Still, the movie largely belongs to Tagawa who makes a meal out of the scenery as the big bad. The guttural pleasure he has in so naturally turning all the over-the-top commands in the video game into his dialogue—“Finish Him!;” “Fatality;” “Test Your Might”—is infectious.
The 2021 film relies on a much larger cast of characters and, unlike the 1995 movie, attempts to give them each a moment to shine in the way Kitana and the original Kano could only dream. This surprisingly begins with the introduction of a totally new character in Cole Young as our point-of-view protagonist. While fan favorite Liu Kang was the hero in ’95, the character is now a supporting player played by Ludi Lin in 2021. And he’s not alone. The new Liu Kang’s cousin, Kung Lao (Max Huang), also gets enough screen time to show off his character’s beloved razor-rimmed hat, which he dispatches one of the movie’s villains with.
There is also the new Sonya, who may have the most complete arc as she strives to be accepted as a champion for Earthrealm, and Jax (Mechad Brooks), who is Sonya’s partner with the chosen one birthmark and who gets a new nasty origin story for his metal arms. And then the new Kano spends as much time working with the good guys as he does becoming a villain in an entirely rushed and unconvincing third act plot twist.
There are even more villains, most of whom amount to glorified cameos, including Mileena (Sisi Stringer), Nitara (Mel Jarnson), and Kabal (Daniel Nelson). However, they’re all even more perfunctory than Sub-Zero and Scorpion were in 1995. At least the ‘90s ninjas each got a few minutes to show off before being dispatched. Even the ostensible main villain of 2021, the new Shang Tsung, is fairly underserved, left to state banal dialogue from a throne without a throne room, and he’s never allowed to dominate scenes the way Tagawa did so gleefully back in the day.
Unfortunately, this is because the 2021 film has so many characters that it lacks any sense of narrative focus or cohesion. Tan’s arc of wanting to learn his power/arcana to defend his family is as broad and serviceable a hook as Shou’s 1995 Liu Kang wanting to avenge the murder of his brother. But Tan’s Cole Young gets lost in the shuffle after the first act and until the movie’s ending. Character turns like Kano betraying the other heroes similarly feels hackneyed because there is too much noise on screen to really care about who’s making it. Even Kang Lao’s death falls flat. It’s admirable that it’s a good guy fans theoretically should care about (unlike 1995’s token Black character created by the filmmakers to die), but the 2021 movie fails to make the uninitiated be concerned.
Of course there are exceptions. Namely Sub-Zero and Scorpion. Even though Scorpion ill-advisedly disappears for nearly all of the movie’s running time after the film’s terrific opening 10 minutes, Sanada has such presence, and such strong chemistry with Taslim’s Sub-Zero, that their opening salvo leaves you waiting the rest of the movie for Scorpion’s revenge. Taslim is also able to give Sub-Zero some surprisingly tangible, if only hinted at, pathos even after he kills a kid in his first scene and is then forced to act behind a mask thereafter. He’s the real villain of the piece you want to see go down, and his death scene is incredibly satisfying as a result.