Mortal Kombat (2021), by Albert W. Vogt III

You can hardly have existed in the 1990s without hearing the title of today’s movie being shouted.  Mortal Kombat (1995), the film version of one of the most controversial video games to ever be released, starts out with that phrase, followed by its earwig techno music. As a teenager, these were the sounds that haunted parents. When I think back to those times, there is a visceral moment in my mind of seeing its be-dragoned form in arcades before making its way into home consoles. I never particularly enjoyed it, though my mom would certainly have been among the legion of parents who decried its violence and gore. Nonetheless, (other) kids will be kids, and the moment you tell them they cannot do something like play this new fighting game, they are going to want it all the more. Hollywood decided to capitalize on this success, though it seems they did not want to fully commit to the project. . . . Wait a second, why does this seem familiar? Oh yeah, that is because I reviewed the original back at the end of last February. Is the new one any different? Not really. Okay, there are some incongruities between them, but overall whatever story there is is a sloppy tack-on to propel the film from monotonous fight scene after monotonous fight scene. Actually, believe it or not, I believe the plot is even thinner is this newer version, which is a scary thought.

So one immediate change from the original Mortal Kombat to the new is that it starts off in Japan in 1617. We see this so we can get the all important back story of Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada). Actually, that is a joke. There is nothing truly needed about these opening scenes, other than the vague connection to what I will laughingly call the film’s true main character, Hanzo’s great-great-whatever grandson Cole Young (Lewis Tan). Back 1617, Bi-Han (Joe Taslim), who prefers the moniker Sub-Zero because he can conjure ice, shows up at the Hasashi estate in order to avenge the Lin Kuei. What or who the Lin Kuei is we are never told, but it causes Sub-Zero to murder everyone at the house, including Hanzo. Well, you can forget about all that for a while because we do not see Hanzo again until the end of the film. In the present, we meet Cole who is a struggling mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter getting his brains beat out for a couple hundred bucks in order to support his family. As he leaves a losing bout, he is approached by Jax (Mechad Brooks). In a show me mine if you show me yours moment, we learn that people marked with the dragon tattoo that adorns the classic video game are those chosen to be Earth’s defenders. From whom do we need defending? From Shang Tsung (Chin Han) and a collection of his superpowered cronies from a place called Outworld. Basically, it sucks there and they want to conquer Earth, but they can only do so through the title tournament. While Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) pops in every once in a while to explain all this to whoever cares enough to listen to him, Shang Tsung’s associates go about trying to kill all Earth’s defenders before the appointed time. In other words, they are cheating. This is why soon after Jax and Cole meet, Sub-Zero attacks. In the process, Jax has his arms frozen off in order for Cole to escape. Jax sends Cole to his partner Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), who is hiding out in Gary, Indiana, of all places. That location threw me through a loop, but I digress. Once Cole gets to Sonya, she fills him in on the struggle that is taking place. She also has imprisoned the foul mouthed Aussie Kano (Josh Lawson), who has the dragon mark, unlike Sonya. After being attacked by a reptilian creature working for Shang Tsung, they decide they need to travel to Lord Raiden’s temple in order to prepare for Mortal Kombat. Once there, Lord Raiden gives a little more expository dialog that pertains to how all the characters can do these crazy things because they have tapped into their “arcana.” It is like the Force, but some like Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) can produced fire balls and eventually Kano learns how to shoot a laser out of his eye. The one person having trouble mastering all this is, you guessed it, our guy Cole. It is not until he is basically told that he is a liability and sent home that his power comes forth. When his family is attacked by yet another Shang Tsung henchman, Goro, his torso becomes, how should I say this, living metal? Anyway, Lord Raiden somehow knows this has happened, and because lightning seems to also have the ability to teleport in this world, he bolts Cole back to base so they can fight the bad guys. It all comes down to Sub-Zero, of course, and somehow Hanzo returns from hell, now calling himself Scorpion, in order to fight Sub-Zero. I think this is actually the excuse for this whole movie. Whatever. I was bored. Scorpion wins. Unfortunately, they seem to be setting this up for sequels because it concludes with Cole deciding to go out and recruit other defenders.

There are times, particularly in the podcast I do with my good friend Isaac called Down and Out Reviews (check it out on Spotify!) that I am accused of thinking too much while watching a movie. Whether it is just my nature, or my academic training, I cannot seem to switch my brain off. Does that make it so that no detail misses my attention. Unfortunately, no. However, what it does mean is that I want a story, and that is conspicuously absent from the new Mortal Kombat film. The opening sequence and all the set ups that are not truly paid off from it are only a small part of the problems. Yes, problems. Another is how they treat Lord Raiden. Shang Tsung and those with him appear to be powerless when the god of thunder and lightning (not Thor) is present. And yet, in key moments Lord Raiden is nowhere to be found. Where does he go? Who knows. The ridiculous excuse given is that he cannot interfere with Mortal Kombat. Now, if we ignore the fact that he is a playable character on the game, why is he portrayed so unevenly? He can do things at one moment, but cannot at another? There is a saying that I like to borrow from another, much more, shall we say, colorful reviewer for these types of cinematic botcheries: plot convenience equals movie suck. In other words, it is dumb to make somebody all powerful and seemingly omniscient and to make him powerless and not able to see the bad guys come and go in others.

Another aspect of the new Mortal Kombat that I had trouble with is the “arcana.” For a Catholic, the concept of a power being derived from one’s soul is a neat one. Our souls, the spirits within us that are not ours but God’s alone, are supernatural. The word “supernatural,” disappointedly, is used far too often to where it has lost so much of its meaning. Put another way, it means something that is beyond our normal understanding. That certainly describes God in a small way. And yet we still seek to understand it. Doing so leads us to try to make normal what was never intended to be so. God can touch us through our souls, but in doing so it is always in profoundly individual ways that are meant to draw us closer to Him. They are not designed to give us the ability to shoot fire out of our hands or control metal arms. I appreciate that people think about these things, I just wish they could be closer to the way God created them.

Needless to say, I do not recommend the new Mortal Kombat movie. With its predecessor, there was a certain restraint born mostly of the fact that it was rated PG-13. With this latest iteration, there are buckets or blood and copious amounts of swearing. Between that and the hokey lines that I guess they were obligated to insert because they were in the video game, and all the other issues mentioned above, you have an awful mess of a movie. Pass.

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