Friday, April 23, 2021

Mortal Kombat is a strangely insecure movie light on fights

It takes eighty minutes for Mortal Kombat to finally deliver the movie you wanted. Finally, a bunch of people in weird costumes fight each other with gruesome results. Blood splatters. Innards fall onto the ground. Some cheesy one-liners get dropped. Some of it's fun, some of it's predictable, but instead of getting a rush of exhilaration, you'll mostly be wondering "Why did it take so long to do this?" Simon McQuoid's Mortal Kombat is an A+ example of the kind of movie that'll leave you saying "When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?"

Mortal Kombat begins with a prologue set in ancient times and also the forest from the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. It's also used to establish the prowess of our villain, Subzero (Joe Taslim). After this, a block of text appears on-screen that suddenly drops a whole bunch of new lingo on the viewer. "Earthrealm is on the very of catastrophe," it reads at the start before going into the dangers of "Outworld" invading the Earth and warning of a prophecy that foretells of heroes who can save the world. I thought opening text crawls were supposed to help the viewer understand fictional worlds? Also, doing both a prologue and a block of text is a lot of false starts for a movie about spines getting ripped out.

From there, we meet protagonist Cole Young (Lewis Tan), who has a birthmark of a dragon that, as he soon learns, means he's allowed to participate in the ancient combat ritual known as Mortal Kombat. From there, screenwriters Greg Russo and Dave Callaham engage in a drawn-out process of Young discovering other fighters who can engage in this ritual, like Jax (Mechad Brooks) and Kano (Josh Lawson). Once they all reach the temple of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), it's learned that they all must unearth their "arcana", which are basically superpowers, to be able to truly fight in Mortal Kombat. Their adversaries in these prospective matches are residents of Outworld led by Shang Tsung (Chin Han). 

All of this should be just nonsensical enough to either be intentional fun or unintentional camp. Instead, like so many modern movies, Mortal Kombat must ground everything in a jaded post-modern snark. Heaven forbid, we be confident enough to just embrace silliness. Anytime something peculiar happens, Kano has to take a cue from every white male Marvel superhero and drop a quippy reference to a famous figure from pop culture ("Alright David Copperfield!"). The work "kombat" can't even appear on-screen for the first time without Cole Young making a joke about how "they misspelled combat!" Oh Lordy.

That fear of doing anything too ridiculous informs Mortal Kombat's strange adherence to very traditional narrative tenants, including an awkwardly abrupt part in the second act where young decides to just quit training. It doesn't make any sense for the story, but this is the part in a typical three-act structure where the protagonist has to have a low point, so it just robotically happens. You can trace this slavish devotion to generic storytelling to so many forgettable aspects of Mortal Kombat, including Young's disposable family and the fact that Young himself isn't so much a character as a vessel to which exposition can be delivered. Benjamin Wallfisch's score is similarly forgettable, a hodgepodge of hallmarks from modern-day blockbuster movie scores complete with lots of chanting and drums.

Worse yet is the fact that so many of these characters, namely Kano and cyborg Kabal, are all brought to life with dialogue that sounds like a middle-schooler trying to write an "edgy" Deadpool comic. You'll yearn for the restraints of a PG-13 rating after hearing this kind of foul-mouthed "wittiness".Why not let the story and characters be as outrageous as the costumes these characters are wearing? Why drag everything down with so much detached jadedness? If Mortal Kombat can't be bothered to have much investment in its universe,e why should I? Most importantly, if you were gonna make all these bone-headed decisions, couldn't you at least fill it with more blood and violence? 

There are a handful of memorably gnarly kills to be found here but I'd imagine most moviegoers will be left wanting more. It's one thing to make a script that's underwhelming. It's another to make an underwhelming script that doesn't deliver what audiences come for. Maybe the final thirty minutes will be enough for some. I myself found myself sporadically smiling but mostly checking the time. It was too late for me at that point. Mortal Kombat may have finally become the movie I expected but, in spite of some rock-solid costume work, it was still stifled by a strange sense of detachment. McQuoid's execution of so many of these fights reeks of obligation, not excitement. No flawless victories to be found here, just a dissapointingly insecure movie. 

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