I would love to get a copy of the Mortal Kombat rulebook. Is there a rulebook? In Mortal Kombat (2021), like Mortal Kombat (1995), a deadly tournament determines the fate of “Earthrealm” (AKA Earth) and “Outworld” (AKA a nebulous hellscape populated entirely by weirdos with gruesome fighting abilities). Supposedly, if either realm wins ten straight Mortal Kombat tournaments, they earn the right to invade the other. Seeing as how Outworld is a barren wasteland, this is not great prize for Earth, but it’s a hell of an incentive for Outworld — and in the Mortal Kombat movies, they always seem to be one more victory away from ultimate triumph.

But the actual rules of the tournament are ... nonexistent? I’m honestly not sure we ever see Mortal Kombat in the new Mortal Kombat film. The characters fight, many die, but no one ever lays out the format (Round robin? Single elimination?) or keeps tabs on the score. The bad guys, led by Shang Tsung (Chin Han), keep breaking the rules by trying to kill Earth’s champions before the tournament begins. The good guys yell “You’re breaking the rules!” but there’s no apparent repercussions for sending your minions to preemptively rip off your opponents arms or heads. So Shang Tsung just keeps doing it. Can you blame him? Pro wrestling has more strictly enforced “rules.”

I say this not to nitpick, but to observe that 2021’s Mortal Kombat, slick as it is, it doesn’t carry a lot of stakes — because it’s never entirely clear exactly what the stakes are. Is Earth on the verge of losing the tournament? Has the tournament even started? Who knows.

One must not think too deeply about these things, or much of anything, to enjoy this Mortal Kombat. As directed by first-time feature filmmaker (and longtime commercial veteran) Simon McQuoid, the movie applies a gloss of high-budget gravitas to the venerable fighting game. 1995’s Mortal Kombat movie was barely a notch or two above a grindhouse flick, with special effects that would have barely passed muster in the original arcade game. 2021’s update comes with impressive CGI and artful splashes of blood amidst its careful recreations of the games’ core cast and violence. While it doesn’t add up to very much beyond a high-end recreation of the game series’ vibe and aesthetics, it does look mighty good.

Warner Bros.

Curiously, the focus of this tribute to the Midway video games is a totally new character who never appeared in any of the earlier iterations. That’s Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a family man and washed up MMA fighter who just-so-happens to bear a birthmark that looks like the dragon logo from the Mortal Kombat video games. The mark means he’s been selected to defend Earth in Mortal Kombat — if he can survive long enough to get there. Shang Tsung decides he can’t lose a fight to Earth’s champions if all of Earth‘s champions are already dead, and sends his icy warrior Sub-Zero (The Raid’s Joe Taslim) to kill Cole.

He gets rescued by a Special Forces soldier named Jax (Mehcad Brooks), and meets another elite soldier named Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) who’s got one of those movie conspiracy walls full of plot exposition and Easter eggs from the Mortal Kombat games. Along with a foul-mouthed mercenary named Kano (Josh Lawson), they travel to the temple of an ancient god named Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), who introduces Cole to even more of Earth’s warriors (like Ludi Lin’s Liu Kang) and trains him to discover his “arcana” — a special ability that all Mortal Kombat warriors possess. (Think Sub-Zero’s balls of ice or Raiden’s lightning bolts.)

That sounds like a movie’s long first act, but in Mortal Kombat’s case, that’s basically the entire plot. The film never builds to any kind of formal confrontation. Every 15 minutes or so, the characters just beat each other up. Then, in the final act, everyone who’s survived that long beats up the other survivors. (In all cases, Choreographer Chan Griffin does an impressive job of blending the combatants’ — excuse me, kombatants’ — various fighting styles into cohesive, spirited battles.) Arcana get discovered, heads get squished, and there’s a really cool fight between Sub-Zero and his fellow ninja Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada). That’s it. Then the film just stops, after a shameless setup for the potential sequel.

Warner Bros.

Is that enough for a satisfying movie? If you’re a hardcore gamer, probably. McQuoid and screenwriters Dave Callaham and Greg Russo take the franchise’ mythos and characters incredibly seriously, faithfully recreating the fighters’ costumes, move sets, and Fatalities. (There’s even a clever joke about Mortal Kombat players’ cheap tactics.) Germain McMicking’s handsome cinematography elevates the material even further. This is surely the classiest a fight between a half-woman/half-dragon and a Shaolin monk with a razor-sharp hat could possibly look.

Casual MK fans will likely enjoy the fight sequences and overall production design, and remain a little flustered by some of the mechanics of the story. Characters randomly sprout new powers when the situation calls for them. Sometimes when someone dies, they’re just dead; other times they spontaneously combust, then return with new powers. Or they sprout new arms, or whatever they need to keep the plot moving forward. Tan’s Cole Young doesn’t bring anything to the table beyond generic my-family-needs-me motivations, and his Arcana pales in comparison to the franchise’s heavy hitters like Kung Lao.

Frankly, the original Mortal Kombat arcade game had a better sense of narrative momentum; at least there the fights progressed toward a final showdown with the big bosses. Without spoiling this Mortal Kombat, it mostly feels like a giant prologue to something else. Still, for sheer visual panache, intricate fight scenes, and the fact that it’s not an out-and-out embarrassment, Mortal Kombat rates very highly on the list of video game movies. On a more traditional scale, it’s more like a...

RATING: 6/10

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