This article contains Mortal Kombat (2021) spoilers.
“Test your might.” These are the words of a minigame in the original Mortal Kombat arcade fighter from 1992. They were meant to signal an interlude between the simple pleasures of digitized sprites spilling buckets of blood. Yet they’ve also become synonymous with a franchise that’s arguably the most popular video game fighter of all-time. The phrase is also a pretty apt description for the various filmmakers who’ve attempted the challenge of taming this crazy dragon on screen.
More than any other video game series, Mortal Kombat has seen a plethora of live-action adaptations, from Hollywood movies to syndicated television. This weekend marks another milestone in that history, too, with Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema’s hotly anticipated Mortal Kombat reboot opening in theaters and premiering on HBO Max. It’s the third Mortal Kombat movie released under the New Line banner, but let’s just call it the second serious attempt at putting this universe on screen after the 1995 cult classic directed by Paul W.S. Anderson.
That ’95 movie holds the dubious honor of being generally considered the best video game movie adaptation of all-time, thanks to a tongue-in-cheek tone perfect for its mid-‘90s moment and maybe the greatest use of techno music in film. Genuinely, how many other pictures have the soundtrack scream the title of the movie over and over again, and it seems like a good idea?
The new movie took a different approach to the material, and certainly a bloodier one. While both adaptations share the same basic premise of chosen “Earthrealm” guardians protecting our dimension from an invading force via martial arts fights, the executions diverge radically. Here’s how.
The starkly different approach to storytelling in director Simon McQuoid’s 2021 Mortal Kombat is evident during the film’s opening scene. Beginning in 1600s Japan with a gnarly, brutal fight sequence between Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) and Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada), this version of Mortal Kombat relies heavily on lore and world-building. If you know the video game backstory of Sub-Zero/Bi-Han, and how he was kidnapped as a child by the Lin Kuei cult so they could brainwash him into the magical ninja we now see slaughtering Scorpion’s family, the scene has a sense of fateful tragedy.
If you don’t, well Taslim and Sanada are such gifted martial artists that it still looks really cool. By contrast, Mortal Kombat of the ’95 vintage is pretty straightforward and to the point. This is basically an interdimensional version of the Bruce Lee classic, Enter the Dragon (1973), only with magical powers and the fate of the world at stake.
We’re introduced to three fighters in ‘95, Liu Kang (Robin Shou), Johnny Cage (Linden Ashby), and Sonya Blade (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras), who all get on a boat to the tournament for different reasons. And while Liu Kang was raised by his Shaolin monk upbringing to know what this tournament is, the other two act as our eyes and ears into this strange world of mysticism and Outworld menace. By the time they reach the island, they understand they need to compete with superpowered foes to save Earth in a structured tournament.
Conversely, Mortal Kombat (2021) is curiously both more secretive and open about its bizarre universe. For a much larger chunk of its running time, the new movie’s point-of-view character Cole Young (Lewis Tan) is completely mystified by the superpowered horrors happening around him while the viewer is keyed in early by scenes set in the evil dimension of Outworld. There we see the dastardly sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) scheme from a throne about killing Cole in order to prevent a prophecy vaguely connected with the movie’s prologue scene in the 1600s. So he sends Sub-Zero to kill Cole in his day-to-day life as an MMA fighter, slaughtering him before he understands he’s been chosen to participate in the sacred Mortal Kombat tournament, which is held in secret every generation.
In fact, there is no actual tournament in the new film. Rather the plot eventually becomes Shang Tsung’s chosen band of evil warriors attempting to cheat ahead of the conflict by attacking Earthrealm’s depleted champions before they even discover they have superpowers (or “arcanas”) and know what Mortal Kombat is. The film thus becomes a quest movie with Cole joining forces with other “chosen ones” (or chosen one-aspirants) to find the Temple of Raiden, a lightning god (played by Tadanobu Asano) who represents the interests of Earthrealm in the tournaments. From there the heroes must learn their powers and evade preemptive, cheating attacks from Outworld’s thuggish baddies.
Side by side, the approaches appear to be the differences between a traditional (if derivative) martial arts flick and a modern studio blockbuster that is trying to cram as much fan service and world-building lore into a two-hour movie as possible in the hopes of making fanboys happy. I hesitate to say the 2021 film is fully following the Marvel Studios template given its copious amounts of blood and (seeming) lack of interest in building a shared universe of interconnected franchises. However, the 2021 film was certainly released in a post-Marvel world where the focus in studio committee rooms is less on telling a single story and more on building a whole convoluted mythology filled with fan favorite characters who are begging to be explored endlessly by future movies. It’s less story-driven than it is content-driven.
As a result, it leaves the narrative lacking. Viewers know long before Cole or 2021’s Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) what’s going on, and all the anticipation for a tournament that never materializes feels anti-climactic. With its simple structure, the Anderson-directed movie in the ‘90s plays out much more satisfyingly with three heroes (plus poor dead meat like “Art Lean”) entering a tournament by choice or trickery and then trying to survive it while learning vanilla, if tangible, life lessons. Liu Kang needs to accept his destiny; Johnny Cage must look before he leaps; and Sonya has to accept she’ll be the film’s damsel in distress even though she kicks ass. It’s an Enter the Dragon knockoff but it still has more kick than fan service.
Round One goes to 1995.
The tone and aesthetics are also jarringly different between the two movies. Released in 1995, the same year Pierce Brosnan became James Bond, and two years before Arnold Schwarzenegger chilled out as Mr. Freeze, Mortal Kombat (1995) is an unmistakably campy movie and it leans into that fact.
Working with a low budget for a Hollywood spectacle even before New Line Cinema cut his funds by another $2 million right before cameras rolled, Anderson directed a B-movie that accepted its limitations and had fun with it. Apparently stars Ashby and Christopher Lambert, who played Lord Raiden in the ’95 movie, improvised dialogue throughout the shoot and rewrote entire scenes. As a consequence, Lambert’s lightning god was more of a jovial trickster in temperament, reminiscent of Loki instead of Odin. Johnny Cage, meanwhile, was essentially the film’s Han Solo: a cocksure wiseacre next to the stoic hero (Liu Kang) and a no-nonsense woman who doesn’t like to be called princess (Sonya).
As again signaled by the almost funereal opening sequence of Mortal Kombat (2021), where Sub-Zero murders Scorpion’s young family, the 2021 film is going for a differing sensibility. There is actually quite a bit of humor still present, with the real reason the Johnny Cage character got cut becoming apparent the moment we meet Kano (Josh Lawson), a loudmouth smartass who takes on the comic relief role but with an added slice of thuggery. Hence his dialogue has a lot more F-bombs than it does cracks about $500 sunglasses.
Other than moments where Kano is allowed to steal scenes, however, Mortal Kombat (2021) plays it pretty straight. Asano’s Raiden is imperious and his fighters stoic. However, it’s also worth noting Raiden is played by a Japanese actor, as opposed to a white American-born Frenchman who was raised in Switzerland (Lambert has quite the international background). Indeed, one of the more admirable qualities of the 2021 film is the focus on a diverse cast that includes more roles for Asian actors and people of color, whereas the 1995 film whitewashed Raiden and left out the Black American character Jax for little more than a cameo.
The 2021 film also upped the gore quotient considerably. While the martial arts of the 1995 film were decidedly PG-13, the tone of the movie was only a few steps removed from Power Rangers in some respects, including its introduction of a horrible CGI creation known as Reptile. The Reptile in the 2021 film appears more convincingly, like the latest monstrosity out of a Jurassic World lab, and the violence he commits is visually gruesome (more on that later).
Honestly, preferences over the aesthetic differences between the two films comes down to a matter of taste. I prefer the tongue-in-cheek eye rolls of the 1995 film given how nonsensical this universe is, and how at the end of the day its target audience remains children. Yet I imagine many adult fans of the video games will prefer the blood-soaked earnestness found in 2021.
Round Two is a draw.
Anyone who’s picked up a fighting game will tell you it’s all about finding a character or two you like and then training up with them. In 1995, Anderson had the advantage of primarily adapting the original 1992 arcade game with its limited collection of playable characters. Ergo, his film’s lineup easily focused on the three aforementioned heroes of Liu Kang, Johnny Cage, and Sonya Blade, plus the ambiguous Princess Kitana (Talisa Soto), and Lord Raiden. Meanwhile he divided his villain screen time between the sorcerer Shang Tsung (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and Shang Tsung’s minions, who were essentially glorified Bond henchmen with individual gimmicks.
Fan favorites Sub-Zero and Scorpion are present in the ’95 movie—with much more colorful, game-accurate costumes—yet they’re relatively low-hanging fruit in the tournament’s brackets. Their rivalry is given lip-service but they are dispatched by heroes Liu Kang and Johnny Cage relatively easily. Meanwhile Trevor Goddard’s Kano is more a hapless comic relief baddie who Wilson-Sampras’ Sonya kills with a great laugh line. “Give me a break,” Kano pleads with his head pinned between her thighs. “Okay,” she shoots back before snapping his neck.
Still, the movie largely belongs to Tagawa who makes a meal out of the scenery as the big bad. The guttural pleasure he has in so naturally turning all the over-the-top commands in the video game into his dialogue—“Finish Him!;” “Fatality;” “Test Your Might”—is infectious.
The 2021 film relies on a much larger cast of characters and, unlike the 1995 movie, attempts to give them each a moment to shine in the way Kitana and the original Kano could only dream. This surprisingly begins with the introduction of a totally new character in Cole Young as our point-of-view protagonist. While fan favorite Liu Kang was the hero in ’95, the character is now a supporting player played by Ludi Lin in 2021. And he’s not alone. The new Liu Kang’s cousin, Kung Lao (Max Huang), also gets enough screen time to show off his character’s beloved razor-rimmed hat, which he dispatches one of the movie’s villains with.
There is also the new Sonya, who may have the most complete arc as she strives to be accepted as a champion for Earthrealm, and Jax (Mechad Brooks), who is Sonya’s partner with the chosen one birthmark and who gets a new nasty origin story for his metal arms. And then the new Kano spends as much time working with the good guys as he does becoming a villain in an entirely rushed and unconvincing third act plot twist.
There are even more villains, most of whom amount to glorified cameos, including Mileena (Sisi Stringer), Nitara (Mel Jarnson), and Kabal (Daniel Nelson). However, they’re all even more perfunctory than Sub-Zero and Scorpion were in 1995. At least the ‘90s ninjas each got a few minutes to show off before being dispatched. Even the ostensible main villain of 2021, the new Shang Tsung, is fairly underserved, left to state banal dialogue from a throne without a throne room, and he’s never allowed to dominate scenes the way Tagawa did so gleefully back in the day.
Unfortunately, this is because the 2021 film has so many characters that it lacks any sense of narrative focus or cohesion. Tan’s arc of wanting to learn his power/arcana to defend his family is as broad and serviceable a hook as Shou’s 1995 Liu Kang wanting to avenge the murder of his brother. But Tan’s Cole Young gets lost in the shuffle after the first act and until the movie’s ending. Character turns like Kano betraying the other heroes similarly feels hackneyed because there is too much noise on screen to really care about who’s making it. Even Kang Lao’s death falls flat. It’s admirable that it’s a good guy fans theoretically should care about (unlike 1995’s token Black character created by the filmmakers to die), but the 2021 movie fails to make the uninitiated be concerned.
Of course there are exceptions. Namely Sub-Zero and Scorpion. Even though Scorpion ill-advisedly disappears for nearly all of the movie’s running time after the film’s terrific opening 10 minutes, Sanada has such presence, and such strong chemistry with Taslim’s Sub-Zero, that their opening salvo leaves you waiting the rest of the movie for Scorpion’s revenge. Taslim is also able to give Sub-Zero some surprisingly tangible, if only hinted at, pathos even after he kills a kid in his first scene and is then forced to act behind a mask thereafter. He’s the real villain of the piece you want to see go down, and his death scene is incredibly satisfying as a result.
It’s probably enough for fans of the games to favor this kitchen sink approach. But overall, less is more.
Round Three goes to 1995.
If there is one realm where the 2021 movie truly excels in over the previous film, this is it. And yes, a big part of that is the gore quotient. Whereas the 1995 flick was produced with a PG-13 rating in mind (my elementary school thanks New Line for that), the 2021 movie was able to embrace the gross out charm that made the original game stand out at the arcade all those decades ago. Street Fighter might’ve been first, but only Mortal Kombat let you pull the other player’s spine out.
While that effect doesn’t quite happen in the 2021 movie, almost everything else does. Nitara goes face first into a Kung Lao’s buzzsaw hat, which cuts her cleanly in half; Sub-Zero freezing Jax’s arms and then shattering them in a stomach-churning effect; and instead of going off a cliff, Prince Goro is disemboweled by Cole Young—which almost makes up for the fact that Goro is reduced to a mindless mute this time.
It’s like a highlight reel of fatalities from the video game. But the reason why this film’s fight scenes really stand above the 1995 film isn’t the bloodletting; it’s the action leading up to it. With brutal fight choreography, the new Mortal Kombat shines whenever it lets actors who can actually do the stunts take the arena. That includes Lewis Tan, whose Cole Young mostly fights other MMA types or CG monsters. But it’s especially true for Joe Taslim of The Raid fame. As the villainous Sub-Zero, his moves are lightning quick, even if his powers leave opponents frozen stiff. So when he shares the screen with Tan or Sanada, the action reveals an auhentic flair.
In comparison, the 1995 film suffers a bit from the sin Johnny Cage is trying to dodge within the story: it relies on stunt doubles and tight editing to make the fights exciting. It’s a shame too since Shou is an excellent martial artist, and the one scene he got to choreograph—Liu Kang versus Reptile—has an edge. But much of the time, Shou’s constrained by the direction and editing. Ashby and Wilson-Sampras, conversely, are not actual martial artists, though credit must be given to Wilson-Sampras for doing all her own stunts when getting the role of Sonya at the last minute.
Still, the fights stand taller in 2021. It’s a bit of a shame though that the movie is so heavily edited that it too often hides this fact. Unlike the 1995 ensemble, most of the cast has the moves in 2021, but the editing still feels stuck in the past with its reliance on confounding quick cuts and coverage. During our current era of John Wick and Atomic Blonde this is both a bizarre and disappointing choice. Nevertheless, this is an easy call.
Round Four goes to 2021.
The final fight was relatively satisfying in 1995. Tagawa is a preening villain, and when the Immortals’ techno “Mortal Kombat” theme plays, it’s a pleasure to watch Liu Kang wipe that smug smile off Shang Tsung’s face. However, the ending keeps going with a Star Wars-esque sendoff to Liu Kang’s force ghost brother, and then the movie undermines its catharsis by immediately setting up a sequel.
In the picture’s final moments, our three heroes, plus Kitana, return to the real-life Thai temple that’s supposed to be Liu Kang’s home. Lord Raiden waits for them there, getting some final sideways cracks in before Outworld’s evil emperor Shao Khan appears like a giant specter in the clouds. He immediately threatens an Earthrealm invasion, despite losing the tournament.
I can attest that in 1995, this was a stunning cliffhanger for eight-year-olds everywhere. But then… Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997), one of the worst films of the late ‘90s, happened.
Meanwhile in the 2021 film, we have a much more satisfying death for its villain when Scorpion returns from hell to send Sub-Zero to the hot place. Their fight is much more technically satisfying, and the cliffhanger setup is a lot more subtle. After defeating Shang Tsung’s warriors, if not Shang Tsung himself, the heroes of Earthrealm saved us all without an actual tournament ever occurring. And instead of Outworld cheating in this moment by invading anyway, they retreat. It’s an odd choice since they’ve been cheating the whole film, so why start playing by the rules now?
Even so, it leaves a destination for a second movie to actually head toward. And to tease that fact further, it’s implied Cole Young will now travel to Hollywood to recruit movie star Johnny Cage for a sequel. It’s pure fan service, but the kind that leaves the possibility open for better things to come. Considering we know where the 1995 movie’s cliffhanger leads—to pits of cinematic hell worse than any faced by Scorpion in the last 400 years—this is a victory for 2021 by default.
Round Five goes to 2021.
Ultimately, neither of these films are high art nor do they aspire to be. In some ways, it’s a case of picking your poison between schlock or schlock. Each has advantages over the other, as laid out above, and each is a long way from a flawless victory. Nonetheless, due simply to narrative and tonal cohesiveness, and just more memorable lead characters, I’ll go with the one that actually gets to the tournament this whole damn thing’s designed around.