Guest Star

Choose Your Fighter: Mortal Kombat (2021) and The Night Comes for Us (2018)

This week’s Guest Star is Sachin Hingoo. Sachin is a Toronto-based writer and editor at biffbampop.com. He has never had a superpower, but would like to think that if he did it would be more interesting than an armoured sweater.

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[Warning: The following contains copious spoilers for Mortal Kombat (2021) and for The Night Comes For Us (2018)]

When expressing my–frankly quite mild as I find it hard to muster strong feelings one way or the other–distaste for the new Mortal Kombat film, the most frequent response I’ve gotten was some variation of “what were you expecting, Shakespeare?” 

No, Mark, I was not. I’ve played the Mortal Kombat series from the very first game through a dozen or so installments, and think I have a pretty good sense by now of what the series is meant to convey and represent. I fought in the Console Wars of the 1990’s, where battle lines were drawn on the school yard between the puritan Super Nintendo factions with their bloodless but prettier version of MK and my camp, the too-edgy-for-words Sega Genesis kids who had exclusive access to the low-resolution heart and spine-liberating Fatalities we all loved from the arcade version. I followed the series in it’s high points; Mortal Kombat 2 with its expanded cast and story, 2010’s Mortal Kombat which rebooted the franchise as part of the WB universe in spectacular fashion, and the most recent Mortal Kombat 11 which reconciles the pre- and post-2010 MK worlds in a more logical way than the series probably warrants. I’ve suffered through the low points too: MK3’s horrible mechanics (that Run button can follow Scorpion straight to hell) and clumsy attempt at introducing combo moves, and MK4’s terrible looking and feeling 3D implementation that was immediately rescinded in the subsequent titles. And movie-wise, who can forget the forgettable Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997), which looks for all the world like an unfinished workprint that somehow snuck its way into wide release (a theory that may actually have some legs).  

The stories in any version of Mortal Kombat have never been anything you’d call cohesive, though the creators (Kreators?) make a decent attempt at providing depth to almost all the members of its gargantuan cast, at least in the games. Mortal Kombat 11’s story follows so many of these cast members and, on top of that, introduces (or re-introduces) past versions of those characters from earlier games with its time-bending themes that it’s staggering. It was with somewhat high hopes, I guess, that I dove into Mortal Kombat (2021), only to be left as cold as that ice puddle Sub Zero used to shoot at the ground in MK2 and make his opponent slip around in a slapsticky way.

Mortal Kombat (2021) starts out promisingly, with a pre-Sub-Zero Bi Han (Joe Taslim) running up on his perennial rival, Hanzo Hasashi (Hiroyuki Sanada) and slaughtering him and his family in literally bone-chilling ways on behalf of the Lin Kuei clan. The smug Bi Han and the serene but desperate Hasashi have outstanding chemistry even when they’re not physically fighting, and a scene where Bi Han utters threats to Hasashi in Chinese only for the Japanese Hasashi to confess that he doesn’t understand a thing Bi Han is saying is darkly funny. The encounter ends with Bi Han killing Hasashi and sending him to hell after one of the film’s best fights and sets up Hanzo becoming Scorpion, kicking off a rivalry that any MK fan knows is far and away the best and most compelling part of any story in this universe. It also sets the stage for a kind of well-acted, artful brutality that the rest of the movie struggles, and consistently fails, to live up to. 

The film kind of drops off a cliff from there, introducing a new character that never existed in any of the prior films or games with the Mortal Kombat branding. It’s down-on-his-luck MMA fighter and generic name-haver Cole Young (Lewis Tan) and he’s got all the personality of a glass of room-temperature water. Cole is something like 0-50 against normal human opponents in the MMA world, so naturally he’s called upon to represent Earth in a battle against superpowered mutants and monsters. I guess Brock Lesnar was busy. Cole is a distant descendant of Hasashi though, and that counts for something, though this is revealed way too late in the movie for anyone that has somehow not already guessed this to care. [SPOILER] Like the Earthrealm’s other chosen fighters, Cole gets a superpower very late in the film. Is it the ability to shoot fireballs like Liu Kang or lasers like Kano? Nope, because keeping pace with the most boring character in this movie, Cole’s superpower is a kind of armoured sweater, and it takes him so long to acquire even this nothing-burger of a special ability that I was ready to turn the movie off right then and there. 

Cole reveals that he has an odd dragon-shaped birthmark (after an unintentionally hilarious scene where he has to explain the concept of a birthmark to Jax, who also has one) which signifies that he’s a chosen warrior for Earth in a tournament for control over the realm. Cole’s family is immediately under threat from evil wizard Shang Tsung (Chin Han) and his army of warriors, which includes a possibly undead Bi Han, who’s fully Sub Zero at this point. We know this because Taslim is given the unenviable task of unsubtly delivering the line, “I am no longer Bi Han. I am Sub Zero.”

Being the primary antagonist in this movie, along with an arms-length Shang Tsung, I would love to have found out any information about what has happened to Sub Zero in the intervening centuries after he murdered Hasashi’s family, but we don’t get any of that. Instead, we find out that Shang Tsung is using Sub Zero and some other warriors from the MK universe–Kabal, Nitara, Reiko, and Mileena–to take out Earth’s champions and rendering the tournament moot, so that Outworld can take over our world. The inclusion of Mileena (Sisi Stringer), my favourite character from the games and a very important one to the MK mythos, is particularly egregious to me because she’s given about two lines of dialogue in this movie and like the other non-Sub Zero henchpeople in Shang Tsung’s employ, is only there to eat a very violent death. 

In opposition to Shang Tsung’s scheming is Mortal Kombat mainstay and Elder God, Raiden (Tadanobu Asano). As with Taslim and Sanada, I was, at first, so excited to find out that Asano was cast here, and in a role that should be fairly prominent. With a list of credits–Ichi The Killer, Zatoichi, and Bright Future to name only a few–that could pass for a list of my favourite films ever, it was with a kind of creeping dismay to see him get so little to do in Mortal Kombat. This Raiden doesn’t ever really feel imposing in the way that he does in the games, or even wisecrackingly smug like Christopher Lambert’s portrayal in the Mortal Kombat (1994).

Cole meets up with Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), a Special Forces officer who has been studying the tournament for years but who doesn’t have a dragon marking herself. In her capture is notorious criminal Kano (Josh Lawson), whose quippy jabs at Sonya have the heavy lifting of providing all the comic relief and personality in this movie. If you’re not on board with Kano as a character early on, and you’d be more than forgiven for that, you’re likely in for a bad time here. After being attacked by an Outworld warrior called Reptile, the film makes the curious choice to make Kano, a character anyone remotely familiar with the MK universe will know to be unabashedly villainous, into an ally of the Earthrealmers for the majority of this narrative. Even if you were unfamiliar with Kano, it’s telegraphed pretty early on that his stint with the good guys here isn’t going to last, so when he eventually turns on the Earthrealm crew, it’s anything but a surprise and makes you wonder why any of Raiden’s pals trusted him in the first place. 

The bright spot of the film, for me, is Ludi Lin’s portrayal of Liu Kang and his adopted brother, Kung Lao (Max Huang). Self-serious in a way that Robin Shou rarely was in the 1995 adaptation, Liu is portrayed as a sensitive soul who obtained his dragon marking by killing someone that previously had one, because that’s a thing in this movie too. He’s spared the quippy dialogue that most of his fellow castmates have to chew through, and the tragedy and pain of his backstory makes him a standout for me, along with the huge-ass dragon he can conjure to devour his opponents. Huang’s Kung Lao absolutely has more than his share of quippiness and is able to match wits easily against Kano, but it comes off as charming instead of tiresome and he is a perfect counterpart to the stoic Liu Kang. 

One of the main criticisms I’ve heard of Mortal Kombat (2021) is that the eponymous tournament for control of the realms never actually gets around to happening in this film’s running time. By this I mean that fights happen, but they’re arbitrarily put together with no rhyme or reason. In Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat (1995), at least Shang Tsung went to the trouble of setting up brackets! You can imagine the long, sleepless nights that the evil wizard endured while trying to determine whether Johnny Cage and Goro were appropriately seeded in the interests of fair play. In any case, in Mortal Kombat 2021 the “tournament” is just a series of fights where Elder God Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) teleports his band of champions to fight Shang Tsung’s champions individually, and it’s wet sandwich Cole who suggests these pairings. 

To me, though, the lack of a tournament is pretty low on my list of issues with the movie. I think there’s plenty of story to mine from the setup of the tournament or, in a future film, the aftermath. The problem with this Mortal Kombat is that it uses the time saved by eschewing a formalized tournament to do a bunch of rules lawyering and saddling characters–particularly Sonya and Raiden–with so much exposition that it’s exhausting. If any movie should be a ‘show don’t tell’ situation, it’s this one. Give me a flashback of Kano wreaking havoc in South America! How about some more Taslim and Sanada kicking their way through the Lin Kuei’s beef with Hasashi? The reams of expositional dialogue had me wishing for the ‘press X to skip’ option that the games offer when you just want to get to the kick factory, already.  

My main criticism of Mortal Kombat is the fact that the fights, buoyed so much with CG and a certain amount of what seems like wire work, feel weightless. Even scenes that are punctuated with incredible violence don’t have the impact that I’m looking for when I fire up a movie like this. It’s all payoff and no journey, like watching Mortal Kombat Fatalities on YouTube instead of playing the game and earning them yourself. It’s one of the main reasons I went running to another Taslim joint practically the moment the credits rolled on this one.

Joe Taslim kicks off Timo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes For Us (2018) in weirdly similar fashion as Mortal Kombat, what with the family-killing and all. This time, Taslim’s Ito is a member of the Six Seas, an elite group within the Triad organization that’s tasked with protecting the illicit drug and money pipelines throughout Southeast Asia. As the film opens, Ito is slaughtering an entire village on behalf of the Triads because a few of its residents have allegedly stolen funds from the nefarious group. In the midst of this, or I guess right at the end, Ito has a change of heart and decides to alter his destiny by sparing the life of a young girl, Reina, and ditching the gang life by fleeing with her to Jakarta after dispatching his entire unit. He holes up with his ex, Shinta (Salvita Decorte), and two of his former gang mates, “White Boy” Bobby (Zack Lee) and Fatih (Abimana Aryasatya), charging the lot of them with protecting Reina.  

Of course, you don’t just leave the Triads. They’re not pleased about Ito’s betrayal and send one of his former pals and fellow Six Seas member, Arian, bring him back into the fold and to capture Reina. Arian is an interesting character, especially since he’s played by the charming Iko Uwais (The Raid, Headshot) whose soft-spoken demeanour gives the impression that he’s almost harmless, when that couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re introduced to Arian in a bar where he’s heroically kicking a wine glass through an unruly mobster’s throat. This fight is one of several in The Night Comes For Us where the violence escalates so quickly and is so grotesque that it circles back around to delightful (if you have an appetite for this sort of thing, which I hope you do if you’re watching either of these movies). Unlike in Mortal Kombat, every hit and stab and slice feels weighty and visceral, even in the face of our main characters taking absolutely absurd amounts of damage and still walking away. Few people get merely stabbed in The Night Comes For Us, and the stabber almost always takes the time to twist the knife or linger for a second so that you experience the impact by proxy. 

In addition to Ito, Arian, Bobby, and Fatih, we’re introduced to a bevy of awesome characters would be a pleasure to play as or against in any video game, including The Operator, played by the wonderful Julie Estelle (The Raid 2’s Hammer Girl), the snappily-dressed and whip-wielding Alma (Dian Sastrowardoyo) and the knife expert Elena (Hannah Al Rashid). All get ample moments to shine in The Night Comes For Us, but a fight between The Operator and Elena that takes place in a hallway littered with corpses and dismembered body parts late in the film is unquestionably more Mortal Kombat than almost anything in the actual Mortal Kombat. This encounter is, by far, my favourite fight in a film overflowing with awesome fights. 

I could run down the rest of the plot to The Night Comes For Us, but to be honest, it is much less convoluted and really isn’t as consequential to the enjoyment of the movie as Mortal Kombat’s is. Unlike that movie, The Night actually is committed to getting you to the kick (and stab!) factory as quickly and as often as possible, and that’s as true to the ethos of the Mortal Kombat universe as you can get. Needless to say, though, The Night Comes For Us has an explosive and ultraviolet climax that would, I think, make Shang Tsung proud.

With the benefit of being able to watch these films back-to-back, I like to think of The Night Comes For Us as an unlikely sequel to Mortal Kombat (2021), where Taslim’s Bi Han/Sub Zero has a similar change in outlook and has decided to dispense with his evil ways. It’s a fun way to watch this movie, and washes a little of the bitter taste of this half-baked Mortal Kombat away with characters that are more interested in carving one another up than vomiting exposition all over the room. When I saw that Mortal Kombat had cast Taslim, and would be released with an R rating, I’d be fibbing if I didn’t say that I was going in with the expectation of something like The Night Comes For Us, or at least something with less chatter and more splatter. 

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This week’s Guest Star is Sachin Hingoo. Sachin is a Toronto-based writer and editor at biffbampop.com. He has never had a superpower, but would like to think that if he did it would be more interesting than an armoured sweater.

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