Analyzing Video Game Movies: The Mortal Kombat Franchise

Analyzing Video Game Movies: The Mortal Kombat Franchise

So not quite as big as the Resident Evil franchise but definitely more broad is the Mortal Kombat film and TV series. Mortal Kombat first broke out into live action film in 1995 with the debut movie simply called Mortal Kombat. It was very successful and is in my opinion the best video game movie ever made. The film also had an animated tie in film called Mortal Kombat: The Journey Begins that covers the opening of the film in an animated and slightly different way. 1996 saw the one and only season of Mortal Kombat Defenders of the Realm which featured the main good guys from MK3 forming a response team to stop invading Outworld forces. The show was as bad as the description sounds. The success of the first movie led to a sequel, Mortal Kombat Annihilation, in 1997 and a live action television series called Mortal Kombat Konquest which ran only one season despite its popularity. Lastly we come to 2010 where the internet exploded over Mortal Kombat Rebirth. This was a short film created and directed by Kevin Tancharoen as a pitch to Warner Bros. as a new more realistic take on a Mortal Kombat film reboot similar to the Nolan Batman films. This went on to gain millions of views on Youtube and caused Tancharoen to be given the green light to develop a new Mortal Kombat web series called Mortal Kombat Legacy. This series has so far run one season in 2011 and has a second season in the works. The first season was regarded fairly highly on Youtube and each episode racked up millions of views and reinvigorated the idea of a new MK film so Kevin Tancharoen will also bring us a Mortal Kombat reboot film that is currently scheduled for 2013. So now that we have a quick history of the MK film and television franchise, let’s break it down.

Mortal Kombat is the video game movie that made all other video game movies after it a reality. It was the first widely successful movie based on a popular fighting game franchise and pulled in over a hundred million dollars worldwide. Mortal Kombat also launched the career of Paul W.S. Anderson who would go on to ruin the famed Resident Evil movie franchise. Luckily with Mortal Kombat, Anderson did it right. This film follows the plot of the first game very closely with some minor additions that are completely inoffensive and just add a little bit more plot the thin story that existed at the time for MK. All of the casting decisions feel spot on especially with Johnny Cage and Kano. This game pulls every character from the original game including Reptile who was a secret character and who ends up having the best fight of the film with Lui Kang. The characters are all well represented in this movie and it actually feels like it was made with passion and care for the source material. The most obscure character is Raiden as he has this smug humor to him but it totally plays off and Christopher Lambert is just phenomenal in the role. But let’s get to the important part which is of course the fighting. There is basically one fight in the film with a nameless nobody but all of the other fights take place between game characters and are all awesome. Even the filler fight that serves as the tournament opener is a great scene. The worst thing I could say about some of the fights is that they are too short but you never feel cheated at least. Goro may be the weirdest thing about this movie because the puppet looks a little ridiculous, especially nowadays, but I say hats off to them for making a practical attempt instead of doing a CG creature that would look outdated by today’s standards. Luckily there isn’t a ton of CG in the movie because that’s what has happened now is that all of the computer stuff looks old. Even with that in mind however this movie still holds up and should belong in the film library of anyone interested in video game films.


The sequel however is atrocious! Mortal Kombat Annihilation was the 1997 follow up to the first movie and while it may have one of the best licensed soundtracks of all time it is quite possibly one big ball of the worst movie decisions ever! So to soften the blow let’s talk about what’s good about it first. As I said before the soundtrack is amazing. I bought it the year it came out on tape and I still listen to the CD version to this day. Secondly, the robot characters Smoke and Cyrax make an appearance and are awesome. And probably the last good thing to say about the movie is that the fight scenes for the most part are well choreographed and worth seeing. Now that we have that out of the way we can just say that everything else about this movie is terrible! It was handed off to a different crew after the first film and it shows. The movie picks up literally minutes after the first film and we have the lamest introduction to the cast of villains. It’s literally just all of the flying and flipping out of nowhere and striking fighting poses in a row like they are posing for a group photo for the high school bully drop out page of a yearbook. Then Johnny Cage, who was such a great character in the first film, is killed just minutes into the movie by a poorly portrayed Shao Kahn. But that probably won’t bother you too much because almost all of the actors from the first movie are recast here by former American Gladiators. Lui Kang and Kitana are the only returning actors from the first film and they couldn’t even match up the outfit Lui Kang was wearing in the first film as it is clearly a different costume. This movie feels like the biggest cash grab of a sequel. There is little cohesion and sense to the story as the creators felt it was better to just try and cram as many characters from the game into the movie as possible instead of focusing on a good story. Also any character that isn’t Lui Kang, Kitana, Cyrax, and Smoke, are basically the worst interpretations of anything ever. Raiden has been reduced from his cool quirky self to a flat and replacement that just makes you hate everything he does on screen. I could really ramble on about how bad this movie is but I’ll just leave at this, watch the fights on YouTube, buy the soundtrack, and skip the rest.


So while MK performed one hit and one great big fat miss on the big screen, it was time to move onto home screens with Mortal Kombat Defenders of the Realm. This was a popular concept at the time which was to take a violent popular movie and turn it into a kid friendly Saturday morning cartoon. This was also done with Rambo and Robocop. Yup Rambo and Robocop cartoons, what a world we live in. Defenders of the realm only ran one season with thirteen episodes and that was probably for the best because it was incredibly boring and just a bad idea. The show actually had a star filled voice cast but the entire concept of the show was just dumb. It had the Earth’s human warriors defending the Earth realm against constant Outworld invasion. The biggest thing the show had going for it was that it was the first appearance of Quan Chi who I was never a big fan of at first but has since grown on me. Now I can say I have seen the entire run of this show and remember almost nothing about it. It’s completely forgettable and that is what I suggest we should do is just forget it.


There was however a more successful attempt at a MK television with Mortal Kombat Konquest. This show, while not well received all the time by critics, actually was very successful in pulling in ratings but for some reason never got a second season which was a huge tragedy as the first season ended on one of the biggest cliff hangers I have ever seen in a show ever! Now I’m going to spoil this because this show is old enough but also it has to be talked about. This MK story takes place about 500 years before the first game and follows the original Kung Lao who is Lui Kang’s ancestor and the original winner of Mortal Kombat. Now fans of the games know that his ultimate fate is to be killed by Goro after years of being the defending champion but the show focused on what went on after he won for the first time. There were plenty of characters from the games in this show including the popular Scorpion and Sub-Zero though the continuity wouldn’t really fit with the games. My favorite character is actually Quan Chi surprisingly as the actor playing him chews the scenery like you wouldn’t believe and just pulls off this dark asshole of a character. Great stuff if you can embrace the cheesiness of the whole show. This show actually pulled in a crazy amount of big name guest stars that ranged from A list actors to professional wrestlers. Now Kung Lao has two friends Siro and Taja that help him and also Raiden is present in a role similar to that of the first film and usually steals the show. Every episode kind of had the same set up where Shang Tsung or Shao Kahn would come up with some scheme to try and kill Kung Lao before the next tournament but there were actually a lot of great and memorable story lines through the whole season. Mortal Kombat Konquest is incredibly cheesy but for some reason I love it! So this is getting into some major spoiler territory so be warned. The tragedy of no second season is the fact that in the very last episode every main character is killed and Raiden is turned into Shao Kahns slave. Credits! I mean what the hell?! How could they not finish that? Word is that if there was a second season then the elder gods would have fixed everything because Shao Kahn had broken the sacred rules but alas this is how the show ended. The ending of the show was amazing though because it really summed up the story of Shao Kahn’s massive paranoia that had been building throughout the season. The fighting is great and there is a lot of it but the show has the annoying tendency to do a close up of every impactful hit in every single fight that you eventually learn to just embrace. Mortal Kombat Konquest is cheesy and dumb in all of the best ways and I think true fans of the franchise can really find some love here but unfortunately the series never saw a US DVD release and only had a UK release with DVDs that had out of order episodes. The best legal way to get them is to track down VHS copies.  If you can get your hands on this rare gem then I believe it’s worth a watch. Best believe that if there is ever a proper DVD release then I will buy it up in a heartbeat.


After Mortal Kombat Konquest the MK franchise wouldn’t see any kind of film or TV adaptation until 2010 when Mortal Kombat Rebirth exploded onto YouTube. Director Kevin Tancharoen wrote directed and funded his own pitch film to Warner Bros. on his own take on the MK source material. This was a gritty and dark more realistic approach to Mortal Kombat. While I can’t say that I’m a fan of the huge departure into realism I also can’t deny that this film is damn awesome! Michael Jai White plays the most intense Jax and while there is only one fight to speak of in this twenty minute film it is incredibly awesome and grim. This film shows an alternate take on Reptile as a serial killer with a skin condition that eats his victims, Baraka is a former plastic surgeon that accidently lost a patient and then went on a killing spree and grafted blades into his arms, and Johnny Cage is working undercover for the cops since his film career fell apart. That’s kind of an odd choice because who wouldn’t recognize a once famous film actor but I digress. The set up is simple. Jax is in an interrogation room talking to a prisoner in shadows about Reptile, Baraka , and Shang Tsung. He wants this shadowy figure to go to Shang’s tournament and assassinate all of the criminals taking part in these death matches. During this explanation of characters we get a fight between Baraka and Johnny Cage that is brutal and awesome! The fight choreography is flashy and awesome and it really looks like these two are beating the hell out of one another. I’m never into the idea of wildly diverging from the source material but this short film is cool none the less.


So now we move to 2011 and Kevin Tancharoen’s short film has granted him permission to make a nine episode web series called Mortal Kombat Legacy. This is filmed in the same manner of Rebirth which is to say it looks amazing. What’s even better is that Tancharoen was forced to stay closer to the source material with the exception of his Raiden episode which is his own take on the character. For me the highlight of the entire series is the Scorpion and Sub-Zero episodes. It’s a two part episode with a great fight between the characters and great music and really details the back-story that has plagued these two forever. The biggest problem with this series is that the episodes are way too short which Tancharoen has come out and said that the time limit was forced upon him which is unfortunate. The series has been very successful on YouTube and each episode has millions of views and even saw a Bluray release that is well worth the twenty dollars. Each episode is its own story that sets up different characters from the games. One thing that I didn’t feel was well manages was the casting. Some of the actors didn’t feel right for the character they were supposed to be playing but the only one that feels just bad to me is Shang Tsung. The man just looks too young to be this all powerful evil sorcerer. The series was successful though and Tancharoen was given the go ahead to create a second season and do a reboot of the film franchise that is schedule to be released in 2013. The second season is confirmed to feature almost all of the characters from the first three games and will take place during the first Mortal Kombat tournament and he has personally guaranteed some very interesting things especially when talking about his take on Lui Kang.


So here we are in 2012 and Mortal Kombat has seen a major resurgence since last year and the future is looking bright. We have a second season of Legacy and a new film coming and I feel safe knowing they are in the good hands of a diehard fan that has already proved his worth. It’s been a while since we have had a great video game film and I feel like I could count the amount of great ones on one hand. It would seem fitting for it to come all the way back around with a new Mortal Kombat film and maybe this will kick start a whole new generation of video game movies that can be taken more seriously and really show that this medium has something to offer. Tancharoen’s take on MK has been a little risky but it has paid off so far and I look forward to seeing what he can bring us. I only hope it’s a web series with longer episodes and one kick ass film that I will want to watch again and again.