Movie Review: Mortal Kombat (1995) vs. Mortal Kombat (2021)

Mortal Kombat

With the advent of the 2021 Mortal Kombat Reboot (Now available on Cinemas and HBO Max), I have decided to review both the original film and the newest one, with a few  comparisons between the two of them thrown here and there for good measure.

Does the new movie stack up to the original 1995 film? Read on to find out!

A Nostalgic Review of Mortal Kombat (1995) 

Mortal Kombat 1995 Cast
Over time, I have come to appreciate the original movie’s cast even more than I did when I was younger.

Moooortal Kooombat!!!” The iconic yell heard on the equally iconic “Techno Syndrome” track featured on the original Mortal Kombat Film in 1995 brings back a flood of nostalgic memories. 

I feel, that even today, the original Mortal Kombat film is quite enjoyable (I’ve probably watched the movie at least 3 times a year over the last decade). There are some cheesy moments, but they fit within the serious (and yes, ‘fantastic’) narrative that tells the story of a group of Martial Artists than can determine the “fate of the world.” It is, in a way, a silly narrative but for my then, 10-year-old self, the story was very believable.  

MK Scorpion
Scorpion’s appearance in the first film wasn’t long, but he had one of the most memorable fight scenes in the film.

In my opinion, the original film easily trumps the reboot by sticking firmly to the game’s plot line. Liu Kang, trained from birth to fight in the tournament, is rightfully the chosen one. He tried to avoid his destiny, but his younger brother’s death at the hands of Shang Tsung pushes him into the tournament. Sonya, and Cage are both well (though quickly) developed in the early minutes of the film. Johnny enters the tournament in order to seek glory, and confirmation as one of the greatest Martial Artists in the world, and Sonya unknowingly enters while pursuing her mortal enemy Kano into Shang Tsung’s ship.  

Shang Tsung, portrayed by the legendary Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, is mysterious, menacing, and clever. If the movie faltered in any way in the treatment of its characters, it was in its portrayal of Scorpion and Sub-Zero. Both were involved in great fight scenes, but the character’s merited greater exploration given their complex backgrounds. 

Other than that, the first Mortal Kombat film does a good job at mimicking ‘Enter the Dragon’ (and other Martial Arts films) in its tournament set up, and it does feel like our three heroes (Kang, Cage, and Sonya Blade) are up against unsurmountable odds when Prince Goro (the tournament’s current champion) begins to tear through earth’s fighters.  

Mortal Kombat is the ultimate tournament between realms, and the 1995 movie does a stellar job in conveying the grandeur, and importance of the tournament even in the film’s campier moments. The movie has real martial artists in the main roles, and in case of Cage, Linden’s stunt double does a great job in the scorpion fight (my favorite in the film). Like the new Reboot, Mortal Kombat ended in a cliff hanger of sorts, with Shao Kahn invading Earth after Shang Tsung’s defeat. 

Goro Mortal Kombat
Goro, being a real life sized animatronic puppet, has aged extremely well in comparison to the 1995 film’s CG effects.

Mortal Kombat’s catchy soundtrack, solid storytelling, excellent fighting choreographies, and great cast made it one of the better video game movies ever made. Paul Anderson (Director) respected the source material and crafted what remains to this day the best film based on the property, even if its CG effects look awfully outdated by today’s standards. My Score: 7/10 

Mortal Kombat (2021) 

Mortal Kombat Subzero Jax
Sub-Zero is finally given the screen time to shine in the new Mortal Kombat reboot.

The Good: The movie corrected a 26-year-old injustice (from the first film) by giving Scorpion and Sub-Zero their much-deserved protagonist roles. The movie is also positively gory. Many of the game’s iconic Fatalities are finally brought to life within a real live action film. The Bad: Everything else. 

Mortal Kombat at times blatantly copies elements from the original film (Kano is a funnier and more charismatic carbon copy of the original film’s version), at other times it takes some ideas from Mortal Kombat: Legacy (You Tube Series). In part, the film tries to remain somewhat faithful to recent games (where the plot has gone bananas), and at its heart, Mortal Kombat really wants to be a long running superhero movie in the hopes of catching some of those Marvel/DC vibes.  

The problem with the reboot is that it rarely remains true to its source material in terms of storytelling. The first movie did a much better job at pulling this off. The reboot also never matches the depth, and brilliant screenplay of the lower budgeted, but awesome, Kevin Tancharoen You Tube series. In fact, there are some movies that I have watched while saying to myself, “I could have directed something better than this.” And the new Mortal Kombat film perfectly fits that bill. 

The film’s director, Simon McQuoid, used to direct commercials, and it shows, there is no character development or cohesiveness in the film. Sub-Zero and Scorpion get more screen time than before, and truth be told, without their scenes this movie would be as worthless and as abominable as Dragon Ball Evolution. The only reason their story arc made sense to me is that I already knew these characters, which might be a problem for new comers to the MK Universe.  

Someone who comes into Mortal Kombat without prior knowledge of the lore, and characters behind the film, will likely find themselves lost, and end up walking away thinking that he or she has just wasted 1 hour and 50 minutes of his/her valuable time. 

At the same time, hardcore fans of the games, Mortal Kombat: Legacy, and the original film are also likely to walk away from this reboot feeling cheated and confused as to how in blazes Warner Bros. allowed someone as incapable as McQuoid to direct the beloved property. 

This film, given the series’ deep lore and iconic villains, had so much potential, but apart from Scorpion and Sub-Zero’s rivalry, the writers spent much of their efforts introducing their own created bland protagonist in Cole Young.

Even the Martial Arts component of the film, when Sub-Zero isn’t fighting Scorpion (or the few bits with Kung Lao) is pedestrian at best, and laughable at worst. If you want to watch a good martial arts movie, just watch anything with Scott Adkins, or Tony Yaa under the starting credits, you will walk away more satisfied than by watching Mortal Kombat’s reboot. 

The fighting is gory, and fatalities abound. But honestly, given the hype, and some of the bits of combat that I had seen in the trailers, I truly walked into the movie with higher expectations for the action scenes.

To finish the spoiler free part of this review, the actual acting in the film is terrible. Only the actors behind Sub-Zero, Scorpion, and Kano do a decent job (they basically carry the film). Jax was passable, everyone else seemed oddly mis-casted. Newcomer, Cole Young, who is the movie’s real protagonist, is the blandest character in the movie, which is quite a feat given how bland Liu Kang, and Raiden were made to be in this reboot. 

I have to stress how good Josh Lawson is in Kano’s role. He really spiced up the movie, and at times he felt out of place in the film, because everyone else was not up to his level of acting. He was funny, but he also gave me the impression that he was ruthless scumbag, which is exactly how Kano should be played. Lawson carries the film in the dull sections where Sub-Zero and Scorpion aren’t present.

I am not sure if the writing and direction are the culprits for the poor acting of the rest of the unmasked cast, but the first film did a much better job with Robin Shou as Liu Kang, Linden Ashby as Johnny Cage, and Christopher Lambert as Raiden.  

Mortal Kombat has some high points like Scorpion and Sub-Zero’s story arc. Sub-Zero is a pretty fearsome assassin and the movie conveys how menacingly powerful a fighter he truly is. The film features the best versions of the iconic Ninjas that I have seen within a live action film. Their story arc largely remains true to the canon and that might be enough to satisfy the purists, and perhaps, help them forgive some of the film’s transgressions elsewhere.

Apart from that, the existence of Cole Young throws a wrench into everything else by being given the ‘Chosen one’ role in the film. The writers took many liberties with iconic characters in order to service their own creation. When you add Cole Young, to the movie’s non existent character development (for everyone else not named Scorpion or Sub-Zero), you get a modern higher budgeted version of Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, except that the 1997 disaster at least stuck somewhat to the MK canon.

Prince Goro, the fearsome iconic Shokan warrior, gets the worst treatment out of all of the characters featured in the game that made it to the film, and trust me, Goro fans will be disappointed.

Goro 2021
Goro’s mistreatment in this film is likely to be a debated topic on forums over the following months.

If you have HBO Max, go ahead and give the movie a go, it is largely a mindless (and at times fun) action film with some cool effects, but if you are thinking in paying (and exposing yourself to COVID) at the Cinemas, it is best that you avoid this film until you are able to view it safely at home, and free of charge.  

My Score: 5/10

Warning Spoilers Ahead: Important Plot Points Will Be Discussed 

The moment that I heard that Cole Young would be the film’s protagonist I knew that Mortal Kombat was destined to fail. Cole Young does not exist in the canon, and it was added by McQuoid, and writer, Greg Russo, in order to inject their own schemes into the established lore. 

The marketing cleverly revolved around Sub-Zero and Scorpion, two of the most beloved and deeper characters within the canon. This was done to stir and excite the fan base, many (if not most) who were young gamers during the nineties decade.

The movie mainly dealt with their rivalry, and Cole Young was cleverly created as Scorpion’s distant descendant in order to soften the blow provided by the lunacy of his conception.  

Failed MMA fighter Cole Young is the chosen one, and now Liu Kang is a weird supporting cast member. It is a travesty, I know, but things get oddly weirder from there. Kano (Josh Lawson) is now the movie’s comedy relief, a role that belonged to Johnny Cage in the original 1995 film.  

Sonya is now, a more important character than Liu himself, and they are joined by Jax and Kung Lao (who I actually liked a bit more than the rest of the heroes’ cast) as Raiden’s chosen warriors.

The movie gets them all together so that Liu Kang and Kung Lao can train them for what seems to be the span of a few days in order to fight in “Mortal Kombat”. 

 As silly as training for a day or two in order to get ready to face Outworld’s mightiest warriors sounds, it gets even sillier. As it turns out, the mark of the ‘chosen’ is the iconic MK dragon tattoo/marking (only Cole Young, however, was born with such a mark, the others had to earn it by killing someone who carried it).

The purpose of training Jax, Kano, Cole, and eventually Sonya (who gets hers by killing Kano later in the film) is to help them awaken their “Arcana” which is another word for “Superpowers”. It would have been truer to the actual lore if these abilities were unlocked by their inner “Ki”, and in Kano’s case his laser eye should have been a mechanical insert instead of some mystical power.  

Either way, none of that really matters, because the legendary Mortal Kombat tournament never takes place. Thus, the tournament format of the original games, and the original film is completely thrown out. Prince Goro, the once iconic Mortal Kombat champion, has been reduced to being a dumb Shang Tsung lackey sent to kill Cole Young in the middle of some remote American barn.  

In what perhaps is the biggest offense perpetrated by the film, Goro is unceremoniously killed by the aforementioned Cole Young, as the later acquired his Arcana/Superpowers and earned a cheap looking magical armor as he was assisted by his wife (yes, you read that right) in the middle of a barn brawl with the, once upon a time, fearsome four-armed Shokan warrior.  

The great (MK champion for five centuries) Prince Goro defeated by a failed MMA fighter who was not part of the canon? Goro’s death also puts the “Mortal Kombat is an origin story” film apologists’ narrative in doubt.  Save for Shang Tsung living to fight another day, the movie showcases the defeats (and deaths) of Nitaro, Mileena, Kabal, Reyko, Kano, Kung Lao, Sub-Zero, and Prince Goro.

Canonically, Goro dies by the hand of Liu Kang who takes Goro’s place as Mortal Kombat champion. In the first film, Johnny Cage was given the honor of defeating Goro, but it didn’t bother me. He was an important character in the first game, and had defeated Scorpion in the film to earn his stripes for such a big honor.

Goro is meant to be the champion to beat in the 10th MK tournament, as his resume (being the winner of the previous nine contests) is far and way the more respectable out of all of the combatants present in the final tournament.

Goro dying in the film means that this was no origin story (even if it was meant to be), the tournament went underway unofficially and Goro lost. My issue is that it wasn’t Liu Kang, or Kung Lao who did him in (Cage is not present in this film), it was bland Cole Young, with an assist from his non-fighter wife (and new found magical powers) who unceremoniously defeated him in a barn located in the middle of nowhere.  I don’t know that I have ever seen such an iconic character so mistreated in any film.

After I saw what had been done to Goro, I realized that Mortal Kombat had finished treading dangerous, but still manageable waters, and had instead opted to plunge headfirst into a certain death by a drowning of epic proportions.  

At that point, whatever miniscule hopes I had for decent character development banished, and the promise of Sub-Zero and Scorpion’s final confrontation (coupled with the fact that I had to review the film) was the only thing that kept me going. 

On cue, however, the filmmakers managed to actually ruin that last fight scene between the two iconic Ninjas by inserting (you guessed it) Cole Young into the conflict.

McQuoid made up his mind that he was going to create his own Mortal Kombat character in Cole Young, and then made him the film’s star, even though most of us went to watch the movie for the 2021 version of the original canonical cast, and not some made up character that shouldn’t have been in the film to begin with.  

If you cannot tell by the tone of my writing, I am angry, and frustrated with the film in more ways than one. Raiden, the thunder god himself, was for the most part, an inept throughout the whole thing. He let Shang Tsung kill his best warrior (Lao) in his own turf without repercussions. In fact, Raiden claimed he was bound by the rules to not interfere with anything, but Shang Tsung clearly broke every rule conceivable by attacking Earth realm’s fighters before the tournament that never happened even began.

Shang Tsung’s impunity, and Sub-Zero’s ability to just wander into the middle of a crowded street in order to start freezing everything while pursuing our marked warriors defeats the purpose of the tournament.  

There was so much nonsense going on in this reboot that it made the first film’s screen play and writing look like an Oscar winning effort. Almost as if knowing that the film would anger many Mortal Kombat fans, the director cleverly ends the movie on a nostalgic note with public enemy number one, Cole Young, “going to Hollywood” to seek out Johnny Cage. I assume that the later will proceed to join Mortal Kombat’s “Avengers”, so that together they can defeat Shang Tsung’s armies of evil in the proposed sequel. At this point, I will assume that Cole Young kills Shao Kahn in the middle of mall fight in Mortal Kombat 2.

Spoiler End/Conclusion 

I will be honest, a part of me hopes that Mortal Kombat flops at the box office, so that I don’t have to endure a second part of this travesty under the same director. I don’t see how McQuoid can save this series as long as Cole Young is the protagonist. The other part of me wants another reboot under a different director with a different vision that sticks closer to the game’s canon.

Mortal Kombat started out with a proverbial bang, with Sub-Zero and Scorpion (Bi-Han and Hanzo) battling each other, and then it quickly degraded into one of the worst films (martial arts or otherwise) that I have seen in recent memory. The Director attempts to save the movie by finalizing the proceedings with another confrontation between the two Ninjas, but his insistence in shoving Cole Young down MK fans’ throats ends up ruining what could have been the film’s salvaging moment. 

For what is worth, I would rather go back and watch the abomination that was Mortal Kombat Annihilation again, at least the fights in it were better (Ray Park’s film debut as Raiden’s stunt double), and it stuck closer to the game’s lore. Even the new take on the “Immortals” didn’t quite hit the high notes of the original movie’s soundtrack. Simon McQuoid should never be allowed near a Mortal Kombat film again.

My final score: 5/10 

Mortal Kombat (2021) holds a  44/100 Metacritic rating (36 critics)

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By Samuel Rivera

An avid video game player and book reader, Samuel has been playing video games for the last 31 years. He has played nearly every PS1 JRPG known to man, and loves Ocarina of Time more than any other game.