Catching our first look at Sub-Zero last February in the exhilarating Mortal Kombat trailer, a ’90s franchise reboot, I had one plea: please be better than the second franchise installment Annihilation (1997) – nothing against the latter film’s director John R. Leonetti who went on to helm the award-winning 2014 horror film Annabelle. The ’97 second franchise installment was just an obvious cash grab hated by many. However, with the help of producer James Wan (The Conjuring ’13), newbie filmmaker Simon McQuoid attempts to revive the franchise while taking his first full-feature spin in the director’s chair.
Taking the internet by storm just days before the film’s world premier, fans were graced with a 7-minute sneak peak. Opening in 1617 Japan, we’re introduced to Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada: The Wolverine ’13) in a beautifully forested countryside living a simple life with his wife, son and newborn baby. As Hasashi draws water from a well, he hears his wife scream in fear causing him to rush back to his humble abode. Finding the corpses of his son and the mother of his children frozen in ice, Hasashi has little time to mourn before he’s attacked by an unknown enemy. This ultimately leads to a one on one battle with his family’s murderer, Bi-Han (Joe Taslim: Star Trek Beyond ’16).
Putting both previous MK films to shame with stunning graphics and insane martial arts choreography, we get to see an origin story of Mortal Kombat‘s two most recognized characters: Scorpion and Sub-Zero. We’re introduced to a tone-setting rivalry that just might actually give depth to a story that isn’t exactly known for much more than gratuitous violence. And all within the first seven minutes! Impressively enough, this opening scene to McQuoid’s directorial debut set the bar high giving me hope for a promising story with heart. Unfortunately, this bar was set too high for the remaining 103 minutes to meet my hopeful expectations.
Transitioning to present day, MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan: Deadpool 2 ’18), a new character created specifically for this reboot, is coming to terms with being past his prime in his once successful fighting career. However, there are forces in our world and another that remain unconvinced … all due to a dragon-shaped birthmark on Young’s skin. Saving the cage fighter from Sub-Zero, Jax (Mehcad Brooks: True Blood TV series) reveals to Young that his “birthmark” is actually an invitation to an ancient fighting tournament that decides the fate of worlds.
Everyone familiar with the original MK know where the storyline goes from here. The chosen one’s baring the dragon mark must enter a deathmatch against warriors from another realm known as Outworld. This tournament not only decides each fighter’s fate, but the fate of Earth and humankind. However, in this version, team Outworld’s leader and sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han: The Dark Knight ’08) does not plan to fight nearly as fair as past franchise versions. We also have the added story element of Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee: The Meg ’18) seeking to join the fight for humanity’s fate without a chosen one’s mark. The wise-cracking, trash-talking savage we know as Kano (Josh Lawson: Anchorman 2 ’13) takes an invitation by force and joins the small band of heroes to find the lost MK training temple.
Despite the chilling seven-minute scene and potential to become something more, storyline depth just isn’t in this reboot’s future. Aside from today’s modern technology enabling flawless sfx, well choreographed fight scenes and interesting backstories with fresh plot angles, Mortal Kombat 2021 loses momentum gained from Scorpion and Sub-Zero’s initial showdown. Some story substance captured in the first seven minutes attempts a return in the final act before curtains. However, it’s too little too late. By this point, it feels as though the film’s heart was ripped out like a Kano fatality favoring gory comedy and a rushed underwhelming plot over strategic storytelling and plot progression.
Thwarted expectations aside, Mortal Kombat 2021 does offer up some nostalgia while showcasing several franchise characters as they unlock their superhuman abilities known as arcanas. Ludi Lin (Power Rangers ’17) perfectly portrays the fire wielding martial artist Liu Kang. Max Huang (Kingsman: The Secret Service ’14) is excellent as the razor hat donning Kung Lao and Tadanobu Asano (Thor ’11) simply is the new Lord Raiden. Other franchise fan favorites gracing the screen in this updated MK adaptation include Kabal, Reiko, Mileena, Nitara and Goro.
With high flying action, gory fatalities and cheesy lines from the game series, Wan and McQuoid serve up all the blood, bells and whistles that MK fans crave. Though it isn’t quite a flawless victory, it is a fun ride for franchise fans who aren’t looking for much story and squeal with glee at the sight of Liu Kang’s bicycle kick. Though Mortal Kombat 2021 wasn’t everything I had hoped, it still pushed enough punches through to far surpass Annihilation. And, concluding the reboot before the credits roll is a special surprise setting up the possibility of future sequels featuring more MK characters to compete in … MORTAL KOMBAT!