FROM STREAMING TO SCREENING
Over the past year, dozens of eagerly awaited movies have seen their cinema release dates thrown screaming into the abyss and the big film studios doing a Darth Vader “Nooooooo!” as their pet projects entered limbo-land. Many of them took to experimenting with the freshly captive home audience that now existed and turned to streaming premieres. Warners took the unprecedented step of allowing their big-budget 2021 offerings to appear on HBO Max, along with substantially reduced cinema distribution.
This approach got mixed reactions. Especially in Britain. Where we don’t have HBO Max yet. And all our cinemas were shut. Not ideal. To get around this, the larger media companies offered 2-day streaming rentals for the affected movies and other high-profile films that still got released during the cinema Dead-Zone. Which is fine… however, the fees were so exorbitant (three times the rate of multiplex prices) that it only made economic sense if you had a family and asked the neighbours round to chip in.
But UK cinemas are open again, and along with remastered screenings of “Taxi Driver” and “Total Recall” (how’s that for a double bill?!), streaming-only movies are getting their chance to stretch their projected muscles onto the big screen. We caught two such genre films playing out in their natural habitat; “Godzilla Vs Kong” and “Mortal Kombat”. Yeah, we’re late to the party, but we felt these two were worth waiting on to see supersized. Were we right?
Godzilla vs Kong (12A)
Review: David Stephens
It’s been three years since the events of “King of the Monsters”, and it’s apparently been relatively quiet on the monster-destruction front. That is until Godzilla starts acting like a massive dick and starts attacking tech facilities for no apparent reason. Meanwhile, since the events of “Skull Island”, Kong has been kept in a Monarch containment area since he is also an “alpha” Titan who would probably challenge the big G for dominance as soon as he ventures out. But the great ape is getting antsy, and Godzilla is spoiling for a fight. One of them is going to have to fall…
In hindsight, “Kong: Skull Island” was probably the best of the Legendary Monsterverse movies. It had a good cast, great effects, nice cinematography, and perhaps most importantly, it wasn’t afraid to show its Titan in clear frigging daylight. “Godzilla” was good, but it didn’t have enough Titan screen time. “King of the Monsters” was … okay-ish. It had plenty of Titan-on-Titan action but a chaotic narrative and too many particle effects obscuring the destruction, not to mention another good cast phoning in their performances as the dull human exposition team.
Luckily, “GVK” (despite the title order) has more in common with “Skull Island” than the other films. It is very much Kong’s picture, which is driven home by the easy-listening soundtrack whenever he’s on-screen and his mawkish behaviour around a vulnerable deaf child. He’s even learnt “sign language”. (*slight gag*). He lounges around, scratches his arse, yawns, and is the only Titan to be given a semblance of a personality. He’s like a humungous puppy-dog and is even given to Scooby-Doo grunts during moments of contemplation. You half expect him to go “ruh-oh!” at some points. By contrast, Godzilla is a beady-eyed anti-hero, keen to uphold his status as an alpha-Titan. Guess who we end up rooting for?
We haven’t said much about the cast yet, and that’s because they continue being of little consequence to the story and rather dull as they pursue their sadly necessary sub-plots. Talented actors like Alexander Skarsgard, Rebecca Hall, and a returning Millie Bobby Brown are all sort of …. just there and providing exposition. After a great opening, your heart sinks as the narrative trundles through the same dull set-up as the humans scurry about and following two main plotlines, namely the suspicious intentions of a high-powered tech company and the discovery of a pathway into “Hollow Earth”.
Happily, around the midway mark, the dullness of the human interactions are mitigated, and it all becomes one wonderfully weird and pulpy excursion into pure nuttiness, From the howlingly-daft using-battleships-as-stepping-stones physics of the one battle (where Kong uses fighter-jets as darts!) to the climatic shenanigans in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong scenes in particular move from neon-framed night smashing to sunlit mega-destruction. Even the cinematography and fight “choreography” is well-framed (unlike some of the past films). As soon as the “Hollow Earth” sections start, it all feels like a cross between “The Core” and those 1970s Doug McClure monster movies. Shades of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jules Verne are very apparent.
Due to that tonal shift and director Adam Wingard’s dynamic visual style (watch for the thrill-ride between Kong’s jaws and over Godzilla’s body), this is a film that demands to be seen on a big screen. In all honesty, some impact is definitely lost by choosing to see it in a smaller format. This is very much a continuation of “Skull Island” and is far, far better than the slightly po-faced “King of the Monsters”. Switch off your brain, turn off your common sense, and see this on the biggest screen you have access to. Still plenty of issues, but probably the best Monsterverse movie so far. The status of the contract that Legendary has with the Toho studios remains a little blurry at the moment, but if this is the last blowout for the US versions, it’s not a bad way to bow out.
Nuttier than sixteen sacks of squirrel shit and populated with human characters that you’ll forget about while you’re watching them. But you know what? Screw it! It’s wonderfully pulpy fun with great smackdowns, and it deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Mortal Kombat (15)
Review: David Stephens
A project that is separate from the 1995 film and the (remarkably convoluted) lore of the popular Mortal Kombat games, this new movie is produced by James Wan (a big fan apparently) and directed by Simon McQuoid. It opens with a genuinely cool, almost Kurosawa-like take on a martial arts movie. It shows the origin of the intense hatred between iconic characters Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim as Bi-Han) and Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada as Hanzo Hasashi). After some exemplary chop-sockery, we end up in modern times and in the company of Cole Young (Lewis Tan), a so-so cage fighter and a family man. Jax (Mehcad Brooks) shows up and narrowly saves Cole from the attentions of a powered-up Sub Zero. Now aware that his dragon “birthmark” means that he is destined to fight for Earth in an inter-dimensional combat tournament, he meets up with Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee). Together, they seek out Thunder God Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) for training and advice.
Suffice to know that if you’re not aware of the game’s history and reputation, you’re not going to get as much from this as a rabid fan of the franchise will. Locations like “Netherworld”, “Outworld”, and … err… “Hell” are thrown around as if they’re common knowledge to the audience. This probably provides the reasoning for having new character Cole as the main focus, providing an excuse for Jax, Sonya, and others to throw large chunks of exposition at him (and the audience) and simplifying the process. To be honest, that doesn’t quite work as well as it should do. As a personality, Cole is a little dull, and his fighting style isn’t much better. If anything, he resembles the unpopular tonfa-wielding character from the Mortal Kombat 2 game, a SWAT bloke called Stryker.
Some of the other decisions involving the screenplay and narrative are questionable. Whilst some characters work well, such as Liu Kang and Kano (more on whom in a moment), other choices for the roster are just plain weird. Nitara? Reiko? Really? Goro is also given very short shrift and just comes across as a four-armed Hulk-alike. In all honesty, the 1995 animatronic version of him had more presence. It is pretty amusing comparing the CGI Reptiles from both films though. It’s like putting a PS1 next to a PS5. In addition, and without getting too spoilery, the lack of importance given to an actual fighting tournament also feels a little disappointing.
Let’s get over those disappointments though and talk about da’ good stuff. Despite the expected enormous number of cinematic edits in each fight scene, they are well choreographed and look good on-screen. Most of the cast are physically trained in the moves needed, and there’s some satisfying “whomps” and ass-kicking going on. And then there’s the blood… yep, it’s all there. Fatalities (and an animality) including heart-extraction, body dissection, head-squashing, and flame-spewing. Good fun and nicely integrated into the action. There’s also a shit-ton of easter eggs. Expect cameos by minor characters (“Nightwolf”) and plenty of game quotes (“Flawless Victory”, “Get over here!”, “Finish him!”, etc.)
Despite the slight lack of cinematic landscaping (“arenas” include a forest, a sandpit, and a farmyard!), along with the gory fight sequences, there are other elements that work surprisingly well. Kano (a brilliant, charismatic turn by Josh Lawson) finds himself sequestered with the “good guys” and continually bitches about it. It makes for some brilliantly funny exchanges (“Put your shirt back on Magic Mike!”) and a boat-load of f-bombs. The character keeps the audiences entertained during the slowest parts of the narrative, particularly with his obsession with “super-powers”. The introduction of “arcana” (the daft supernatural abilities that the fighters develop) is well handled, along with the lore of the Dragon Mark, which can be gained via combat or birthright. Full marks from gamers for making leg sweeps a cheap combat tactic as well.
It is fun, and apart from the (mostly intentional) stabs at humour, it’s played remarkably straight. Even the title spelling is called out! It also works well with some of the imagery. (Loving the rising hail that Sub-Zero creates). But the slightly odd screenplay and narrative decisions make it feel like a prequel and a set-up for the main event, rather than a wholly satisfying experience. That sequel will probably happen, and it could be pretty cool. But for that reason, we’ve marked it down a little, and in all truth, it can be as easily enjoyed on a Friday night TV screen as it could be at a Saturday night cinema. Adequate victory!