There’s a new MORTAL KOMBAT movie about to enter our realm, and it’s crazy to think they’ve been developing this thing for over a decade! It made me want to journey back to the beginning of that process and revisit what happened when director Kevin Tancharoen tried to reimagine the fighting tournament game turned movie series.
Tancharoen was on the mixing stage at Warner Brothers when he heard talk about hopes to restart the series. He thought there was a way to put a new, gritty spin on it, and wanted to try. One problem: the only movie he’d directed was a glossy musical, the 2009 version of FAME. He was much more established as a choreographer for Britney Spears than as a filmmaker. He knew they weren’t gonna fuckin believe he was the guy to bring back MORTAL KOMBAT unless he showed them.
Filming for two days with about $7,500 and a whole bunch of favors, Tancharoen made the very slick 8-minute proof of concept film Mortal Kombat: Rebirth. In sort of a BATMAN BEGINSening of the game’s mythology, he removed the supernatural aspects and put the characters into a murky action thriller context. Jax (Michael Jai White!) and Sonya Blade (Jeri Ryan!) are police detectives in some place called Deacon City, trying to coax imprisoned elite assassin Hanzo “Scorpion” Hasashi (Ian Anthony Dale, TEKKEN) into going undercover in Shang Tsung (photo of James Lew, BEST OF THE BEST)’s underground fighting tournament. We also hear Reptile (Richard Dorton, BLACK COBRA) explained as a psychopath with a rare skin disorder, and Baraka (Lateef Crowder, TOM YUM GOONG, stunt double for The Mandalorian) as a doctor obsessed with body modification – including adding pop-out knives to his wrists.
White doesn’t get to kick anybody, he just delivers exposition in a shadowy interrogation room, but there is a fight between Crowder as Baraka and Matt Mullins (BLOOD AND BONE) as Johnny Cage, and Tancharoen was smart enough to bring along fight choreographer Larnell Stovall. According to my research Stovall had already filmed his breakthrough movie UNDISPUTED 3: REDEMPTION, but it hadn’t come out yet. I suspect their relationship goes way back, because Tancharoen was a dancer in YOU GOT SERVED (2004), and Stovall was the stunt coordinator. Here Stovall orchestrates a bone crunching, furniture crushing apartment beatdown that serves as a rough draft for some of what he’ll do in UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING, and got many of us fight fans on the hook whether or not we thought it made sense to turn a video game about cyborgs and magic ninjas into SE7EN with punching.
It was Stovall – who’d done stunts for BLACK DYNAMITE and BLOOD AND BONE – who recruited his friend White to play Jax, a character White had previously been slated to play in MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION until New Line decided he shouldn’t be in such a small role when he was the star of SPAWN. He liked Tancharoen’s approach to the story and, having funded BLACK DYNAMITE by making a trailer, understood the thinking behind a promotional short like this.
According to Tancharoen he didn’t plan to start a commotion. But he “stupidly, because I’m not YouTube savvy, didn’t know how to make the link private. I thought I did and it then went public.” It caused some confusion (what is this? an ad for a new game?) but also kind of a sensation. Though the buzz didn’t yet convince the powers that were to greenlight a movie, they did decide to throw those internet nerds a bone and let Tancharoen do what turned out to be two seasons (nineteen 9-12 minute episodes) of the web series Mortal Kombat: Legacy. I watched all or most of the first season at the time, but entirely missed the second season until renting them both now on blu-ray.
In season 1, White, Ryan, Mullins and Dale return as Jax, Sonya, Johnny and Scorpion. This time they all get to have fights, still choreographed by Stovall. In the first two episodes Jax raids a weapons warehouse run by Kano (the late great Darren Shahlavi, IP MAN 2) to rescue Sonya, so there’s a good MJW vs. Shahlavi fight. There’s a great cartoony shot of Jax punching Kano’s eye out, and he ends up getting some injuries that mean this is the origin of both characters’ robot parts. I like that he fights his way through in time to see that Sonya has already escaped on her own, and when she sees him she’s clearly touched that he came for her.
But we never see Jax or Sonya again on the show.
Episode 3 starts with an Entertainment Tonight type show about Johnny Cage’s career as a struggling ex-Power Rangers actor. He’s dealing with shitty agents who tell him “Martial arts is just not happening right now” and “The action star is dead, Johnny” and that people don’t like him because they think his fighting is fake. “Well no shit the fighting is fake,” he says. “It’s a fucking movie!”
He’s pitching a Dog the Bounty Hunter-esque reality show called You Got CAGED which they reject and then attempt to rip off, so he ends up in a big brawl with studio backlot security before time stops and Shang Tsung (Johnson Phan, WAR) tries to recruit him for the tournament. That’s when you realize someone (possibly the game’s creator, Ed Boon) convinced Tancharoen that supernatural shit is krucial to Mortal Kombat.
In fact, the next two episodes go into all-out fantasy mode with the story of Emperor Shao Kahn’s twin daughters Kitana (Samantha Jo, MAN OF STEEL, WONDER WOMAN) and Mileena (Jolene Tran, TRICKING: THE FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT), told with motion-comic style limited animation, a bit of hokey greenscreen and an off-putting amount of narration. This section lost me, but I kind of liked the Raiden episode, where the thunder god (Ryan Robbins, TURBULENCE 3: HEAVY METAL, WARCRAFT) manifests on earth like a Terminator from the future, but he happens to be within the fence of a mental institution, so they lock him up and sedate him, subduing his powers. I question the legality of that but the point is everybody takes his talk about the Mortal Kombat tournament as normal mental illness stuff, so he has to figure out how to escape.
Somebody must’ve convinced Tancharoen that there was something controversial about that idea, because it’s the only one where he has a little note at the beginning explaining that it “represents my different take on the Mortal Kombat universe. I think it combines the perfect amount of gritty realism mixed with a hint of mysticism.”
There’s also two episodes on Scorpion and Sub-Zero (Kevan Ohtsji, CRYING FREEMAN, ELEKTRA, DARC), in their pre-Kombatant days as former childhood friends living their lives as members of rival ninja clans. It focuses on Hasashi and his family on a snowy day when he’s sent for to protect the Shogun on a visit to the village. He puts on his Scorpion outfit, which includes a samurai-helmet-style demonic mouth and nose for the lower-face mask. This is all very similar to the origin story I know from the animated movie MORTAL KOMBAT LEGENDS: SCORPION’S REVENGE, well executed in live action with a nice period samurai movie feel.
The last episode of season 1 is about another ninja clan in the present day and a high tech project to replace their assassins Cyrax (Shane Warren Jones, “Valet,” OCEAN’S THIRTEEN) and Sektor (Peter Shinkoda, I,ROBOT, THE PREDATOR) with robots. This one is corny, but there are some cool shots of what appear to be mocap robots doing Stovall’s badass spinkicks and shit.
At the end of season 1 I felt that this was a fun project that worked as snippets to watch on the internet every once in a while, but not as a collection to watch all in a row on blu-ray. The production value is strong but because each little short just introduces a premise that will never be further developed, it seems like just a bunch more proof of concept shorts for other things that didn’t get to exist. An omnibus of forewords. Honestly I rented season 2 more to find something to talk about in this review than out of desire to see more.
So I was happy to find that MORTAL KOMBAT LEGACY II is an enormous improvement. Though it’s still divided into chapters, this time they’re written to flow together and tell one story. The chapter titles remind me a little bit of KILL BILL, especially since the segments skip around in time to explain events that will become relevant in the present day. Instead of the season 1 grab bag web shorts approach, I see this as a legitimate MORTAL KOMBAT DTV movie, and a good one, with one big caveat: it feels incomplete because it ends on a cliffhanger for a season they never released. Whoops.
The central story of this one could be interpreted as a little edgelordy. After winning the Mortal Kombat tournament ten years ago, Liu Kang (Brian Tee, the Drift King from TOKYO DRIFT) saw his fiancee senselessly murdered by armed robbers. Of course he used his fighting powers to commit vigilante-fatalities against the responsible parties, and now – having saved the entire human race only to see them kill the person he loved most – he’s spiraled into alcoholism and disillusionment. Sometimes that’s illustrated by drinking shots at the bar alone with his hoodie up, as in the great, disturbing scene where he beats the shit out of a bunch of bros for karaoke-ing a song that reminds him of his loss.
None of that is corny, it’s appropriate anti-hero stuff, but I remember Liu Kang as the blandly wholesome lead of the original 1995 movie, so it might have been intended as kind of a “what if Superman wasn’t a boy scout? What if he was super dark?” kind of deal. But I think it works.
Anyway, in the opening – pre-title even – Liu Kang is alone at a restaurant when Shang Tsung sits down with him. This time he’s played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, just like in the 1995 movie! He tries to convince Liu Kang that, given his new stance toward humanity, he should fight in the next Mortal Kombat tournament, but against Earth Realm. I love all the flash and crass pulpiness of the Mortal Kombat stuff, but this is a scene of just these two actors having a calm conversation at a table, and it’s a great way to kick things off!
Much of this story is about Liu Kang’s relationship with his former master Kung Lao (Mark Dacascos!). Sort of like the Bride, Liu Kang left the order to get married and have a normal life. Now he deeply resents Kung Lao for not reaching out to him after the tragedy, while Kung Lao doesn’t believe it was his place. He apologizes, but he’s too emotionally closed off to do it in a way that will make Liu Kang feel better. I really think this is an interesting conflict – Kung Lao is the overall good guy, but also fucking it up by being incapable of relating to Liu Kang’s feelings. Same shit that turned Anakin into Darth Vader. (Minus the lava.)
In this season they actually go to the island on Outworld (I believe) for the Mortal Kombat tournament. Johnny Cage is one of the kompetitors, now played by none other than Casper Van Dien. Matt Mullins is a great martial artist and made a good Johnny Cage, but I felt Van Dien was more fun as the stubble-faced, shades-wearing movie star who’s cocky even though everybody treats him as a has-been or amusing celebrity novelty. There’s something meta about Van Dien playing a supposedly fading movie star trying to prove himself, and he’s also trained in several martial arts for many years, so he handles the fights well. (Van Dien is also friends with Dacascos, and was in his 2016 directorial debut SHOWDOWN IN MANILA.)
There are chapters in feudal Japan, including some about a guy called Kenshi (Dan Southworth, BROKEN PATH) trying to get a sword from a weird tentacle-shooting monster called Ermac (Kim Do Nguyen, “Black Guard,” TRON LEGACY), and some more about Scorpion and Sub-Zero (now Eric Steinberg, STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT). We meet Sub-Zero’s brother Kuai Liang (Harry Shum Jr., STEP UP 2 and 3, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY, ESCAPE PLAN: THE EXTRACTORS) who also dresses as Sub-Zero. We learn that the original Sub-Zero had a legitimate truce with his old friend and never would’ve violated it. It was a set up, I tell you. I like how Mortal Kombat stories seem to alternate as to whether the yellow ninja or the blue ninja is the tragic one. But I guess they both are.
The most out-of-place chapter is another one about Kitana and Mileena (now played by Michelle Lee, BLOOD & BONE, VENOM), with a little bit of the drawings again, but then it picks up with their sibling rivalry coming to a head during on encounter with Kenshi, Ermac and Johnny Cage on Kombat Island or whatever, and it’s worth it for that.
The whole cast this season is really good, but especially Tee (who is so much cooler than I realized from TOKYO DRIFT) and Dacascos, who get the most emotional roles. Based on IMDb listings it looks like Stovall might’ve only done the first episode in season 2, but if so it doesn’t list his successor. Whoever it is there are some good fights, with some graphic fatalities of major characters. I think this is a really good illustration of how you can take this colorful mythology, treat its characters and emotions seriously and semi-intelligently, but still have fun with it – some humor, some wild gore, great action, and yes – magic and monsters and super powers (sorry MJW, I know you wanted the grittier version).
I was gonna say it was a bummer they never made the conclusion, but then I came across a 2018 interview with Van Dien on Kung Fu Kingdom
where he said that they did. “We did film that already and it’s finished, but unfortunately, I couldn’t tell you what’s happening with it right now. Apparently, there’s something going on between Warner Brothers and NetherRealm Studios and Ed Boon. From what I understand, they really liked how the third season turned out.” He says it was directed by ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL stunt coordinator Garrett Warren.
After the first season went over well, Tancharoen was announced as director of a new MORTAL KOMBAT film intended for release in 2013. It was said to be separate from Legacy, with a script by Oren Uziel (THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX), who had written the Rebirth short and a season 2 Scorpion episode. But when producer Todd Garner (xXx, NEXT) came on board he felt the script – which he described to Collider as “super dark and kind of like THE CROW” – was too small and contained, and that they “should really try to open this up.” They brought on producer James Wan (DEATH SENTENCE) and new writer Greg Russo
“and said, ‘Okay, if you were really gonna do this, and not just try to make it like THE CROW, not just try to make it like Kevin did where he’s like, ‘Well, I only have this much money, so I’m gonna be in an apartment building with guys kicking the shit out of each other,’ what would you do?’ And so we started from the premise of, ‘What would Marvel do?'”
Okay bud. Looks good though. Looking forward to it. (Tancharoen is not involved in the final movie; Uziel might end up with a story credit.)
In lieu of a MORTAL KOMBAT movie, Tancharoen did direct GLEE: THE 3D CONCERT MOVIE. But he’s fulfilled his love of super heroes by directing for TV shows including Supergirl, Iron Fist, Legends of Tomorrow, Inhumans, Arrow, The Flash, Titans and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which was co-created by his sister Maurissa). Stovall went on to choreograph NEVER BACK DOWN 2 and 3, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING, FALCON RISING and KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE, and is so well regarded they got him to be “guest choreographer” on THE RAID 2.
But after all that we’re in just as much danger of being conquered by Outworld as we were back then. Be kareful out there, everybody.