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J & K Give it a Watch: Mortal Kombat (2021)

Welcome to the third installment of  “J & K Give it a Watch” wherein Syft’s resident film buffs, Jose Nateras and Kirsten Carey, check out any and all video game adaptations that come their way. So far, J & K have watched both ‘90s Mortal Kombat movies, the first Mortal Kombat from 1995 and its critically-panned sequel, ‘97’s Mortal Kombat Annihilation. Now, 26 years later, a brand new big-screen adaptation has hit theaters and HBO Max. Like the responsible journalists they are, Jose and Kirsten have given it a watch.

Mortal Kombat
J & K Give it a Watch: Mortal Kombat (2021) 8

J: First impression upon immediately finishing the movie is that I’d rank it between the first and second movies, at least “quality” wise.

I think this movie’s biggest misstep is that it doesn’t have any sense of humor about itself. It’s taking itself too seriously, but at the same time, it’s not saying anything. In order to take yourself seriously at all, you have to have a perspective or a theme. And there are no themes at the heart of this movie. It’s not even saying anything about like, “what it means to be a hero” or any of the other cliche’d themes they could have picked out of a hat.

K: Exactly. It’s just, “I guess these people are present, and they have this thing, so they’re good fighters. Let’s watch!” The whole thing was humorless and soulless, which is embodied by their choice of protagonist. Cole Young? What a generic-ass name. Who the hell is this personality-less guy? Why did they think that was a good idea? Are you honestly telling me the Mortal Kombat fandom is going to be psyched that the “Chosen One” is some random guy instead of Liu Kang?

J: I almost feel bad for that actor. Like, that character is not the one I would want to play, even if he is the main character of that movie. In a lot of ways he functions as the audience cypher, the guy that doesn’t know things so he needs to be explained the basic story elements and stuff.

But the lame trope of making him a “Chosen One” is boring, his character is boring, we don’t really learn much about him beyond the fact that he has a wife and daughter to be put in danger and, of course… he’s a descendent of Scorpion. I was almost rooting for Mileena to kill him, and I feel bad for saying that, but… she’s cooler than he is. 

K: I was too, haha. And when he intervened during the [SPOILER] Scorpion vs. Sub Zero fight in the end, I just felt like, “HEY! RANDOM ASSHOLE! GET OUT OF MY SCORPION / SUB ZERO FIGHT!” Especially since I saw interviews where the director said he would do “justice” to Sub Zero. But… I would argue he didn’t.

And, honestly, if the whole film had stayed in 1800s Japan and been about Scorpion rising up from hell or whatever… wow, what a more interesting movie. I thought that’s where it was going for about five seconds, and I got kind of excited.

Mortal Kombat
Courtesy of Screen Rant

J:  Tooootally, the Scorpion and Sub-Zero plot has long been one of the more interesting and nuanced story arcs in the wider lore from the games. But with this movie, all the ways that it moves away from the lore, don’t help make the story better. If anything, they just weaken what could have been really cool. The opening was super cool, and then, bleh. 

J: They did a good job incorporating the visual elements of the games into this movie: the finishing moves, fatalities and stuff are satisfying to watch. The fights were pretty cool but the most iconic fights from the first movie stand out more than even the better fights in this one. 

K: And, honestly, the plot was quite similar to Annihilation: “The baddies are breaking the sacred rules of Mortal Kombat to destroy Earth Realm! And the Earth would be destroyed if they don’t succeed!” Like… actually, the same plot.

J: This movie just feels like a Michael Bay movie. 

K: Definitely. Especially in the treatment of women. It wasn’t as blatantly sexist as Annihilation – except for Kano’s rape-y “Let’s see if you’re a natural blonde” line, which I had a visceral reaction of disgust to. But there were less women in it than either of the ‘90s films – where the actual hell was Kitana?! (The likely answer, unfortunately, is “in the inevitable sequel.”)

As far as the female heroes we did have – Sonya didn’t have a mark for most of it. And Nitara’s fight with Kung Lao could’ve been sweet, but literally lasted five seconds. I honestly just felt not-so-quietly frustrated during this whole film.

Lots of the sexist – and racist – lines came from Kano, who I hated every second spent on-screen with, except when [SPOILER] Sonya kills him with a goddamn gnome. That was hands-down the best move in the film that didn’t come directly from the game.

But yeah, the fact that Kano discovered his power during a monologue that contained misogyny and both Asian and Hispanic stereotypes was infuriating.

J: 100%. You have to actively try to be so specifically racist against two very different groups in the same mini-diatribe, and to have that monologue be rewarded with him getting super powers is…. A choice. A bad choice. But a choice nonetheless. Knowing Kano is a canonical bad guy and seeing the way he was using highly problematic language and stuff really just projected his [SPOILER] inevitable betrayal and well-warranted defeat, which was so obvious and predictable.

I knew Sonya was gonna kill him and get his mark, I just wanted it to happen sooner. Sonya was one of if not my favorite characters in this movie and I was rooting for her the whole time and frankly frustrated that the filmmakers didn’t give her more to do. But since Kano was “funny,” they ‘had’ to give him screen time.

If they had given any of the other main characters a sense of personality like Liu’s sassiness in the first movie or Johnny Cage’s humor in that movie as well, they wouldn’t have had to rely on a racist misogynist for comic relief.

Mortal Kombat
Courtesy of CBR

K: Yeah. To have Kano be the only source of “humor” in the whole movie felt like you were maybe supposed to like him – he had a lot of the irreverent pop culture references that typically mark the bumbling comic hero in Hollywood movies. But then he just exuded Trump-y talking points. It felt problematic and lazy – they definitely needed to address his shittiness more obviously and way sooner.

J: For sure. I think it’s really interesting that Kano is the only visually/obviously white (main) male character in this movie and that he’s pretty problematic. This makes me worry that a wide-viewing demographic will relate to him and overlook the fact that he’s not only a bad guy, but a racist, sexist asshole.

K: Absolutely. I feel like there’s going to be a strong, small, incredibly vocal sub-culture of guys who are going to empathize with Kano. The overlap of people who felt like that Joker movie from a couple years ago (which I never saw, I must admit) “spoke” to them and people who are going to be “Kano-stans” is probably going to be noticeable.

J: It makes me understand why the filmmakers inserted Cole Young as someone for the straight male audience to relate to, but because Cole is boring and Kano is one of the only examples of levity in the movie, they’re creating a story that subliminally paints the picture that racism and sexism are funny and the perspective of heroic, BIPOC, and femmes are “no-fun.” That’s a bummer. 

K: Yuuuuuuup. It honestly made watching the whole film kind of a drag for me.

Mortal Kombat
Courtesy of Screen Rant

J: I get that.  I mean, going back to your earlier comment about Kano’s horrible comment about Sonya’s hair-color, I think it’s interesting that this movie does avoid utilizing the ‘male-gaze’ to sexualize female characters in the movie, but even Shang Tsung is grossly objectifying and infantilizing about the way he talks about Nitara. Who, by the way, has nooooo lines and [SPOILERS] dies in a “Flawless Victory” at the hands of Kung Lao. Nitara was a weird case. Like, she had this strange “sexy-baby,” wide-eyed, bat-lady thing going on.  

K: Yeah, she looked kind of sickly, and then was killed after five seconds while fighting Kung Lao. Which could’ve been a much longer, much cooler fight, and I was frustrated they didn’t even try to drag that out. Not that I’m a big Nitara-stan or anything – just purely from a standpoint of a protracted male vs. female fight, that wasn’t Sonya vs. Kano.

Because “females can only fight females” or “males beat females real quick” is just… sighhhhhh.

J: For sure, I mean, Mileena is [SPOILER] even ultimately taken out by Sonya, though she was kicking Cole’s ass and it was an awesome example of one of Sonya’s signature moves from the games, buuuut, it goes to your point.

Mortal Kombat
Courtesy of IGN

 J:  It’s interesting to note that this movie didn’t pass the Bechdel Test, even though ‘97’s Annihilation did. I don’t think ‘95’s movie did, but it also had a bit fewer unaddressed sexist comments from male characters. 

K: You also didn’t get any Asian women in this movie, except for Scorpion’s wife, who dies very quickly, and frickin Cole Young’s daughter, who’s white-passing and does nothing except make a fun bracelet. Especially in the wake of [gestures broadly at 2020] heightening violence against Asian Americans, and the fact that Mortal Kombat pulls a lot of Asian lore… It would’ve been nice. 

It was a nice break from BS Hollywood norms to have an Asian-American hero, though. I would’ve much rather that protagonist had fully been Liu Kang and/or Kung Lao than this Cole rando, but… I’m trying to find some nice things to say.

Mortal Kombat
Courtesy of Collider

J: In terms of Asian female representation, I agree. We don’t get Kitana in this movie who ought to be an Asian performer. Considering Mileena is canonically a clone of Kitana, the fact that they went with an actress, Sisi Stringer, who from what I’ve found, isn’t of Asian descent, is a missed opportunity.

From a male Asian perspective, it’s nice that we get a break from the stereotypically emasculated Asian Male stereotypes that Hollywood is notorious for perpetuating. Luckily, we get a range of Asian Male protagonists, many of whom are dreamy and handsome. But even these characters are stuck in a bit more of a stoic-martial artist/monk space, which is another stereotype of its own. I appreciate they make specific distinctions between the Chinese and Japanese characters. 

K: I can at least certify that the Japanese language was… you know… actual Japanese. So hey!

J: I feel like Ludi Lin, who plays Liu Kang, is pretty dreamy, and Max Huang, who plays Kung Lao, do what they can with their roles, but they’re written in a way where they’re sidelined to supporting status in an effort to center Lewis Tan as Cole Young. The fact that Tan is half English and half Chinese allows him to exist in a space that, might be argued, fits more into a Western perspective of “Leading Man Material.”

Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays Scorpion, and Tadanobu Asano, who play Raiden, are arguably the most qualified actors that appear on screen, but are also sidelined as supporting characters with Sanada only ever speaking in Japanese, though he has appeared in a large number of Western/Hollywood productions.

K: Yeah, I was wondering, “Did he learn some English in hell, maybe?”

J: He COULD/SHOULD have! He was there for hundreds of years learning “how to control the fires of hell” and the moniker “Scorpion,” he could have moved past the linguistic barriers of the mortal realm. At least in my opinion. I mean, Sub-Zero was tri-lingual (Japanese, Chinese, and English), my man Scorpion could have had some English dialogue aside from his iconic (and well delivered) “GET OVER HERE!” I mean, he talks to Cole in Japanese for a decent exchange. 

K: Which Cole maybe understood? I mean, I understood Scorpion there – it was an easy linguistic toss. I didn’t have a ton of issues with Scorpion just speaking Japanese – but that’s mostly because he was speaking rudimentary Japanese I could actually understand, and I was sort of just geeked out and filled with self-pride. 

J: It was never established that Cole speaks Japanese. I kinda feel like he was just nodding politely and letting Scorpion do his thing. But THEN, when Raiden comes and sees the [SPOILER] defeated Sub-Zero, Raiden is all ‘nice job, man’ and Cole NEVER ACKNOWLEDGES that Scorpion is the one that actually fucking took care of business!!!!

K: The fact that this random-ass, canonically-past-his-prime fighter somehow got in a position of leadership within a group featuring a literal god and two special ops military officers, and then is expected to match up evenly against Sub fucking Zero… It just contributed to the whole, “Am I missing anything with this guy?” feeling that permeated the whole film.

J: Seriously. It is clearly established that Cole is literally a loser like he starts off losing fights against normal nobodies. People are all like, ‘Sonya, you don’t got a Dragon mark, you can’t train here,’ and Cole, who was fucking born with his, is just useless until Goro starts attacking his wife and kids… please.

I mean, there’s that one point where Sonya looks to him and is all ‘What’s the plan?’ and I practically screamed!!! You and Jax are legit Special-Ops Military, Jax says earlier that he served SIX TOURS and you’re asking fucking Cole Young, ‘What’s the plan?’ I was personally offended.

Mortal Kombat
Courtesy of CBR

K: It was MADDENING. On the whole, I felt like the acting from the main roles in this film was… not great. Even though Annihilation is a worse movie, probably, I would argue that it’s definitely more fun to watch.

J: Yeah, I think I agree. At least from a so-bad-it’s good perspective, Annihilation is more fun. Like, it has more of a rewatchability factor. 

K: So, yeah, to wrap up… and to be very blunt… I hated it, hahaha. I’m glad it’s on HBO Max so I didn’t have to shell out $15. It honestly just typified a lot of trends about what I find exhausting about Hollywood films, but none of the things that make it fun. Gnome-own aside, every single fun and/or stand-out moment from that movie was taken directly from the games.

J: I think that’s fair and I completely understand why. I probably wouldn’t say I hated it, but I probably won’t watch it again. I mean, I own the original movie on dvd and have seen it plenty of times. This one I doubt I’ll think of again much after this. Will I see the inevitable sequel? Probably.

But I completely get why it has, like a 34% critics rating and an 84% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The biggest bummer is mostly that this movie had sooo much potential, at least to be pretty fun, and I think it was ultimately bogged down by a sense of self-seriousness that didn’t serve the fact that, at the end of the day, this is a video-game movie. I’d personally rather play through MK 11 on story mode again. 

K: I’d rather continue my playthrough of MK 11 on story mode.

This has been “J & K Give it a Watch!” We’ll be ‘giving a watch’ to more video game movies and shows, providing some commentary and info. Next, we’ll be checking out 1994’s silver screen adaptation of Street Fighter, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. As we move forward, throw some suggestions for video game movies you think we should ‘give a watch’ our way and as always… Stay Tuned!!

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