecy foretells that a new group of champions will be united by the rise of Hanzo Hasashi’s blood. 1600’s Japan. A case of clan rivalry leads cryokinetic Lin Kuei assassin Bi-Han (Joe Taslim) to murder Shirai Ryu ninja Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his family. Unbeknownst to him, thunder god Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) whisks his infant daughter to safety to secure his bloodline. Centuries later, Chicago orphan Cole Young (Lewis Tan) makes ends meet for his family through $200 caged fights. When he is attacked by Sub-Zero, he is rescued by Special Forces Major Jax (Mehcad Brooks) who points him to the direction of Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), who has intel on the existence of an inter-world tournament called Mortal Kombat. Together with mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson), the trio set out to find Lord Raiden’s temple to train, as soul-eating sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) prepares to take out Earth’s warriors with the dragon birthmarks.

The cousins, bro, and I were Street Fighter kids growing up before eventually switching to Tekken for good. We did play Mortal Kombat for a while, but it never really took off. As such, the lore is lost on me except for vague recollections of OG characters like Sonya, Sub-Zero, Johnny Cage, and Raiden. And of course, you have that 1995 cringy CGI-fest film version which was enjoyable back then. Storywise, I have nothing to complain about because tournament aside, my knowledge of the storyline is limited at best.

This 2021 rendition feels more like an extended prequel, perhaps to test the waters as to how fans and casual viewers will react 25 years later. Even the titular tournament is nowhere to be found. Call it an origins story if you may because it definitely feels like it. The way the plot unfolds more than assures that a sequel is on the way along with a clever tease on an OG character yet to appear. Maybe in a few years, we will finally get to see Mortal Kombat itself together with many other characters yet to be introduced.

While the cast ensemble manages to shine, it is Taslim’s Sub-Zero who steals the show with every appearance. Whether thanks to his cool cryokinetic powers or his sinister stares, we can only guess, even though his fight choreography and stunts just seal the deal. Guy has come so far from his international breakout role in The Raid a decade ago. The weakest link, though, would have to be Ludy Lin’s Liu Kang who, for some weird reason, comes across as theatrical in some of his scenes.

As for Tan’s Cole Young, he seems like a worthy addition to the cast, although his special ability seems too convenient to serve the need for quick character development. In any case, his history is tied well enough to one of the characters to make him tolerable. It still makes you want to ask, though, whether a new character is really necessary when they could have just anchored the narrative on one of the OG characters. Hopefully, the sequel would more or less no longer focus on him.

CGI upgrade aside, the screenplay is kind of lacking. The first seven minutes made available on YouTube prior to the HBO Max release is solid alright, concentrating on the origins of the intense rivalry between Scorpion and Sub-Zero. What follows is a montage of fight scenes that are undoubtedly enjoyable to watch. Unapologetically gory and brutal, your attention is easily caught up with the CGI and hand-to-hand combat before realizing that that’s about it.

Why do the Earthrealm and the Outworld need to have a tournament in the first place? This is perhaps an aspect where the 1995 film version succeeds somehow. You get to delve deeper into MK lore before it fully immerses you in the combat itself. The only speculation we could offer is that fans who will sit through this already know the backstory anyway. For casual viewers, though, it feels a bit rushed. Maybe they will focus more on that in the sequel/s to come.

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