Hiroyuki Sanada and Joe Taslim in Mortal Kombat

When Gimmicks Sabotage Fight Choreo — “Mortal Kombat”

“Mortal Kombat” is like a coffee table book, or a subreddit you burrow into out of boredom. It’s not really there for you to get incredibly involved and read it cover to cover. It might work better as something you glance at to prompt conversation. It’s amusing in bits and pieces, but too much of it at once and you’ll reflect afterwards on why you just spent hours leafing through pictures of door handles.

It doesn’t start out like this. The movie’s first half hour makes it feel like it’s a semi-serious, grittier, character-oriented take on the “Mortal Kombat” franchise. Thirty minutes in and I was thinking, you know what, it’s better than most Fast & Furious, Transformers, and James Bond movies.

Then the rest of the movie happens, and I found myself realizing it has a lot more in common with the 1980 “Flash Gordon” or an Arnold Schwarzenegger cult piece like “Running Man”. I like both those movies, and if you press me, I guess I like “Mortal Kombat” in a way, but too much of the charm in that first half hour disappears as the movie gets going.

Cage fighter Cole is one of Earthrealm’s champions, who are being assassinated so that the Outworld can win a fighting tournament that gives them control of Earth. Cole is played by the incredibly charming Lewis Tan – who you may recognize from “Wu Assassins” or “Into the Badlands”.

His story is a familiar set-up – a Chosen One who doesn’t know they’re a Chosen One, and encounters a universe he couldn’t have imagined days prior. There’s a reason this premise works so well: hand it to an actor this charismatic and they can do wonders with it. It’s a shame then that after the work of establishing Cole’s personal struggle and larger role in the plot, the film gives him almost nothing to work with in its last half.

If “Mortal Kombat” is impressive for one thing, it’s the consistent rate at which it gets worse and worse. The film never falls off a cliff so much as it takes a steady, well-mapped mule trip down a ridge trail. You end up at the bottom either way, but at a nice pace where you can look around and appreciate the consistent speed at which you’re going downhill.

It’s a movie about fight scenes, and it’s the fight scenes that exemplify what goes wrong. Early fight scenes in “Mortal Kombat” are isolated well. We get that fight, in whole, and it has an impact. Character and plot scenes are also isolated, allowing the film to really focus in on exactly what it wants to do in that scene.

There’s even a bit of establishing character in early scenes, such as a cage match for Cole. Yet even if most fights aren’t complex from a character or plot standpoint, they’re at least isolated well as set-pieces – at first.

The later fight scenes are cut together with other fights, plot exposition, and underwritten character moments that are really just about setting up the next fight scene that’s going to be chopped together with three other things like a spring salad. Much of this is due to the gimmicks involved – characters discover arcana, or special abilities that basically serve as superpowers. There’s a lot of time taken in characters finding theirs, which drags the middle of the movie out, but I kept hoping it would pay off in the end.

The problem becomes the film has no real idea how to involve many superpowers in the fight choreography. Sub-Zero has ice powers, and that’s done well. Kung Lao has a razor-rimmed hat that acts like Xena’s throwing chakram. This is done terribly. What’s the difference?

Sub-Zero’s ice powers generally serve the choreography itself. He freezes opponents joints so that they can’t defend themselves, creates an ice wall to throw an opponent through, or casts weapons out of ice. The ice powers are built into the choreography. An early scene has Sub-Zero freeze a character’s limbs and shatter them away. That’s brutal.

By the time we get to Kung Lao’s fight scene, we have a sawblade hat spinning lumbermill style as Kung Lao rides an opponent into it. It’s laughable – intentionally slapstick, but what was earlier a show-stopping moment of brutality is now a comic beat. More to the point, the hat prop seems to be so heavy that the fight choreography involving it is exceptionally slow.

This is the issue – they didn’t develop workable choreography for all the characters’ powers. With some, they know exactly what they want to do. Sub-Zero has his powers worked into fully-functional fight choreo. The powers serve the choreography. With Kung Lao and other characters, the choreography serves the powers – the choreo is really only there when the powers don’t get in the way of it. It feels like the choreography team needed longer to flesh out the fight design for certain characters, and to get more workable prop design in their hands.

Later fights need to incorporate all the superpowers – fireballs, the bladed hat, a laser eye, teleportation. The list goes on, but there isn’t the planning or directorial skill here to make these serve the choreography. Instead, the choreo becomes centered on each gimmick. You could name another series or movie that does each of these powers well – “Wu Assassins” has a deeply creative fireball fight scene, and “X-Men” movies have done laser eyes and teleportation fights with both frenzy and grace. Hell, we have 57 years of cinematic weaponized headgear technology since Oddjob in “Goldfinger”. Yet it feels like “Mortal Kombat” is trying to invent how to use each gimmick from scratch, and none of it communicates in a way that involves us in these scenes. Worse yet, each gimmick slows down the scenes in a noticeable way.

As the characters we’ve been following get their arcana, we see fewer fast-paced fight scenes and more clunky, slow scenes where the choreo stops and starts as the inclusion of powers demands. We should see these characters accelerating to meet each other late in the film. Instead, we see them slowing down.

The film is pretty smooth and fluid between fight, character, and plot in those first 30 or 40 minutes, with a couple of good scenes and even great moments. Then it starts losing the punch to its action. It starts relying on camp comedy, which I like and is often done well, but doesn’t feel consistent with its opening act. With the fight scenes becoming so much slower and more limited, it relies on quick-cutting those fight scenes with anything and everything else it can get its hands on.

This makes the film as a whole start to reflect that stop-and-start pace. A scene could work in isolation before because that scene itself had energy and speed. As they slow down, they’re spliced together so that the editing can try to make up for how slow things are. This makes some scenes feel out-of-order, or cut in awkwardly with other scenes.

This is not the fault of the actors. Hiroyuki Sanada and Joe Taslim are both martial arts legends, and their 12-minute prologue sings. Lewis Tan is getting there. It’s not the fault of the choreography team, either. They prove in the film’s opening stretch that they can choreograph and carry it out. It is a directorial and production issue – one of prizing the powers over the choreography itself. Perhaps it’s jealousy of Marvel and desire to get its own universe up and running, but “Mortal Kombat” becomes more interested in establishing a superhero franchise than a martial arts one. There’s enough there for a captivating martial arts franchise – there isn’t enough for a superhero one. That’s the core issue with what went wrong here.

There are other elements that stumble. Character-based scenes disappear later on, with early opportunities to highlight the charismatic Lewis Tan and Jessica McNamee as Sonya Blade turning into brief contests to see who can string the most cliches together. As entertaining as Josh Lawson is as the one-lining, sarcastic Kano, having the comedic sidekick take over the dialogue is a fine line to walk when it requires dropping everyone else’s screen time.

There are only three women who have more than bit fighting parts. Besides McNamee’s Sonya, we meet Cole’s wife Allison and daughter Emily – primarily there to serve as motivation. I will say they get some good moments and they aren’t presented as helpless, but more could’ve been done here.

What is refreshing is to see an event film that shows an Asian man married to a white woman. They obviously desire each other, care for each other, and have a healthy family that communicates with each other. Our entertainment industry has a long history of fetishizing Asian women while desexualizing Asian men. Bucking this bigoted stereotype may be the film’s strongest statement and most lasting success.

(Minor spoilers follow)

Where the film drops the ball plot-wise is the build-up to the Mortal Kombat tournament for control of Earth. The entire premise is that our Chosen Ones need to survive long enough to compete in the tournament. Then the movie ends without even needing to have the tournament. Everyone has their fight before it happens, in abandoned places with no cheering onlookers.

If you spend an entire film promising me a wacky, intergalactic tournament, and it never arrives, I’m going to be disappointed. I wanted to see “Bloodsport” by way of Mos Eisley Cantina from “Star Wars”. Give me the ending of “Karate Kid” taking place in the City of a Thousand Planets, “Enter the Dragon” put on by the Orion Syndicate. That seems like a gimme. By promising a tournament full of ridiculous aliens betting on other ridiculous aliens, and then never delivering, the film sabotages what could’ve been its biggest strength.

We live in a post “Thor: Ragnarok” world. In this, the year 4 T:R, if you’re going to build your plot around wacky alien tournament hijinks, deliver said hijinks.

(Minor spoilers conclude)

I must really hate “Mortal Kombat” then. Well, that coffee table book about x-rays of ingested and inserted objects serves a purpose. ATBGE is a popular subreddit. They’re both kind of hilarious. I don’t hate them. They’ll make you point and furrow your brow, which is what they’re there to do. It’s just that they’re five-minute visits, not two-hour ones.

In a lot of ways, watching “Mortal Kombat” echoes the feeling of watching the original “Mortal Kombat” in 1995. That’s a better movie, but neither one’s exactly good. What they are good at is being party movies, something on in the background for people to visit and talk about now and again. Unfortunately, the usefulness of that is limited during a pandemic. If I’ve got to watch this straight through again for some mysterious reason, I’ll feel disappointed to waste two hours of my time. In a post-pandemic world, if I walk into a party one day and this is on in the background, I’ll probably be really happy to see it.

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