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 ~ 22 Jump Street

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After making their way through high school (twice), big changes are in store for officers Schmidt and Jenko when they go deep undercover at a local college.

Stars: Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Ice Cube, Amber Stevens, Jillian Bell, Peter Stormare, Wyatt Russell, The Lucas Brothers

Director: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: If 2012’s reboot of 21 Jump Street taught us anything, it’s that star Channing Tatum was more than just a hunka hunka man meat only good for action shoot ‘em ups and making men everywhere feel their time in the gym that week was inadequate.  In fact, Tatum’s 2012 was one for the record books with the release of back-to-back-to-back hits The Vow, 21 Jump Street, and Magic Mike.  He became a true A-lister overnight due in no small part to his solid comic chops as one half of a detective duo tasked with going back to high school to uncover a drug ring.

What 21 Jump Street didn’t have was the overall stamina to make it to the finish line before petering out in the laughs department.  Though Tatum and co-star Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street, This is the End) had that rare chemistry that registered high on the believability scale, they couldn’t overcome the weaknesses in the script (Hill co-wrote it so he has only himself to blame) that saw the final third disintegrate into routine comedy territory.

Artistic merits aside, the film was a box office success landing in a prime hitless spring season before the onslaught of summer blockbusters took over every screen at the local multiplex.  So it’s two years later and the stars have aligned again to get the very in-demand Tatum and Hill back together again for a sequel that changes addresses but little else…and fully embraces its sameness in a way that makes it (mostly) okay.

Teased at the end of the first film, buddy cops Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) are sent to college by their commanding officer (Ice Cube, Ride Along) to track down another drug ring responsible for the death of a young college beauty.  Our re-introduction to the characters starts off rocky but finds a nice rhythm once the script starts poking fun at sequels in a manner more intelligent that you’d find in, say, a Hot Shots! installment but no less silly.  Tatum even gets the chance to take a well deserved dig at last summer’s non-starter White House Down…which I still say is better than the similarly themed Olympus Has Fallen.

Everything about the film feels familiar but it’s never boring…even when directors Phil Lord & Christopher Miller seem to have reached the end about 80 minutes in.  While it still loses steam near the true end of the action, it finds its fresh second wind and pushes forward toward an entertaining climax and riotous extended end credit sequence which is alone worth the price of your ticket.

While Tatum still has the potential to have a long career in both action and comedic roles, at times he overshoots his capabilities and some false notes are struck.  Co-writing the script again, Hill doesn’t keep all the good stuff for himself…in fact his material is some of the weakest in the whole shebang, especially a hardly believable love affair with a co-ed (Amber Stevens) that’s only returned to when the story runs out of other ideas.

Sequels can be a mixed bag because almost always they’re driven by money hungry studio execs and stars out for a quick buck to cash in on.  While 22 Jump Street most certainly was born out of love of profit, it’s nice to see that all returning parties were onboard to share the comedic wealth with audiences as well.

The Silver Bullet ~ 22 Jump Street

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Synopsis: After making their way through high school (twice), big changes are in store for officers Schmidt and Jenko when they go deep undercover at a local college.

Release Date:  June 13, 2014

Thoughts: The follow-up to the surprise hit of 2012 moves the action across the street and onto a college campus for more hi-jinks courtesy of Jonah Hill (This Is the End) and Channing Tatum (The Vow, Magic Mike).  I thought the reboot of 21 Jump Street had its fair share of good moments and successfully introduced Tatum as a viable star with comedic chops to boot.  I’m a bit leery that this sequel was rushed into production as a quick cash grab and this first trailer looks to confirm that.  Hey, I’m all for a raunchy R-rated comedy but I question how effective (and funny) excessive profanity and sex talk can be when both lead actors have proven they don’t need that to make a slam dunk comedy.  Should be a welcome summer release but fingers crossed the spirit of the original stays true.