29 years after the debut of the Ed Boon and John Tobias’s arcade cabinet classic Mortal Kombat, director Simon McQuoid and writers Greg Russo and David Callaham (Godzilla vs. Kong) unleash the third live-action adaption of the beloved martial arts fighter franchise. As of this writing, the film has a higher audience score than critical on Rotten Tomatoes, which highlights the difference between watching something for fun versus observation. The blood and gore factor are high in McQuoid’s Mortal Kombat (2021), as are references to other characters and lore, along with a healthy smattering of easter eggs. But just because Scorpion (played by accomplished actor Hiroyuki Sanada) delivers his iconic command “Get over here!,” doesn’t immediately equate him to the tournament contender. Even if you notice the flaws, one can certainly enjoy Mortal Kombat as popcorn entertainment, an empty caloric distraction that makes a viewer yearn to pick-up a controller. With the robust bonus features in the home release, those who clamor for more kombat will find exactly that and walk away hungry for more.
If you missed Mortal Kombat during its initial run on either HBO Max or in theaters and want to get a sense of the film without spoilers, head to our initial MK review. Moving forward, there’s likely going to be spoilers.
Earth as we know it is one of several realms engaged in a secret war known only to a select few. These few, deemed champions, bear the mark of the dragon and, when called upon, must fight to ensure that their realm isn’t overtaken by another via 10 consecutive wins in a tournament called Mortal Kombat. Thus far, the champions of Earth have lost nine times and Shang Tsung (Chin Han), the general of Outworld’s forces, grows impatient to seize victory for his ruler, Shao Khan. He is so restless that he sends his champions to seek out and kill Earth’s before the start of the next tournament. Unaware of the target on his back is Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a down-on-his-luck mixed-martial arts fighter who possesses the potential to stop Tsung in his tracks.
Before digging into some examples of where it seems the movie misfires, let’s dig into the bonus features which highlight just how much good thinking — technically and creatively — went into the production. For some aspects of the bonus features, the mandate appears to be “brief.” There are four deleted scenes averaging one minute each, 11 profiles of the main characters in the film, four specific scene breakouts, and then three longer, more in-depth featurettes. If the fight sequences titillated you, you’ll want to check out the “Fight Koreography” solo featurette and all four “Anatomy of a Scene” featurettes. These allow you to get a peek behind the staging, development, and design of the fights throughout the film as a whole, as well as a drill down into the opening Hanzo vs. Bi-Han, Cole’s introduction, Sonya vs. Kano, Reiko vs. Jax, Kabal vs. Liu Kang, Mileena vs. Cole, and, of course, the final Scorpion vs. Sub-Zero confrontation. With some snippets from fight choreographer Chan Griffin (Shazam!, Aquaman), cast, and crew, you really get the sense of how much work went into setting up sequences that would feel as real as possible amid the heightened reality of the setting. If looking for easter eggs is your thing, “Into the Krypt” should be your first stop. It’s not long and does bring up a few of the obvious things — Kitanna’s fan and Shinnok’s necklace, both in Raiden’s temple — but it’s the stuff you might have missed that highlight the deep love the crew have for the property. For instance, did you notice the graffiti on the wall just before Jax (Mehcad Brooks) confronts Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim)? Take a closer look at it. Considering how the background of titles just after the opening fight between Hanzo Hasashi (Sanada) and Bi-Han (Taslim) look like the endless forest and the battle between Jax and Reiko looks like the pit (both famous battlegrounds in the MK series), there’s surprisingly little discussed on that or other hidden tidbits.
Amusingly, the bigger secrets are kept in the main featurette “From Game to Screen: The Making of Mortal Kombat,” which drills into the real locations around Australia that served to create significant moments in both Earthrealm and Outworld, not to mention how many practical affects went into creating the illusion of fantasy. The ice Sub-Zero throws at Cole’s family? Real ice shot from a cannon. How did they achieve the look of the frozen arena in the climax? A lot of melted breakaway glass. The fire on the walls during the Kabal/Liu Kang sequence? Combination of tools and materials that gave the real abandoned coal mine the look of something otherworldly. Movies today go through far more digital post-production work than ever and it’s impressive just how much McQuoid and his team were able to accomplish on-set practically before turning it over to the keyboard wizards that gave the film its final look.
Speaking of, as this is a home release, here’s where we switch gears to discuss the look and sound of the film. The review copy sent by WB Home Entertainment is the 4K UHD edition which includes both Dolby Atmos TrueHD and Dolby Digital audio tracks and is presented in 2160p Ultra High Definition. There is zero mention of any high-dynamic range (HDR), which may explain why a few scenes were too dark to follow on the home release compared to the initial one. Specifically, aspects of the Sonya vs. Kano, Liu vs. Kabal, and Cole vs. Goro confrontations. Considering how good the rest of the film looks, these solitary moments don’t diminish the whole but do stand out. Oddly, and this is the biggest special effects complaint I can make, Goro looks strangely false compared to the rest of the effects in the film. Maybe it’s the heavy use of practical elements that makes this big digital one standout, but even knowing that Tan was fighting two stand-ins in respectively individual blue suits to create a solid foundation to place the digital creation doesn’t help. The sound, however, is fantastic. Our home system isn’t equipped with Atmos, but the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD made for some immersive sound. It particularly sparkles in the Liu vs. Kabal sequence where Liu brings out his famous animality — not to mention Liu’s flame dragon still looks really cool at home.
With a film like Mortal Kombat, audiences are coming to have their fantasies brought to life. For the most part, McQuoid pulls this off as the cast, make-up, production design, and costume department nail the iconic looks of the franchise. But there are still things which prove reductive to the whole which, once noticed, are hard to ignore. There are small things like Scorpion suddenly speaking English to shout his catchphrase when the rest of his dialogue is in Japanese. It’s a moment of pure fan service, but, within the rules established by the film, it makes no sense. He could still shout the phrase in the character’s native tongue or just shift the character to English in the final battle. Sub-Zero does by the time we meet him in present day, so why not just go for it when they confront each other. Having a Mortal Kombat film without a tournament isn’t actually a huge deal if one considers that there have been many games without one. The issue that’s more prevalent is that Elder God Lord Raiden (played by Tadanobu Asano) seems impotent against Shang Tsung’s attacks, which are a clear breach of protocol, the kind of thing that normally evoke the wrath of the Elder Gods who split the realms up in the first place. At no point does the narrative offer a satisfying reason as to why Tsung gets as far as he does or why Raiden allows it to go unchecked. Regarding Sonya Blade (played by Jessica McNamee), I have no issue with the way the film shifts her from non-champion to champion via her character’s long held friction with Kano (played by Josh Lawson). The issue is the callus way in which Liu Kang (played by Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (played by Max Huang) cast her aside when she’s not a champion. She’s a major player without whom Cole would be dead, and yet the script seems content on making things harder for her (a legacy character) than Cole (newbie to the franchise and the audience’s surrogate). There’s a deleted scene which marginally improves things via a line from Raiden implying he knows she’s an important part of Earthrealm’s defense, but, again, it’s marginal. No one goes into Mortal Kombat expecting high art, they expect broken bones and brutal fatalities. But when the final line from Cole spells out what’s coming next instead of a more graceful hint being used before the camera pans to reveal he’s headed to recruit Johnny Cage, it becomes clear that this film is only interested in catering to the lowest desires of the fan base. If you think grand violence with compelling drama, tight choreography, and smart dialogue can’t be done, I encourage you to check out another Taslim film The Night Comes for Us (2018), currently streaming on Netflix in the U.S.
This home release review marks my third full watch of Mortal Kombat and I, admittedly, warm a bit more to it each time. It doesn’t vibe with me as much as 1995’s Mortal Kombat, but it’s not the incomplete horrorshow that is 1997’s Annihilation, not just because this iteration has the full support of the studio were Annihilation did not, but you can see the really cool ideas within it once you get past expectations. The potential here for a sequel is strong and, personally, if they can work out some of the more squirrely elements (why does Shang Tsung look like he’s been working in a coal mine during his leisurely stroll through Outworld?) and give us even more video game accurate fatalities (see you next time Katana clone!), then I can promise I’ll be there on opening day.
Mortal Kombat Special Features
4K UHD & Blu-ray
- Four (4) Deleted Scenes (4:10)
- From Game to Screen: The Making of Mortal Kombat (21:30)
- Eleven (11) Mortal Kombat: Fan Favorite Characters (17:08)
- Fight Koreography (9:04)
- Into the Krypt: Easter Eggs of Mortal Kombat (4:11)
- Four (4) Anatomy of a Scene (12:22)
- Four (4) Deleted Scenes (4:10)
Available on premium digital ownership June 11th, 2021.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD July 13th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Mortal Kombat website.