Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): ‘Mortal Kombat’ (2021)

by Ben Martin

Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)

To say video game adaptation adaptations are not a respected movie subgenre would be putting it lightly. However, one franchise born out of arcade cabinets and controversy proved that audiences want to see game-based movies for better or worse: Mortal Kombat. A franchise that remains so popular on consoles that it’s received received a hardcore, big-screen reboot which I’ll be reviewing today: Mortal Kombat (2021)

Ever since Batman Begins (2005) and Casino Royale (2006), gritty reboots of long-running characters and franchises have been all the rage. Such a trend is fitting, I suppose, as the world as a whole has seemingly become a much darker place in the last decade-and-a-half. As a result, it seems we always need art and entertainment that reflects the world through that grittier prism but nevertheless allows us an escape.

Of course, it isn’t only film franchises who received reboots. On the contrary, the Mortal Kombat series started over (more or less) with the ninth video game in its series, simply titled Mortal Kombat (A.K.A. MK9). After acquiring the iconic property from the now-defunct Midway Games, developers by NetherRealm Studios and WB Interactive designed the game to serve as a more violent soft reboot for the series. 

Thus, it’s only logical that the same would be done when again adapting MK for the silver screen. The bright, techno-driven PG-13 interpretations of Mortal Kombat (1995) and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997) are the furthest thing from what studios, and apparently, audiences want these days. As a result, we get the movie in review: a decidedly ultra-violent, R-rated iteration of this property. But, before I delve into my thoughts on MK ’21, it’s worth noting that such an approach to Kombat is not new. On the contrary, the web series Mortal Kombat: Legacy (2011-2013) was the first to take a more mature and “realistic” approach to its characters and their respective origins. Legacy was so well-received by the fanbase that its director Kevin Tancharoen (Titans, Agents of S.H.I.E.LD.Helstrom) and co-writer Oren Uziel (The Cloverfield Paradox) were offered the chance to take this same tact to a big-screen reboot. As tends to happen in the movie business, though, this creative duo’s vision of a new form of cinematic Kombat did not make it to the finish line. Ultimately, Uziel received co-story credit on the movie in review; but Tancharoen exited the project and was replaced by first-time feature film director Simon McQuoid to bring us the reboot currently playing on HBO Max.

Like the games and movies before it, this iteration finds Earthrealm on the brink of desolation as the realm has lost the previous nine Mortal Kombat tournaments. Now, the only hope for our world lies with a group of human warriors, each destined to engage in Kombat. Unfortunately, the most important of Earthrealm’s fighters is lackluster MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), who — unbeknownst to him — is descended from the powerful ninja Hanzo Hasashi, aka Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada). Now, Cole, Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Kano (Josh Lawson), Jax (Mehcad Brooks), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang), and Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) must train to for the tournament. All the while, though, they’re being pursued by Shang Tsung (Chin Han), his Outworld forces, and the deadly assassin Bi-Han, also known as Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim)!  

This new hardcore version of Mortal Kombat is the epitome of “one step forward, two steps back.” Unlike the previous adaptations from the 1990s, the new film features well-choreographed (and brutal) fight sequences — nany of which made me exclaim aloud on occasion. The acting in this film is also marginally better than previous cinematic adaptations of MK. Granted, as there’s barely characterization among the cast (except for Kano) as we’re sadly saddled with Cole as the protagonist. The character, original to the film, was created to serve as nothing more than a lame audience surrogate as we take a nearly two-hour journey that essentially follows the narrative exposition/fight/repeat structure of the video games from 2011 forward and ultimately never arrives at the titular Mortal Kombat.

Instead, this production is far more concerned with R-rated ultraviolence and trying to do something different. In regards to the latter, the screenwriters of this film made a concerted effort not to structure this reboot around the tournament. So what we get instead is a Mortal Kombat prequel which plays out like a team exercise which loses most of its entertainment value following the first act. Then again, it doesn’t help that the production values of this movie also diminish after its opening prologue. 

This opening presents something that promises to be as epic and classy as any take on Mortal Kombat could be. More to the point, it should have served as this prequel’s narrative as a whole. Alas, the flick slowly devolves into an underwhelming story that focuses on the wrong things. Furthermore, as the film unfolds, the cheaper the movie begins to look. In fact, it often looks just as cheap as the 90s duology if with a few modern flourishes.

I wanted to dig Mortal Kombat (2021) as a movie that has grown in maturity with its audience of nearly three decades. Unfortunately, though, it’s missing a critical element that must be present in every version of MK — FUN! A quality that this reboot is sorely lacking as it takes itself and its mythology far too seriously. However, for all its flaws, Mortal Kombat (2021) does have enough potential that it qualifies as a Franchise Expansion, albeit barely. A sequel has been greenlit, and according to the screenwriters, this film is the intended first installment in a trilogy. Thus, I hope that these movies will become a little more fun as they go. Because, frankly, the 1995 adaptation is a lot more fun than this new iteration could ever hope to be!

Mortal Kombat (2021) is currently playing in theaters & will be available to stream on HBO Max until May 23.


Check out my previous Mortal Kombat tournament coverage:

Mortal Kombat (1995):

Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997)

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