Movie Review ~ Mortal Kombat (2021)

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: Washed-up MMA fighter Cole Young, unaware of his heritage, and hunted by Emperor Shang Tsung’s best warrior, Sub-Zero, seeks out and trains with Earth’s greatest champions as he prepares to stand against the enemies of Outworld in a high stakes battle for the universe. 

Stars: Lewis Tan, Jessica McNamee, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin, Ng Chin Han, Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada, Max Huang, Sisi Stringer, Matilda Kimber 

Director: Simon McQuoid 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 110 minutes 

TMMM Score: (6/10) 

Review: In 2013, as part of my In Praise of Teasers series I featured the still-burned-in-my-brain teaser for the 1995 adaptation of the classic SEGA game Mortal Kombat.  With its throbbing electronic score, flashy editing, hype-inducing character introductions, and hints that every teenage boy’s favorite video game was about to spring to three-dimensional life, Mortal Kombat was poised to clean-up at the box office when it was released that August.  And it did…to a tune of over 70 million here in the States and nearly that overseas.  For a modestly budgeted film, this was a win.  Here’s the thing about that PG-13 movie though: it was missing a key element that made the video game such a adrenaline boost to play and wound up for many fans feeling defanged, bloodless, and watered-down.   

A sequel recast a number of players and went nowhere and soon after video games shifted to different arenas and interests as the ‘90s gave way to a new millennium.  I honestly hadn’t even thought about Mortal Kombat (the movie or the game) for years until I heard that Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema were partnering up for reboot of their franchise, this time allowing the film to embrace the ultra-violence present in the game and giving longtime fans their long awaited bloodsport.  An early trailer released mid-pandemic landed at a perfect time to rack up the best kind of fan buzz, so once more the stakes were high for another Mortal Kombat movie as it powered up for a rematch with audiences. 

Shortly before the release date, to generate even more fervor, Warner Brothers released the first seven minutes of the film on its partnered streaming service HBOMax and I can totally see why.  The opening prologue contained in those seven minutes takes place in a remote 17th century Japanese village where Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada, Life) is forced to defend his family from the onslaught of chilly killer Bi-Han (Joe Taslim, The Raid: Redemption) and his deadly assassins.  It’s an energizing way to start the film and if I saw those seven minutes and were on the fence about heading to the theater to watch the rest of the movie in IMAX or finishing it at home on a much smaller screen, in less concerning times I might have been checking for seats at the first showing the day the film came out.  And I think everyone at the studio is counting on those previewing the preamble to have that same thought. 

The honest thing to do would have been to show the first seventeen minutes as those give you a little better idea of what director Simon McQuoid and writers Greg Russo and Dave Callaham have concocted to follow that promising beginning.  For as fun as it is to finally see the violence of the game on full display in its gory glory, as jaw-dropping a vision it winds up being watching hearts ripped out and sharp objects plunged into every conceivable nook and cranny of the human body that hasn’t already been broken or broken off, you begin to realize that the whole fun of playing Mortal Kombat the game was, y’know, playing it.  Not watching it. 

Moving from the past to the present (or maybe slight future?) we’re given info about the ongoing battle between Outworld and Earthrealm.  Outworld, led by sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han, Skyscraper, preening so hard throughout the film it almost borders on a drag performance) dominates in Mortal Kombat, fights to the death that determine the rulers of both worlds.  Outworld is one victory away from having Earthrealm under their control and Shang dispatches his top warrior, Sub-Zero (also played by Taslim) to hunt down Earthrealm’s greatest remaining warriors to eliminate any hope of them winning.  Over in Earthrealm, a motley crew of underdogs have assembled at the temple of Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano, Battleship) for their training, hoping to find their unique power that will assist them in defeating Sub-Zero and his horde of vicious killers. 

As far as plot goes, that’s all Russo and Callaham seem to lay down as their base and about an hour in you realize that it’s all been designed to get contenders in various locations to do battle with only the bare minimum of exposition between set-ups.  For acting purposes, that’s fairly good news for the likes of Lewis Tan (Deadpool 2) as Cole Young, an MMA champion haunted by visions of Hanzo Hasashi now transformed over time into a vengeful spirit waiting to take his revenge.  He can take a licking and keep on ticking (never damaging his movie-star good looks, natch) but Tan’s lack of true conviction in any of his line readings robs the film’s lead of some much-needed empathy when it’s desperately needed.  At least Tan can get the lines out without looking like he’s laughing, not so for Jessica McNamee (Black Water:  Abyss) as Sonya Blade.  Either McNamee was trying for something that didn’t translate or she just gave up, but the lone female of the group is a serious let-down.  He’s supposed to be the most annoying (and he is, trust me) but Josh Lawson (Bombshell) as Kano goes a special extra mile to make his character atrociously unlikable.  It’s only Mehcad Brooks as “Jax” Briggs and Max Huang as Kung Lao that create the type of fully realized creations that don’t let the script limitations impact their own work.  

The film mostly belongs to Taslim and Sanada, though, so much so that they wind up smartly bookending the movie with fight sequences that are a thrill to see no matter what size of screen you view it on.  Well-staged and filled with moves the camera can follow and pick-out nicely, McQuoid and his crew obviously spent a great deal of time figuring out how they wanted to present these passages and made sure they looked the best for maximum impact.  As with several of the fights during the film, there comes a moment when you sort of inadvertently let out a whoosh of air, aware that you’ve been holding your breath a little too long. 

The film is worth seeing for how it differs from the 1995 version, both in the way it takes itself a little more seriously and the way in which it accepts its origin as a video game at the same time.  Understanding it can have its cake and slice and dice it too, Mortal Kombat isn’t a flawless victory, but it finishes the job with style.   

Movie Review ~ Aquaman

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Arthur Curry learns that he is the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, and must step forward to lead his people and be a hero to the world.

Stars: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Ludi Lin, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison, Randall Park

Director: James Wan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: In some ways, you have to have a little sympathy for the folks running the show over at DC Studios/Warner Brothers. Despite a strong run with their original Batman franchise and then Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, they’ve struggled mightily with finding their footing in future films. Man of Steel was a complex origin story that was ultimately too cool to the touch, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was savaged by critics even though it wasn’t nearly as bad as everyone remembers it to be, and Suicide Squad was just outright garbage. Then a minor miracle happened in the excellent Wonder Woman and it seemed like the beleaguered studio had learned their lesson and turned a corner…only to have those hopes dashed a few months later with the release of the box office turd Justice League.

Well, it’s been a year and another DC stand-alone superhero movie has come swimming along in the hopes it can make some waves in what has up until now been a fairly shallow pond. While Aquaman has its regrettable missteps and its fair share of groan-worthy dialogue, it’s not enough to sink it to the bottom of the DC ocean thanks to a director that brings a unique style and an eclectic cast willing to go the distance for some overly fishy material.

Though we’ve met Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) briefly in BvS and Justice League, this is his first time taking center stage which means part of the film mandates that this is his origin story. When his father (Temuera Morrison) rescues a mysterious woman (Nicole Kidman, Stoker) from the sea, he doesn’t know she’s a sea princess from Atlantis on the run from an arranged marriage to a rival king. The two fall in love and have a son before Atlanna is forced to abandon her family and return to the sea in order to protect them. Flash forward twenty-some years and Atlanna’s son has grown into a man of rippling muscles and tribal tattoos that can communicate with sea creatures and swim faster than a speeding torpedo. He’s also invincible to most mortal weapons, as evidenced in an opening battle between pirates aboard a hijacked submarine. The events that take place here will create the genesis of Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, The Greatest Showman), an enemy for Aquaman who will haunt him throughout the film.

Meanwhile, fathoms below the sea a plot is being hatched by Aquaman’s half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson, The Nun) who seeks to become the all-powerful Ocean Master by joining forces with King Nereus (Dolph Lundgren, The Expendables 2) and dominating the underwater kingdoms by any means necessary. When Mera (Amber Heard, The Danish Girl), Nereus’s daughter gets wind of the plan she reaches out to Aquaman for his help in returning to Atlantis, defeating his brother, and claiming the throne that is rightfully his. After a lifetime of turning his back on the undersea nation he feels took his mother away from him, helping out his people isn’t high on Aquaman’s list of priorities.

At 143 minutes and with multiple storylines to follow, Aquaman is certainly ambitious in his first time going it alone. Even if the script from David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall doesn’t contain the same type of rousing origin story executed so well in Wonder Woman, there’s a nice flow to the first and third acts of the film. It’s the second act where Aquaman and Mera start to globe-trot in search of a lost trident and are pursued by Manta where things start to get a little choppy. I get why the Manta storyline was included (stay through the credits to find out why) but it just felt extraneous to everything else going on in the film. Chucking all that and focusing on the contained story about Aquman’s conflict with his brother would have been enough to fuel the movie just fine.

Like Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, the movie succeeds largely on the screen magnetism of Momoa as Aquaman. While he relies too often on his hair and an over the shoulder glance to do most of the work for him, by the time he’s donned the famous orange and green Aquaman suit he had more than convinced me that he’s a born action star. Sadly, Heard is a bit of a dud as his leading lady as is Wilson who literally treads water for most of his scenes. There’s some unfortunate de-aging scenes with Morrison and especially Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project) as an emissary of Atlantis playing both sides which actually make both men look like they’re motion captured holograms instead of flesh and blood actors. Kidman is really the one that makes the biggest impression in her short amount of screen time. The Oscar winning actress is at the point in her career where she can take whatever role she wants and this one seems like it was a choice made out of pure moviemaking fun. She strikes the right tone and never falls prey (like many of her costars) to take things to a heightened sense of camp even during moments like when she has a goldfish tail sticking out of her mouth.

Bringing in director James Wan (The Conjuring) was a smart move on the part of Warner Brothers. The director has a recognizable filmmaking calling card and it’s clear from the beginning of the movie that this picture is being overseen by a director interested in doing something different. Odd camera angles, carefully designed long-shots, and sequences that seem to jump over impossible obstacles in one smooth tracking shot are all Wan staples and they’re used to great effect here. Add to that some awesome visual effect work (see the film in 3D if possible…and I don’t say that lightly) and a retro-feeling synth-heavy score from Rupert Gregson-Williams (Blended) and you get a DC picture that actively tries to separate itself from the pack. Even if it doesn’t always work, it at least fails while trying hard and not by comparison to the films that came before it.

Now that this first Aquaman film is out of the way and with no other Justice League movies in the pipeline, I’m hoping that DC/Warner Brothers gets to work on a sequel and quickly. Feel free to take your time like Wonder Woman 1984 (due in 2020) is doing but now that Wan and company have established the world of Arthur Curry/Aquaman, they have a whole ocean of possibilities on where to take the next chapter.