Wednesday, April 17, 2024

‘Mortal Kombat’ Pulls Out a Flawed Victory

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Mortal Kombat is a fun movie that accomplishes much of what it sets out to do. In some respects, it surpasses the original 1995 film, while paling in comparison in other ways. What the film succeeds the most in is the violence and brutality of the infamous “fatalities”.

Still, the movie is a mixed bag. The biggest flaw of the modern adaptation is its weird insistence that we care about the characters. The director Simon McQuoid and his screenwriters Greg Russo and Oren Uziel seem to make the standard error of mistaking lore for a story. 

Mortal Kombat is a video game, an old one. Though it may have many iterations and it’s mythology may have expanded, ultimately, the only real reason anyone plays Mortal Kombat is to rip someone’s spine out. The hero’s journey of Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a fighter who excels at taking hits but not winning fights, is a stale and not very interesting tale. But that’s because Cole Young is not an interesting character; none of them are. 

They aren’t designed to be characters. They are intended to be avatars.

The film works best when McQuoid allows his actors to play big. Mortal Kombat is at its worst when it tries to ground the movie in a recognizable reality. I wish that filmmakers would stop trying to make everything believable. I’d much rather watch a film go off half-cocked while indulging flights of fancy for a change.

Mortal Kombat is a film based on a videogame whose entire premise is that an alternate dimension has to win ten straight fighting tournaments in a row to conquer another realm. Both movies then have the main bad guy Shang Tsung (Chin Han), ignore/break these rules and try to do whatever he wants anyway.

To some extent, I admire how much Russo and Oren try to lay out ground rules only to demolish them in the next scene. The characters smirk and toss off lines like, “The old gods are too lazy to stop me.” Implying, of course, that the people who made the rules are asleep, so why bother playing their game anyway.

Sadly, McQuoid doesn’t have the same flash of style or talent for brief exposition as the previous Mortal Kombat. While this Mortal Kombat is a slicker production with a bigger budget, it is still a duller and more dreary-looking production. The film isn’t an eyesore, and some of the sets, towards the end, are fun in a sort of minimalist kind of way. It’s just that it’s another victim of trying to be taken seriously instead of having fun or being inventive.

Mortal Kombat does have an ace up its sleeve. The assembly of grade A martial arts stunt people in one movie. Or, it would had the filmmakers understood how film a fight scene. McQuoid and his cameraperson German McMicking, and editor Dan Lebental, and Scott Gray can’t frame or edit a fight to save their life. They are forever cutting away to weird angles to make the kicks and punches look more visually interesting.

Except this is something you do when you have actors who cannot fight. Not to mention by sacrificing visual clarity in a fight, you lose any effect your aesthetic hopes to create. Tam is a martial artist, as is Joe Taslim as the hero’s real villain, Sub-Zero. McQuoid makes the amateur mistake of cutting away just before a punch lands to a wide shot, denying the audience of an impact, not to mention forcing us to play catch up subconsciously as to what happens. 

Take the scene in which Kano (Josh Lawson) and Liu Xang (Ludi Lin) fight in the Pit to discover Kano’s arcana, his power. In some ways, the fight is a sly portrayal of what it feels like to play the game. Liu repeatedly sweeps Kano’s legs out from underneath him to the point where Kano throws a fit. It’s a funny scene. Anyone who has played the game has either encountered this either with the computer or another player.

However, the way McQuoid and his team film it and edit it together, we never see the entire leg sweep, even though both actors are doing their own stunts. We cut away at the last second. McQuoid never shows us a full leg sweep, a complete movement, which for a comic book movie, this would make sense. But not when your stars are stunt people themselves; it makes them look bad.

Truthfully, I forgave the movie all of this once the brutal fatalities started piling up. However, it takes a while to happen. Once the gore begins making an appearance, Mortal Kombat goes from tediously entertaining to an outright whooping fest. 

We’re talking Kung Lao’s (Max Huang) hat spinning like a buzzsaw to cut through Nitara’s (Mel Jarnson) skull. It’s bloody and brutal in a way that’s effective. It’s strange to say, but it feels as if McQuoid is afraid to embrace the violence, the first half of the movie being relatively tame.

Oh, sure, we get Sub-Zero ripping off Jax’s (Mehcad Brooks) arms, but the actual blood and guts don’t start to make an appearance until the “tournament” starts. Until then, we’re forced to sit through the aforementioned “lore” that, while not boring, is never all the engaging or particularly clever.

Mortal Kombat does a lot to show us that Sub-Zero and Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) have a rivalry that spans the ages. But it does little in telling us why the rivalry has lasted. After beating the other in a fight, each character says, “For the (fill in the blank) clan.” Who or why these clans are at odds we never know. It wouldn’t matter, except the movie’s opening scene seems to be a crucial climactic end to this feud.

The actors are forced to play it straight with almost no one appearing to have any fun. However, Lawson’s Kano is a scene-stealer as an Australian braggart whose skills are dwarfed by his own belief in them. Lawson seems to be doing the most with the least and relishing every moment.

Jessica McNamee, as Sonya Blade, gets the thankless task of being the badass woman. The hero who is there but shouldn’t be. McNamee makes it work, but ultimately she has less to work with than Lawson or Tam.

Even the great Tadanobu Asano as Raiden struggles to find much in his role. Though Asano shines whenever Han’s Shang Tsung appears onscreen, the two have a delightful chemistry and have a way of bringing out the best of each other. They are so good it makes us wish they had something more to say than the rote dialogue the script stuffs into their craw.

Once the movie starts picking up, Mortal Kombat starts showing the film it could be. We begin to get moments such as Sonya teleporting into a fight to blast a hole clear through Mileena (Sisi Stringer), a woman with a literal killer jaw, with her newly acquired laser fists. A power that no one, including Sonya, knows how she got. 

The special effects are sound, but nowadays special effects are so common, only the bad ones are really noteworthy. Goro (voiced by Angus Sampson), the four-armed half-man, half-dragon, looks good and moves well within the scene but, like the movie itself, lacks any personality. It’s the type of well-done effect that probably won’t age all that well.

I did love the scenes with Cole and his family. He has a wife, Alison (Laura Brent), and his daughter Emily (Matilda Kimber). If only because I adore Brent’s delivery of the line, “I just want to get us outta here. Fuck another four-armed monster showing up.”

Mortal Kombat is ultimately a mileage may vary movie. It’s fun to a point. McQuoid is smart enough to bring back the original Mortal Kombat score but only in spurts leaving us wanting a little more. I loved the final fight scene between Sub-Zero, Scorpion, and Cole, set in a caged arena from Cole’s old gym covered in ice. But most importantly, it’s never outright dull, but it rarely feels as if it’s the best Mortal Kombat movie it could be. 

If the last shot is to be believed, this will not be the last Mortal Kombat movie we get. Someone asks Cole what he plans to do next, and he merely says he’s going to Hollywood. The camera pans over to a movie poster on the wall. The last shot is impressive if only for the sheer amount of times Johnny Cage’s last name appears on the poster. 

I suppose the real test of Mortal Kombat is how excited that prospect makes you. For myself, honestly, I was pretty psyched.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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