Mortal Kombat movie review: Finally, fatality!

When the 1995 version of Mortal Kombat hit theaters, we embraced its level of camp, while also appreciating Paul W.S. Anderson’s approach to the material. Yes, surprisingly enough, you can balance the two – even though the PG-13 rating left a few folks disappointed.

But then came Mortal Kombat: Annihilation two years later and…well, that was even more disappointing. And since then, fans have had to turn to the games for their bloody enjoyment, though Mortal Kombat: Legacy did pretty well on the small screen for a while there.

Finally, though, we have Simon McQuoid’s take on Mortal Kombat, which is more in synch with the tone of the games. That means bloodshed, and lots of it, and characters that are ready to fight for the fate of the world. It may be missing the laughs – and fighter development – of the original camp-fest, but it more than makes up for it when it comes to action.

Rather than focus solely on a hero from the game series, we instead get a newcomer – an MMA fighter named Cole Young (Lewis Tan). He’s making ends meet for his family by fighting, and, sadly, losing. However one day, Sub-Zero (a very game Joe Taslim of The Raid fame) comes knocking, and Cole suddenly learns he’s part of a much bigger picture.

This picture includes a hodgepodge of Earth’s mightiest champions, who find themselves going against the deadly Shang Tsung (Chin Han), who has plans for this planet after he takes one more victory in the Mortal Kombat tournament. And…you can pretty much guess the rest.

While some may voice disappointment along the lines of “Who the hell is Cole Young?”, he actually ties into a deeper story surrounding Sub-Zero and his adversary, Scorpion. The beginning of the film introduces him as Hanzo Hasashi (the impressive Hiroyuki Sanada), who has a score to settle when the icy ninja pays his family a visit. It takes a while to get to that point, but the payoff is most certainly worth it when he bellows, “GET OVER HERE!”

In fact, what makes Mortal Kombat click so well this time around is just how loyal it is to its fans. The fights are bloodily satisfying, and even some of the visual effects deliver, particularly with the all-CG Goro, who makes his ’95 counterpart look like a Halloween costume by comparison. There are other interesting moments as well, including one with Kano (Josh Lawson – yes, from Anchorman 2) that practically steals the show.

Where the movie is lacking is with deep character development. We see it in hints here and there, but they’re basically thrown together for the most part in the film’s short but sweet run time. Fortunately, the fighting and effects more than make up for it; and the finale delivers in spades, setting the stage for sequels to come.

McQuoid, making his debut with Kombat, directs with a swift hand. Here and there the camera can be a little jittery at times, however it’s never enough to annoy like, well, Annihilation did. The fights are a lot of fun to watch, with each character true to their game counterparts.

On top of that, Benjamin Wallfisch’s music score is excellent. He not only captures the atmosphere of Mortal Kombat tunes to nearly sheer perfection, but also throws in slight references to George Clinton’s original ’95 banger of a theme.

The acting ensemble is spotty in places. Some performances are forgettable, but then you have Max Huang and Ludi Lin delivering as the combo of Kung Lao and Liu Kang, lighting up the screen. No, literally. Liu practically throws a fireball when he arrives. Although, really, it comes down to Lawson having a field day as Kano, as well as Sanada being amazing as Hanzo/Scorpion. Taslim’s ice cold, too. Again, literally.

It won’t win best game movie of all time honors (I’m still trying to figure how it measures compared to the original film), but Mortal Kombat is quite a bit of fan service. The fights are entertaining once they pick up speed; the music is outstanding; and a good deal of the performances do quite well with the material. Plus there’s also a good set-up here for sequels, which I would most certainly be down for.

It’s hardly a flawless victory, but Mortal Kombat happily dominates your time – and that’s more than what could be said for whatever the hell Annihilation was.

RATING: 8/10

(Mortal Kombat is in theaters now, and is available on-demand on HBOMax as well for the next month.)

Godzilla vs. Kong review: total beast, hardly a burden

Fans of the classic Godzilla films have been feeling somewhat mixed about Legendary’s newer films in the franchise. While the 2014 Godzilla did an effective job bringing him back into the current monster fold, he was barely on-screen for the film. And for that matter, while Godzilla: King of the Monsters had epic monster battles, it also had a bit too much of the human element – which audiences didn’t really care about.

Now we get Godzilla vs. Kong, the latest in the series, helmed by horror director Adam Wingard. And while it does have some predictable moments here and there – once again with, yes, the humans – it’s probably my favorite Godzilla film in the series to date. Of course, having Kong definitely helps; and the monster fights these two put on are nothing short of spectacular.

When we’re first introduced to Kong, he’s in a large containment facility in Skull Island, being watched over by scientist Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) and a young charge that he’s able to communicate with. It appears that he’s being kept in there for his own good, with Godzilla on some kind of legendary hunt for him.

Meanwhile, a scientist named Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) is called upon to recruit Kong to find some kind of lost world, hidden beneath the Earth’s crust. But the corporation he’s hired by, Apex, has some sort of dangerous plan; and that’s something returning character Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) wants to learn more about, alongside a friend and a podcaster named Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry).

There is a bit of human composition here, just like the last films. But Wingard is smart enough to keep it to kind of a minimum here, even with a couple of awkward moments here and there. And it’s got enough flow to keep the film going into its most entertaining parts – the battles between Godzilla and Kong.

The first one, taking place on the high seas, is outstanding, involving exploding jets, battleships serving as platforms and more chaos than you can shake a stick at. It also sets the stage for a huge battle in Hong Kong later on, taking on Pacific Rim for the best neon-lit fight of all time.

And it all culminates with a winner and a loser, of course – and a surprising union when Apex unleashes a monster of its own. And judging by the trailers, you can probably take a good guess who it is. (We won’t spoil here.)

Written by Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein, the script for Godzilla vs. Kong moves along swiftly. Again, some jokes fall a little flat, and Henry’s podcaster does go a little nuts at times; but overall it keeps just the right flow for a monster movie. Not to mention that there’s some good explanation as to how this ties in with King of the Monsters, even if Kong was an absentee that time around. (At least we have Kong: Skull Island, which is still the best of the monster movies to date.)

Wingard directs with a swift hand, backed by a wondrous effects team that delivers the goods at every corner. The monster fights are epic, especially on the big screen (though you can watch this on HBO Max as well), and the special effects and shots are spectacular. You won’t get bored in the least here, especially with the final fight, where Kong lets loose with a glowing axe like he’s the next Conan.

When Godzilla vs. Kong strays into the human territory, it’s a bit easy for it to lose its way. Fortunately, that doesn’t last very long – even the ending is a bit abrupt – and the general focus on the monsters themselves is never lost. That makes for an entertaining fantasy that’s easily the best current-gen Godzilla movie to date. Here’s hoping we get a round two down the road.

RATING: 8.5/10